While many of country music’s leading ladies, including Kathy Mattea, Trisha Yearwood, and Pam Tillis, have gone on to make some of the most interesting work of their careers once they reached a “certain age” and moved from major to indie labels, country icon Reba McEntire uses Keep on Loving You, her debut for Scott Borchetta’s Valory label, as an aggressive bid to prove that she’s still a major commercial force. Whether or not that bid will be successful remains to be seen (McEntire has had a mixed reception at country radio over the last few years, and this album’s lead single, “Strange,” missed the Top 10), but it won’t be due to a lack of effort of McEntire’s part if Loving doesn’t continue to carry her hot streak into its fourth decade.
To her credit, McEntire has taken excellent care of her voice through the years: Despite her Broadway-approved pipes and enormous range, she’s always been more of a stylist than a powerhouse belter, and her performances here are vintage McEntire. She invents new vowel sounds all over second single “Consider Me Gone” and puts a bluesy growl into the chorus of “Pink Guitar,” but she reins in her sometimes-campy sense of melodrama on “Eight Crazy Hours in the Story of Love.” As a vocal showcase, Loving proves McEntire’s maturity and the thoughtful mastery of her craft.
And it’s a good thing that McEntire is in such fine voice, because her performances elevate some awfully pedestrian material and overcome some strident contemporary country production choices. “Pink Guitar” is a clichéd star-on-the-rise tale that mistakes a few lines about its would-be starlet’s wardrobe and accessory details for developing a real personality. The usually spot-on Karyn Rochelle co-wrote “Maggie Creek Road,” a bit of Last House on the Left-style rape-and-retribution that aims for “The Nights the Light Went Out in Georgia” mystery and hits Law and Order: Perverts Unit hysteria. And McEntire has recorded better-written variations of “Consider Me Gone,” “Just When I Thought I’d Stopped Loving You,” and “But Why” countless times over the course of her career.
What makes the album something of a departure for McEntire, then, are some production choices that sound like desperate attempts at relevance. “Strange” boasts a funky rhythm section that recalls Starting Over, the singer’s ill-advised collection of Motown and disco covers, with similarly strained results. Cuts like “I Want a Cowboy” and “Pink Guitar” draw heavily from the rock-influenced sound of today’s country radio hits, with percussion tracks foregrounded in the mix to a distracting degree. She sounds more at ease on the title track and “She’s Turning 50 Today,” the production of which recalls the slick pop-country of her 1990s records.
The album’s only truly inspired moment comes on the closing “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” on which McEntire’s laidback vocal turn and a terrific Texas swing arrangement overcome the song’s decades-dated lyrical hook. It’s a reminder that McEntire, when matched with a production style that suits her gifts for distinctive phrasing and traditional country forms, is still capable of pulling off some surprises. It’s a shame that Loving too often finds her more concerned with keeping pace with what today’s country stars are doing than with what makes her a one-of-a-kind talent.