Women in country music get a raw deal. Even though women buy more country records than men do, female performers have a harder time getting contracts and a harder time getting onto the charts. That's because the country audience expects more from women. A man can have a best-seller by simply entertaining, but a woman has to go further, drawing upon real-life experiences in a way that's personal, convincing, and often cathartic. No woman has tapped this domestic strain as successfully as Reba McEntire, who outsells all other women, and nearly all the men, in country. And she competes on the level of sheer entertainment by dressing up her everyday-housewife persona in costumes straight out of Dynasty and The Roy Rogers Show.
On her 20th album, It's Your Call, McEntire picks up where 1991's For My Broken Heart left off. That relentlessly doleful collection of songs about death, abandonment, neglect, deceit, and missed opportunities was recorded in the wake of the airplane crash earlier that year that killed her entire band. It became McEntire's biggest seller, going double-platinum in the first nine months of release. McEntire describes It's Your Call as the ''second chapter'' to For My Broken Heart. In truth, it isn't nearly as pessimistic as its predecessor and unfortunately it isn't anywhere as involving.
As on the bulk of her albums since Whoever's in New England (1986), McEntire relies mainly on woman-to-woman songs about romantic catastrophe. While these tunes almost always address the man in her life, Reba really sings them to women who've experienced the same thing. In this role, McEntire adopts the first of her two public personalities that of the tearful survivor who copes with life's blows rather than buckle under to them.
The strongest new example of this weepy style is ''It's Your Call,'' one of those moment-of-truth sagas at which McEntire excels. In the song, a wife answers the phone to find her husband's girlfriend on the other end and seizes the opportunity not only to inform her mate that she knows of his affair but to give him the ultimatum of choosing between the two. ''She's not the only one who's waitin' on the line,'' she sings, handing her husband the phone. ''It's your call.''
McEntire's second persona, the sassy woman-in-charge, comes through on the album's first single, ''Take It Back.'' Here she uses gritty bar blues to show that while she may again be a wronged woman (''You're bringing home flowers and a bottle of Chablis/You forgot I don't drink wine/I know that bottle's not for me''), she's nobody's fool. But elsewhere the material gets thin. ''The Heart Won't Lie,'' a middle-of-the-road duet with Vince Gill, for instance, never jells lyrically or musically.
Yet with even the most mediocre song, McEntire is a commanding performer. Singing ''straighter'' these days, without so many vocal frills, she almost succeeds in turning average material into something extraordinary. On It's Your Call, McEntire proves she still owns the very voice of unfulfilled romantic desire. B