10 Reba McEntire Songs That Sound Like Short Stories

No matter how you slice it, Reba McEntire has been the most artistically significant performer in country music of the past 30 years.

During that time, she pioneered the narrative, movie-like music video, scored 25 No. 1 singles and 10 gold, 11 platinum and nine multiple platinum albums, was a four-time winner of the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year award, toured as an arena-filling headliner, distinguished herself as a movie, series television and Broadway stage actress and, in 2011, was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

More than most other country singers, McEntire has also chosen to record songs that have the dramatic impact of well-crafted short stories. Here are 10 of her best. Five of these are from her dark but flawless For My Broken Heart album, which she recorded in 1991 soon after seven of her band members and her road manager were killed in an airplane crash. I continue to regard For My Broken Heart as the greatest country album ever made.

“Is There Life Out There”
Album: For My Broken Heart (1991)
Songwriters: Rick Giles and Susan Longacre

Neither angry nor despairing in tone, the woman’s voice we hear in this song simply echoes the thoughts of women throughout the ages who married too early and now wonder if there’s still time to save themselves. “She doesn’t want to leave,” says the refrain. “She just wonders is there life out there.” Interspersing the song’s lyrics with spoken dialogue, McEntire’s five-and-a-half minute music video features her as a harried waitress with two kids who’s completing her college degree. Her supportive husband, played by Huey Lewis, helps out as he can, but he can’t entirely relieve the pressure of work, family and school. This is one of her most memorable “mini-movies.” (No. 1 for two weeks in 1992)

“The Stairs”
Album: The Last One to Know (1987)
Songwriters: Pamela Brown and David Roberts

In this song, the husband is a neglectful, physically-abusive drunk who, as is so often the case, takes out his frustrations on his wife. He’s sorry every time it happens, of course, until rage overtakes him once more and he leaves his wife with cuts and bruises she explains by saying she “fell down the stairs again.” (Not released as a single)

“Just Across the Rio Grande”
Album: The Last One to Know
Songwriters: Don Cook and Chick Rains

Compare the merciful sentiments of this song to the venomously xenophobic attacks against immigrants hatched by various members of our state legislatures today. The story is sung from the point of view of a young father who stands on the Mexican side of the border and looks across the river to “the promised land” of Laredo, Texas. “He’s got a wife named Maria and a baby named Rose/And another one to feed on the way/Two willing hands that couldn’t find work today/He stares at the river and curses the future/That he can’t understand/He knows the child would have a chance/Just across the Rio Grande.” (Not released as a single)

“She Thinks His Name Was John”
Album: Read My Mind (1994)
Songwriters: Sandy Knox and Steve Rosen

Safe sex never sounded as sensible as it does in this song about a woman dying of AIDS, a disease she acquired during a wine-fueled one-night stand with a handsome stranger whose name she can’t recall. In one video of McEntire’s live performance of the song, an AIDS quilt descends behind her during the final verse. (No. 15 in 1994)

“The Greatest Man I Never Knew”
Album: For My Broken Heart
Songwriters: Richard Leigh and Layng Martine Jr.

A memorial to a conscientious but emotionally distant father: “He was good at business/But there was business left to do/He never said he loved me/Guess he thought I knew.” Absolutely heartbreaking. (No. 3 in 1992)

“Somebody Should Leave”
Album: Greatest Hits (1987)
Songwriters: Harlan Howard and Chick Rains

McEntire captures the drama of domestic life like nobody else. Here, a couple wait out a loveless marriage with only the faintest hope that the two of them “might need each other again.” But they are tied together with a Gordian knot: “Somebody should leave/But which one should it be/You need the kids/And they need me.” (No. 1 in 1985)

“I Wouldn’t Go That Far”
Album: For My Broken Heart
Songwriters: Bruce Burch, Dana McVicker and Carl Jackson Vipperman Jr.

In this tale, a woman afraid of commitment looks back with regret at the times she pushed her ardent and persistent lover away. Notice how her repeated summation of “I wouldn’t go that far” turns bitterly ironic in the last verse. (Not released as a single)

Album: For My Broken Heart
Songwriters: Reba McEntire and Don Schlitz

Who else but Resilient Reba would have the courage to co-write, record and include on an album a song about a mercy killing? The story tells how a son first reviles and then embraces his father, who has gone to prison rather than tolerate his wife’s irreversible pain. These are some of the most compact and detail-rich lyrics in country music. Every aspiring songwriter should study them. (Not released as a single)

“All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)”
Album: For My Broken Heart
Songwriters: Lisa Palas, Bill Fink and Ira Rogers

If, upon listening to this weeper about an old lady waiting in a nursing home, you don’t rush instantly to call grandma or grandpa, then your heart must have the consistency of beef jerky. Sure, the song is sentimental and manipulative, but that’s all to the good if it nudges you to do the right thing. (Not released as a single)

“The Day She Got Divorced”
Album: All the Women I Am (2010)
Songwriters: Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Mark D. Sanders

Don’t look for sentimentality here. That emotional cupboard is bare. All you get is a world-weary acknowledgement that after a certain stage, there’s no golden key to turning your life around. So you may as well light up, have a drink and start a meaningless affair. (Not released as a single)

If hearing these songs addict you to McEntire’s music — and you’re better off if they do — then I also suggest you pay heed to such similarly themed treasures as “I’m Not That Lonely Yet,” “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving,” “What Am I Gonna Do About You,” “One Promise Too Late,” “Fallin’ Out of Love” and … oh, what the hell, just listen to everything she has out there. You’ll be a better person for it.