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April 05, 2019 at 09:17 PM EDT
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Reba McEntire has a theory about the music that ends up on her albums. “I really feel like songs wait and find their home, and they go where they’re supposed to go,” says the flame-tressed country music icon. “I’ve passed on some songs that were good songs, but they weren’t for me. They were still looking for their rightful owner.”

This concept holds up to scrutiny when it comes to McEntire’s new album, Stronger Than the Truth, one of her most vibrant releases in years. While the sound is wholly contemporary, its 12 tracks could proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the hit songs from the Oklahoma native’s peak era, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There’s a sense of reinvigoration in the tracks she co-wrote, her song selection from outside writers, and in McEntire’s vocals, which exude extra layers of passion and vulnerability. There are tunes that kick up their heels with playful sass (“No U in Oklahoma,” “Swing All Night Long With You”) and plumb the depths of heartbreak (“Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain,” “The Clown,” “The Bar’s Getting Lower.”)

“It is a little different,” she says, unable to pinpoint exactly why the album feels fresher even to her. “I don’t know if it’s the honesty that is more country, or that the songs are just incredible. I don’t know what it is, but…. It is more special.”

Among the set’s standouts is the title track, which cuttingly intones, “There’s not a sound, a sound as loud as silence/ There’s not a blade sharper than a lie/ There’s not a low lower than being the last one to know/ Oh, you got a brand new start with someone new/ And there’s no whiskey stronger than the truth.” 

The tune was co-written by Hannah Blaylock and McEntire’s niece Autumn. True to her theory, she heard it several years ago but felt now was the right time. “I was thrilled to death that nobody else had gotten it,” she says. “There’s just so many words in the English language, and people are writing songs all the time. For her and Hannah Blaylock to be able to create this song, and say it in a way nobody’s ever said it before, I was very proud of them.”

Big Machine

Another highlight is the tearjerking “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain,” co-written by Brandy Clark, Shelley Skidmore, and Mark Narmore, which was a love at first listen for McEntire. “The way they wrote it and incorporated all the titles of Tammy’s songs into this one song, I thought it was totally genius.” And she believes Wynette would approve. “I can just see her sitting there nodding and saying, ‘You bet, this is really good.’ And she was a huge supporter of the females of country music, and I can just see her smiling that beautiful smile she had.”

McEntire recognizes that kind of sisterhood is crucial, and is dismayed to find that support for women in country has waned when it comes to radio airplay, but she’s hopeful that continued outspokenness will produce results. “I think we’ve definitely given it a lot of attention,” she says, “and that people are even more aware, and that we’re not gonna stand for it. There are some really talented women out there that haven’t been getting the attention that’s due to them. I think that’s going to change, and this has always been cyclical. I think it’s women’s time coming up real shortly.”

While she mulls the possibility of a tour for Stronger Than the Truth, McEntire will continue to joke and sing with her pals Brooks & Dunn at their recurring co-headlining Vegas residency: ”We do have fun, and you never know what those two boys are gonna do.” The stage and screen vet is also keeping her eye out for acting roles. “I’m always looking at getting back into television, I absolutely loved it,” she says, noting that a whole new generation of fans came to her through her eponymous sitcom thanks to the magic of syndication. “It’s funny, when we’re at our meet-and-greets at concerts, families will come through, and I’ll take pictures with them, and the kids will look at me funny, like, ‘You sing too?’” she says with a chuckle. “Because all they know me from is the Reba TV show. I always get a big kick out of that.”

She also still enjoys hosting awards shows. McEntire returns for her 16th stint as emcee for the 54th ACM Awards Sunday April 7 on CBS. “The nerves come in the last 15 minutes of getting ready then, when I step on the stage, after the third step and after the first sentence has been said, I’m okay,” she says, noting that she isn’t big on a long monologue or a lot of bits. “I want the attention to be on the entertainers who are being honored and the people who are performing. I’m just there to keep the ball rolling, and make sure everybody is having a wonderful time. It’s a great lineup this year, it’s gonna be a wonderful show.”

Among those slated to perform is McEntire herself, who will be singing “Freedom” from the new album. There will also be a number of collaborations between artists including Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson, Brandi Carlile and Dierks Bentley, Eric Church and Ashley McBryde,B rothers Osborne and Maren Morris, and R&B star Khalid with Kane Brown. McEntire loves this concept saying,  “I think that’s gonna be really interesting, that gives twice as many artists on stage an opportunity to be seen and heard.”

She’s also looking forward to the the one-stop-shopping opportunity to hang with friends and meet newer artists. “When people will call out some [new artist] names to me, I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, I haven’t met them yet.’ I need to get around and do some visiting while I’m there for the rehearsals!”

The 54th ACM Awards air Sunday night at 8 p.m. on CBS. Stronger Than the Truth is out now.

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