Six weeks before Reba McEntire released Love Somebody, the singer and her management team invited two dozen media members to hear some of the songs from her first studio album in nearly five years. McEntire and Big Machine Label Group CEO Scott Borchetta started by telling the story of how the Nash Icon record label partnership was — more or less — created for her.

Country's Queen was hesitant to record again, they said, because she wasn't sure radio was willing to play her music. So he joined forces with Cumulus Media and introduced the idea to McEntire. Ronnie Dunn and Martina McBride have since signed on, but it all started to get a 27th album out of McEntire.

The confession was quietly stunning for two reasons. The first was unstated: Country radio had not begun to embrace female artists again. That's slowly happening now, but it wasn't a year ago. Even an artist of McEntire's caliber had to recognize that the atmosphere wasn't great.

It is different from anything I’ve recorded. It’s a positive love song. It’s an inspirational song.

But it's also stunning because it's hard to imagine why McEntire — a Country Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest female the format has ever known — would rely on radio's whimsies to make music. She could cut 12 versions of the alphabet and sell 50,000 albums.

“Business-wise it’s very important to get radio airplay," she tells Taste of Country from Starsturck Studios on Music Row in Nashville. "It just helps your concerts, it helps people know you’re going to be in town at a concert … it’s like a snowball effect. One thing feeds the other.”

Her answer to why she needed radio's support to record again takes some of the romance out of the process, but you don't become as big as Reba without mixing business acumen with your brand of art. Several times during her interview with Taste of Country she talked of deferring to someone else, for one reason or another. Tony Brown pushed her to cut the emotional "Just Like Them Horses" for the album, and not just her father's funeral. She was told to cut "Pray for Peace." Ultimately, the managers make the final decisions on details for her Las Vegas residency with Brooks & Dunn.

Nash Icon

Up close there are vulnerabilities that fans of the new generation aren't familiar with. To them, she's She-Ra or Super Woman. The guard comes down on this album.

“I never see who wrote a song. I listen to the song first," McEntire says. "The song has to stand up on its own. And then I look to see who wrote it. Sometimes I’m surprised, sometimes I’m not."

The topic is the album's title track, co-written by Sam Hunt. She wasn't familiar with Hunt before choosing the song, but she admits his style pushes her further creatively than any song on Love Somebody. It's an almost spoken-word verse — his signature — with a heavily produced arrangement. Fiddle sweeps in at the chorus, but the beginning is anything but organic.

“It is different from anything I’ve recorded," she says. "It’s a positive love song. It’s an inspirational song, to me.”

Many of the songs could be describe as inspirational, and all are love songs of some sort. Two-thirds are either sad or bittersweet. "Enough," McEntire's duet with Jennifer Nettles, is a second pass at a song about two women in love with one man. Even McEntire recognizes its similarities to "Does He Love You" from 1993.

She clearly identifies with women bouncing back after great personal loss. Songs like "Going Out Like That" and "That's When I Knew" are powerful, but "Love Land" — a tender story about the loss of a child born out of wedlock — tops them. While inspirational and empowering at times, the album is soaked in heartache and loss. The death of her father may have exposed some of McEntire's vulnerabilities. Indeed, "Just Like Them Horses" is a tribute to him, and it's powerful.

What if Borchetta hadn't thought of Nash Icon? Would fans still be waiting for a new album? Would she ever record again? The indication was that she wouldn't, but McEntire recants slightly when pressed.

"I don't know what would have happened," she admits. “I should have never said ‘I will never record again,’ because I don’t know what’s going to be in the future.”

The record mixes the old with the new in many ways. Brown and James Stroud return (with Doug Sisemore) to help produce, but new songwriters like Hunt and Brandy Clark joined more entrenched tunesmiths like Tom Douglas and Tommy Lee James to pen many of the songs. There's no radical new sound (although the vocal effects used on "Going Out Like That" are eye-opening) and there are several songs that will speak to fans who've followed her for decades.

McEntire says "Livin' Ain't Killed Me Yet" is an example. James and Laura Veltz penned the feisty country-rocker, and there are no vulnerabilities here. The production is loud and aggressive and everything we think we know about the singer.

Of course, one never really knows a celebrity like they think they do. Cast another way, her vulnerabilities seem quite normal ... and maybe she wasn't deferring, but listening to a pretty smart group of people that she's relied on for a long time. Still, it's surprising to hear the star admit that despite hosting the show 14 times and performing a few more, she still gets nervous for an ACM Awards performance.

“Because they’re your peers," she reveals, "The people you’re in competition with. They’re the industry right there on the front 10 rows.”

Look for signs of nerves when McEntire takes the stage to sing her single at the 50th annual ACM Awards on April 19, but in truth you'll likely not find anything that tips her hand. She'll stare straight ahead as if singing to every individual parked on a sofa at home and breathe fire as she sings her song of redemption. McEntire is a performer, never afraid to rise to the occasion.

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