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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : McENTIRE PEAKS LATE

With all the awards Reba McEntire has picked up in the last 18 months, including best female vocalist honors two years straight from both the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music, you’d think she was the second coming of Patsy Cline.

All hype aside, the Oklahoma-born singer showed at the first of two sold-out shows Tuesday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana that she might indeed earn a place alongside country music’s great vocalists. The operative word at this stage of her career, however, is might .

One of country’s “new traditionalists,” McEntire possesses a powerful and expressive voice, but she has realized its potential only occasionally on record and in concert.

Backed Tuesday by an eight-piece band, McEntire finally reached the musical peaks she’s capable of in an exuberant encore medley of gospel standards. And on a couple of ballads, notably her 1985 hit “Somebody Should Leave,” McEntire used her colorful down-home drawl skillfully, swooping and diving into notes and phrases in the Cline/Loretta Lynn tradition.

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But too much of McEntire’s repertoire lacks the straight-to-the-heart honesty that characterizes country classics like “I Fall to Pieces” or “Today I Started Loving You Again.” Instead, the clever but uninvolving wordplay in tunes like “Don’t Touch Me There"--it’s her heart she’s singing about--sets up a crippling distance between the singer and the song. Those problems, however, are surmountable with a little more effort in the song-scouting department.


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