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Reba McEntire: Out of the Honky-Tonks : Pop music: The 'new traditionalist' country singer has made a smooth--some would even say slick--transition to a contemporary pop sound. She performs tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa.

April 16, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Other than the twang in her high-powered voice, which is unmistakably Oklahoman, there isn't much about Reba McEntire's recent recordings that is either country or Western.

Her specialty on "For My Broken Heart," (1991) and the current "It's Your Call," is the big, middle-of-the-road pop ballad. McEntire's music is far more likely to swell with a gush of synthesized strings and shine with tinkling digital piano than to sigh with steel guitars and fiddles evoking lonesome prairies or beer-stained honky-tonks.

McEntire's biggest fans might say it's a case of a tall tree having no need to consider its roots as it reaches for the sky. And, if growing sales are the measure of skyward-reaching, McEntire, at 38, has never been at a loftier height.

"For My Broken Heart," still on the Billboard charts more than 18 months after its release, is the biggest seller of her 15-year recording career, having passed the 2-million mark. Her latest album, "It's Your Call," is a million-seller, and Billy Ray Cyrus is all that stands between it and the top slot on the country chart.

But some listeners cherish a memory of McEntire as a leader of country's "new traditionalist" movement in the mid-1980s. They prefer the rougher, leaner style she displayed when she was being endorsed by Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn as a keeper of the traditional flame.

At the time, McEntire herself was telling interviewers things like, "I don't want to go crossover. . . . I just want to be country."

Speaking over the phone recently from her home outside of Nashville, McEntire, who sings tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre, made it clear that she sees no reason to turn the clock back to her days of honky-tonk splendor.

"The production has gone more contemporary than traditional," she said, acknowledging the obvious. "These (newer) songs have more range. The melodies are harder, and I enjoy the challenge of trying to sing these types of songs. This just appealed to me more. When you're listening for songs (to record), you can tell the difference between a good, three-chord country song and another with more progression to it."

McEntire isn't moved by the criticism that has come with her turn toward a glossier sound.

"A lot of those people say, 'You sing country real good; why don't you go back to it?' That's not what I want to do." At the same time, she notes, "when I find a very traditional song that has the range to it, I'll sing it. 'Straight From You' (from the new album) is a very traditional song. It's not like I've gone away from traditional country."

But would McEntire again base an entire album on the tradition-leaning style that dominated her sound in 1984-85, when she was establishing herself as one of the top stars in country?

"I have no idea," she said. "Could be, could not be. But not right now, anyway."

Her immediate plans call for the release later this year of her second greatest-hits package, to be followed next January by another album of new material.

She also is stepping up her film career, after taking a year off from acting in 1992. In 1990, McEntire made her film debut battling giant earthworms in "Tremors." In 1991, she played opposite Kenny Rogers in "The Gambler IV."

Next up, she said, is a part in "The Man From Left Field," a made-for-TV baseball film in which "I play Burt Reynolds' love interest." She said she also has a small role lined up in "North," to be directed by Rob Reiner.

The melancholy "For My Broken Heart" reflected McEntire's emotional condition after a March, 1991, plane crash in San Diego County that killed her road manager and seven members of her touring band. McEntire was on a different plane, making the return flight to Nashville after a show in San Diego.

"People could relate it with their own tragedies," she said of the album's success. She had sung many a sad ballad before, but, she says, fans found the sorrows on "For My Broken Heart" "more relatable, more honest."

When McEntire returned to performing later in 1991, she made a point of not talking on stage about the tragedy that had struck so close to her.

"We never brought up the subject of losing our people," she said. "We went on. I didn't want people to think we were trying to draw sympathy. They came to be entertained, not depressed."

In her current round of touring, she alludes to those events: "I say how 'For My Broken Heart' helped me through a hard time in my life back in '91.' "

While she mainly records songs by established Nashville writers, McEntire shares writer's credit for one of her new album's tracks, "For Herself." An ode to female independence, it includes some semi-autobiographical scenes. It opens with a girl riding a horse she'd been warned was too dangerous for her and "meant only for men," then portrays her entering a doomed marriage despite her parents' objections to a husband they think is "no good."

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