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Reba McEntire

Stronger Than the Truth – 2019 (Big Machine)

Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

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CDs by Reba McEntire

The beauty of Reba McEntire's albums flows from her way with a phrase, knowing when to modulate to carry us deeper into sadness or joy and when to pull back when she wants us to listen quietly to the lessons of a tear falling. Her songs can also urge us to scamper across the dance floor to twin fiddles, celebrating the exhilarating freedom of the moment or the satisfaction of breakup from a messy relationship. This album follows the end of McEntire's marriage to her manager.

"Stronger Than the Truth" opens with one of those skitter-across-the-floor tunes, a Western Swing number fueled by twin fiddles, dance hall piano, rockabilly guitar and scampering steel. "Swing All Night with You" features the singer out for night of two-stepping following a breakup; when she meets up a dance partner who's in the same situation, she jauntily declares: "Let's let those doggone bygones be long gone/And we'll find a new song to two-step to/If you wanna take another swing at love/Baby, I'll swing all night long with you."

On the title track, McEntire pulls at our hearts with her tale of a breakup she never saw coming; the song opens quietly with a reflection on the expectation of a modest life together: "I never dreamed of wanting more/Than a small town simple life/A little money in our pockets/You're my husband, I'm your wife." As the song builds to a climax she discovers her husband's infidelity - "Standing in the grocery line/I overheard my name and yours/And one I did not recognize" - and she describes her awakening as her vocals soar in the chorus. The lyrics in McEntire's songs play with words and carry us places we never expect: "There's not a blade sharper than a lie/There's not a low as being the last one to know/You've got a brand new start with someone new/And there's no whiskey stronger than the truth."

The breakup ballad "Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain" opens sparely with piano notes before it swells with McEntire's vocals and aching pedal steel; she confirms the depth of her pain by name-checking the titles of Wynette's songs in the chorus: "Standing by your man, that's a broken plan/So it's d-i-v-o-r-c-e." In the heart-rending "The Bar's Getting Lower," the singer's words of sadness and brokenness float over a flowing river of steel guitar: "She was hoping for pink champagne, but she'll settle for well whiskey/Saw herself in a long white gown, not downtown getting tipsy/And that one night stand walking through the door/Ain't the marrying kind, yeah, that's for sure
But she's getting older/And the bar's getting lower."

"Stronger Than the Truth" is Reba at her very best. Every song reveals her enduring power as a vocalist, her way with the songs she delivers to us, and her ability to wring every emotion from us, touching our hearts with her own honest, heartfelt emotions.