In the past few years, Reba McEntire’s life has included all the elements of a great country record—heartbreak, hope, forgiveness and love—and the award winning entertainer has channeled all those emotions into her powerful new album Stronger Than the Truth.
“I’ve gone through heartbreak. I’ve gone through finding love again, and once you get past the hurt, then you forgive and go on with your life and find happiness,” McEntire says. “Now I can sing it because I’ve lived it. There is hope, and I hope that this album does give hope to other people.”
The spirited Oklahoma native has never been one to let hard times keep her down. After going through a high profile divorce in 2015, McEntire has found love again with Anthony “Skeeter” Lasuzzo, a retired geologist who worked the oil and gas business and is also an accomplished wildlife photographer.
“It’s great to be Reba these days,” McEntire tells Sounds Like Nashville, sitting in her Nashville office wearing a big smile. “I’m very happy. I’m loving life. I’m very healthy and very thankful for that. My boyfriend Skeeter and I, we have a wonderful time together, traveling and hanging out whether we’re in Wyoming, Texas or here in Tennessee.”
The fact that McEntire is as passionate as ever about making great albums is readily evident on her 33rd studio album, Stronger Than the Truth, the follow up to her Grammy winning gospel collection Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope. “Country music has always been about relatable songs, powerful, sad, happy, but things that people can relate to,” she notes. “With this album, I’ve had people come tell me ‘I can’t listen to the whole album. It hits my heart so heavy that I had to take a break.’ That’s powerful words and I have to give kudos to the songwriters, and to the publishers for encouraging their writers to write such powerful songs that touch the heart and the soul.”
McEntire says some songs were fairly new discoveries and others she had wanted to record for a long time. “If someone sends me something I’ll definitely listen to it,” she says. “I always say timing is everything and everything happens for a reason, so when I find a song when I’m not even looking, that’s when I hoard. I just kind of keep it close to my heart.”
“The Clown” was one of those songs. “I had ‘The Clown’ for many years, probably three albums back and it was a little too contemporary maybe for what I was doing or didn’t fit in, but it just kept haunting me. It is such a great song that I had to put it on this album and [my producer] Buddy [Cannon] loved it,” she says of the song written by Dallas Davidson, Hillary Lindsey and James T. Slater. “It’s a story about a man and a woman going to dinner and after a couple of bottles of wine he tells her, ‘I don’t love you anymore.’ She’s looking for some consolation and all the waiter says was ‘Is that all you’ll be needing tonight?’ In the background she hears the piano just keep on playing like nobody else’s lives were even touched by this and hers was devastated. It’s such a sad song.”
Though the album has several tearjerkers, McEntire also deliberately populated the project with songs designed to get folks out on the dance floor like “Swing All Night with You” and “No U in Oklahoma.” “I’ve always loved western swing. Red Steagall is one of my nearest and dearest friends and I love his music,” she grins. “I love a good dance tune. It’s something I grew up with. I love to dance and we grew up [my brother] Pake and [sister] Susie and I singing in dance halls. These songs on this album are definitely songs you could dance to.”
McEntire co-wrote “No U in Oklahoma” with Donna McSpadden and Ronnie Dunn. It all started when McSpadden emailed McEntire the title. “I sent it to Kelly Clarkson and [my niece] Autumn McEntire and Ronnie Dunn and nothing [happened],” she says of the song’s inauspicious beginnings. “Then we were down in Mexico on a vacation and Ronnie and I started playing around with the song. I played it for Buddy Cannon and he said, ‘Oh I love this!’ In the studio, I just let the band have fun. I’d say, ‘Let’s do another ride,’ and then two or three of them would play and I’d come back in on the chorus. It was so much fun recording that song.”
McEntire co-produced the album with Cannon, a music industry veteran who produces Kenny Chesney and has worked with George Jones, Merle Haggard, Mel Tillis and others. “Buddy Cannon is a wonderful man, funny, talented and a great producer. He’s a writer and sings real well, so he’s a great package and I have so much fun in the studio,” she says. “We have a great time and all the musicians really highly respect him…He doesn’t dismiss what you have to say. He takes it into consideration and will give his opinion if he doesn’t agree, so he’s real easy to work with.”
Together she and Cannon crafted an album that harkens back to the traditional country music that launched her multi-platinum career. “The Bar’s Getting Lower,” written by Kelly Collins, Erin Enderlin, Liz Hengber and Alex Kline, is one of those slice of life ballads that is emotionally weighty. “‘The Bar’s Getting Lower’ is one of those songs that women will either love or hate,” McEntire admits. “If it’s too close, they’ll probably hate it. If they’ve been there and survived, they’ll love it, but it’s life. She’s getting older and the bar’s getting lower. It’s a sad reality song.”
When McEntire heard the poignant ballad “Cactus in a Coffee Can,” she called her producer to tell him about the song. Turns out he was already well familiar with it. “Buddy asked me what demo I was listening to. I sent it to him and he said, ‘That’s my daughter. I recorded that song on her 10 years ago,’” McEntire says of Melonie Cannon’s version. “So he got her to come in and sing harmony with me and then Buddy sang the other harmony part.
“I love story songs,” McEntire continues, “and this is definitely one that when you are singing it or listening to it, you have the video running in your mind. The story of the song is that this lady is traveling and a girl sits down beside her, very young. She’s got a coffee can in her lap and there’s a cactus growing in it. She asks her, ‘What’s the deal?’ She said, ‘It’s my mother. I just connected with her not too long ago and it was just so short of a time that I got to be with her because she passed away.’ The mother had given this child up after she was born, but the child forgave her mother and was with her until the day she died. She was taking the ashes to spread them to the wind, but decided to keep the ashes in the coffee can with her instead.”
“In His Mind” is a touching ballad McEntire co-wrote that was inspired by her sister Susie’s second marriage. “I was wondering what her first husband thought about it because I think he always thought Susie would go back to him,” she says. “I got Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James to help me write it and it’s such a sad song. It breaks my heart. He passed away several years ago. I don’t know if I could have released it and sang that song if he was still alive. It would have hurt him.”
“You Never Gave Up on Me” is a song McEntire dedicates to her 92-year-old mother Jackie. In fact she sent the song to her for Christmas. “I sent it to Susie and Mark and I wanted them to play it for mama on Christmas Eve,” she says of her sister and brother-in-law. “They were in Oklahoma and I was here in Tennessee. She sat there and listened to it. I sent the lyrics and everything to make sure she that she heard every word and she cried. She was very appreciative and loved it. I meant it with all my heart.”
McEntire’s current single is the up tempo anthem “Freedom.” “At first I thought it was a patriotic anthem, but it’s an anthem about finding love,” she smiles. “The second verse says, ‘I’ve never been to war before, but those boots there on the floor are proof that I won the battle’—the battle of finally finding love. She’s found her love and now she’s triumphant.”
There’s no mistaking the fact that it’s an autobiographical anthem as McEntire has publicly proclaimed that she and Lasuzzo are in love. “Barbara told me that he would be a good person to take me around and see the animals,” McEntire says, recalling how Kix Brooks’ wife Barbara introduced her to Skeeter on a trip to Wyoming. “I wasn’t looking to date. I wasn’t looking for romance at all and then when I saw him there in the parking lot I was like, ‘Wow! I wonder if he’s single.’ I don’t know if I could give advice to somebody else, but I know for me it was very well worth it going back into the dating scene. I’m very, very lucky and blessed to have found Skeeter.”
Life is good these days and McEntire is relishing every minute. “It’s sweet where I am in my life right now,” she smiles. “I’m comfortable. I’m very content. I love my work and I love my time off. I’m very grateful.”
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