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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reba McEntire: Finding Life After Tragedy

With today comes the end of September 2012 and I for one cannot bid it adieu fast enough.  September 2012 was not a time in my life that was all that grand and a lot happened during that month that I wish hadn’t.  But you can’t change the past, nor do I want to.  What I can do is look ahead to the wonderful month of October, and hope that as we venture further into autumn, the days will once again be filled with joy, and life will once again make sense.

One thing that is also ending that I’m a little sad about is “Sweethearts of Country Music” month.  I’m amazed that so many of you responded to it in a positive manner.  This is a subject that I admittedly jumped into having very little knowledge about, but you all seem to have enjoyed it a lot based on the page views.  That’s really awesome to see, and believe me I want to hear more from you about what you want to see on the blog.  I may even credit you for the idea.  You might even become...well...semi-famous.  Yeah, let’s go with that.

Anyway, for the conclusion of September and “Sweethearts of Country Music” month, I’ve chosen a singer who has been all over the country charts for the last three decades.  Not only that, but she’s also made a name for herself as an actress, having a successful television show that lasted six seasons, and she is starring in another sitcom venture set to premiere in November 2012.

Just listen to some of the accolades that this red-haired chanteuse has to her name.  Since releasing her first self-titled album in 1977, she has recorded a grand total of 26 studio albums, thirty-five #1 hit singles on the Country Music charts, and has sold more than 60 million albums in total, with most of them reaching at least gold status.  She is currently the seventh best female artist, and the second best-selling female country music artist of all time (only Shania Twain has surpassed her in record sales in the second category).

She’s brash, she’s sassy, she’s “Fancy”, and she’s a survivor.

She’s Reba McEntire, our final spotlight in “Sweethearts of Country Music” month.

Reba Nell McEntire’s early childhood was always filled with music from the very beginning.  Born on March 28, 1955 in Oklahoma, she was the daughter of Champion Steel Roper Clark McEntire, and schoolteacher Jacqueline McEntire.  Interestingly enough, Jacqueline had initially wanted to pursue a career in country music herself, but opted to be a teacher instead.  However, she taught all four of her children (Reba, her older brother Pake, older sister Alice, and younger sister Susie) how to sing.  At some point, three of the four McEntire siblings (excluding Alice) started performing as a group known as “The Singing McEntires”, taking gigs at country fairs, rodeos, and recorded a ballad entitled “The Ballad of John McEntire”.  But, during this time, Reba was also very focused on her studies.  Following her high school graduation in 1973, she enrolled in Southeastern Oklahoma State University, initially planning to pursue the same career as her mother.  She eventually graduated from the school in 1976, but that same year, something would happen that would alter the course of her own life forever.

It was during that year that Reba perfomed “The Star Spangled Banner” at the National Rodeo in Oklahoma City.  When she did, she didn’t realize that established country music artist Red Steagall was also there, and was quite taken aback at how natural a performer Reba was.  He made it his personal mission to help the then 21-year-old Reba McEntire get noticed in Nashville.  Long story short, Reba recorded a demo tape, sent it in to Mercury Records, and was signed to a recording contract with the company shortly after.

Reba’s tenure at Mercury Records lasted until 1983.  It was filled with quite a few ups and downs.  Some of her singles reached the Top 5, but her albums were often critically panned by reviewers and Reba didn’t exactly like the style of country-pop that Mercury Records seemed to gravitate towards.  Reba stuck it out for a while, but when she got a case of the “seven-year-itch”, she ended her relationship with Mercury and signed up to MCA Nashville the following year.

The decision proved to be a good one. 

Initially, MCA Nashville assigned producer Harold Shedd to produce her first album with MCA (her seventh overall), but when Shedd wanted to make the album a country-pop album, Reba chose to reject his suggestions, and another producer, Norro Wilson was brought in.  But when the album was recorded (“Just A Little Love”), Reba was still unhappy with the album’s sound.  She talked to the president of MCA Nashville, Jimmy Bowen, and his advice to her was to find material that she liked.  What Reba ended up liking were classic albums in her own country music collection, recorded by several artists, and it was this collection of songs that spawned her next effort, “My Kind Of Country”, which was released in late 1984.  Not only did the album spawn two number one hits, but it was the album that first recognized Reba McEntire as a serious country music artist.

Over the next seven years, Reba McEntire would have great success with MCA Nashville.  Although her personal life was filled with ups and downs during that time (going through a divorce in the mid-1980s, remarrying in 1989, and giving birth to son Shelby in 1990), she used those experiences to create some emotional, heartfelt songs, such as 1986’s “Little Rock”, 1987’s “The Last One To Know”, 1989’s “Walk On”, and 1990’s “You Lie”.  She also proved that she could add her own style to classic country hits of the past when she re-recorded Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” in 1990 and it reached the Top 10 in 1991. 

Music critics also fell more and more in love with Reba McEntire with each album she released, and she ended up being honoured with several awards including a Grammy Award, and her being named the country music “Entertainmer of the Year” in 1986.

As the 1990s began, it appeared as though everything was going well for Reba.  She had kicked off a tour for her 1990 album, had a new husband and brand new son, and was the happiest she had ever been.

And then came the events of March 16, 1991...and on that day, Reba’s highest highs became her most depressing lows.

The night before, on March 15, Reba and her road band had performed at a private performance for IBM executives in San Diego, California.  While Reba and her husband stayed behind at a hotel, the members of her band took off in two separate charter planes shortly before 2:00 a.m. from Brown Field Municipal Airport en route to their next destination.  The second plane ended up making it to its scheduled destination safely, but the first plane ended up having trouble almost immediately after take-off.  When the plane reached an altitude of 3,572 feet above sea level, it ended up losing control and crashed right into the side of Otay Mountain.

The crew that investigated the crash of the first charter jet blamed the crash on poor visibility near the mountain.  All ten people aboard the plane were killed instantly.  The dead included the pilot Donald Holmes, co-pilot Chris Hollinger, Reba’s road manager Jim Hammon, and seven members of Reba’s band.  The band members who were killed were Chris Austin, Kirk Cappello, Joey Cigainero, Paula Kaye Evans, Terry Jackson, Anthony Saputo, and Michael Thomas.  All the band members were under the age of thirty.

The news of the crash completely devastated Reba.  Many of the band members had been with Reba for several years, and she considered her band members to be members of her own extended family.  Her heart was completely broken, and many people wondered if she would ever sing again following the devastating loss.

Not only did she sing again, but she ended up dedicating her entire sixteenth album to the members of the band who died on that March morning.  I can’t imagine that recording the album “For My Broken Heart” was easy for her, and I can only imagine her trying to keep it together as she sang each and every song.

“For My Broken Heart” was released in October 1991, and inside the album’s liner notes is a dedication for the ten people killed in the crash along with a message stating that the album is a “form of healing for all our broken hearts”.  And, I get where Reba was coming from.  Having lost someone incredibly close to me a few days ago, I know what it means to try and express your grief through creative measures.  After all, I ended up doing just that this past Thursday myself.

The album was also a change in tone for Reba’s music.  Whereas most of Reba’s songs were happy-go-lucky and optimistic before the crash happened, this album featured more sombre hits.  After all, it was a dedication of love for all of the friends that she had lost that day...but the songs were also written through the perspective of someone trying to overcome a broken heart.  In this case, it was Reba. 

There were four singles released from “For My Broken Heart”.  The title track reached #1, and “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” reached #3.  A third single, a cover of the 1972 Vicki Lawrence single “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” just missed the Top 10, but was still positively received.

And then there’s the song that I have decided to feature for this blog entry, the second single released from the album.

ARTIST:  Reba McEntire
SONG:  Is There Life Out There?
ALBUM:  For My Broken Heart
DATE RELEASED:  January 1992

Now, here’s a funny story about the music video for the song “Is There Life Out There?”.  Would you believe that CMT almost banned the video from regular airplay? 

Certainly 1992 was a year in which other artists ended up having their videos banned.  Later on that year, Madonna’s “Erotica” would be pulled from MTV due to its sexual content.  But Reba’s video was wholesome and good.  But CMT argued that the video put message ahead of music, and weren’t impressed with the amount of dialogue that was inserted into the video.  Just ignore the fact that Pat Benetar, Michael Jackson, and Janet Jackson had successfully mixed dialogue and music into their videos (for “Love is a Battlefield”, “Thriller”, and “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” respectively).

Luckily, fans of Reba didn’t agree.  Nor did the voting panel of the video, who awarded the Video of the Year award to the video in 1992. 

And what a video it was.  Reba plays the role of Maggie O’Connor who is trying to balance a job at a diner with earning a college degree, all while taking care of her two small children and her husband Andy (played by Huey Lewis).  I’m sure that anyone who has ever been in Maggie’s situation can relate.  Maggie got married very early in her life and gave birth to her children very young, so she ended up putting her college dreams on hold.  But she’s finding that trying to do everything all at once is causing her stress.  Her family life is hectic, her professor is constantly on her case, and her job at the diner is one stressful day after another.  The climax of the video stems from an incident in which her young children end up spilling coffee all over her just finished term paper, and it causes her to have a bit of a miniature nervous breakdown over it all. 

But thanks to the support of her loved ones, as well as her perseverance, she manages to get an A on her paper, and graduates from college.

TRIVIA:  The music video ended up inspiring a television movie of the same name in 1994, also starring Reba McEntire.

In the song, Reba asks if there is life beyond her family and her home.  And you know something, there was.  In the process, Reba found out that there was life after tragedy.  She continued to record singles, win awards, and tour the country.  As well, her performance in the video seemed to also prove that she could handle being an actress, as was the case with her sitcom “Reba”, which ran between 2001 and 2007.

I think that’s why I chose to end this “Sweethearts of Country Music” month with Reba...she ended up finding life after the worst thing that could have happened and thrived.  She is a true inspiration for women and men to follow their dreams.

I know I wonder all the time if there is life beyond work and the town I live in...and my take is, if Reba can find her way, then there’s no reason why I can’t.

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