How Reba McEntire Flipped ‘Whoever’s in New England’ (and Her Sound) to Create a Mega-Hit
Though it’s 35 years old on Tuesday (March 2), Reba McEntire’s “Whoever’s in New England” is a timeless country favorite. The legend’s rise to superstardom via the Grammy-winning Billboard country chart No. 1 saw McEntire record 10 albums in a decade before discovering a song in which the lyrics and melody match perfectly with her heart. Her most heartfelt song became a breakthrough hit, attached to a stellar and groundbreaking music video released during that medium’s early heights.
Jimmy Bowen, McEntire’s producer and a label executive at MCA Nashville, recalled in a 2014 interview that the country star was given a monetary advance against future sales royalties from the Whoever’s in New England album. “I knew she would [turn a profit for the label],” he explained.
Long before his time as a record industry executive, Bowen worked in Los Angeles as a pop and rock producer who favored intricate melodies. He worked with, among others, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, and when heavy metal’s rise spelled his creative downfall on the West Coast, in 1977, he relocated to Nashville, joining fellow western refugees such as Glen Campbell. While there, before working with McEntire, Bowen achieved success crafting soft, melodic, and pop-ready country hits with the Rhinestone Cowboy, as well as with Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr. and the Oak Ridge Boys.
His prowess in crafting lilting countrypolitan ballads led Bowen to be named MCA Nashville’s president in 1983. As far as male stars at the label, he established the icons George Strait and Conway Twitty; then, wanting a female star to prepare to achieve the same level of success, he snagged McEntire from Mercury Records. The then-rising star’s 1982 album Unlimited contained her first two consecutive No. 1 singles (“Can't Even Get the Blues" and "You're the First Time I've Thought About Leaving”), but she followed it up with the underwhelming Behind the Scene, which featured singles that barely cracked the Top 10.
“I’ve always been aware of signs and follow them,” Bowen said in 2014. True to form, upon signing McEntire, he realized that the Oklahoma-born artist needed to movie in a direction less similar to that of her favorite, Merle Haggard. Instead, Kendal Franceschi and Quentin Powers’ songwriting and elements of Bowen’s production for the single “Whoever’s in New England” were inspired by Barry Manilow’s 1977 Billboard Easy Listening (Adult Contemporary) chart-topper “Weekend in New England.”
One listen to the musical collections of both the Okie from Muskogee and the man who sang the ersatz disco hit “Copacabana” clarifies that it was a drastic change in direction for McEntire. In fact, she recorded the vocal track for “Whoever’s in New England” almost as a throwaway, in 30 minutes, at the end of a recording session; she “thought the song was too pop for her,” Bowen recalled.
McEntire wasn’t wrong in that belief: 1984’s “How Blue” -- her first country chart-topper -- is a twanging, two-stepping, honky-tonk hit. Comparatively, “Whoever’s in New England” is a composition recalling Bowen’s 1960s days in LA. Gone are the steel guitars and simple drum pickups; instead, the ballad is akin to the lushly orchestral torch songs of the era, such as Kenny Rogers’ “Through the Years,” “Voices Carry” by Til Tuesday and Tina Turner’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack single “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”
However, McEntire’s vocal strength is on par with that of Rogers, Til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann and Turner. “Everybody was knocked out,” Bowen remembered. Proclaiming that her performance was powerful enough to bridge the gap between country and pop, he believed the song would be “the biggest thing [she’d] ever done.”
To this day, hearing “Whoever’s in New England” makes the hairs on McEntire’s arms stand at attention. It’s her interpretation of what she heard in the original that spurs this response: In her songwriting MasterClass, McEntire notes that the demo version of “Whoever’s in New England” featured a male vocalist, which inspired the bold tone of her performance. To go deeper, a song about a straying mate with a vibe that fits a voice like Kenny Rogers’ -- as sung man to woman -- feels like his 1977 hit “Lucille.”
But McEntire flips that intention on its head while adding a tone that consoles a gallivanting husband closing his cheating heart to extramarital romance. By doing so, she creates an entirely different song, and the color of her timbre on the track emerges. Just like a caramel-dipped pretzel, the unexpected union of salty and sweet creates a delicious earworm.
Filmed in Boston, the music video for “Whoever’s in New England'' was a career first for McEntire, and that the Northeast replaced Nashville for the shoot speaks to the universality that country music achieved via the countrypolitan movement. By this time, top country hitmakers Dolly Parton and Kenny were pop stars who doubled as rising celluloid icons, while everyone from John Travolta and Larry Hagman to Patrick Duffy and Burt Reynolds, and more, had played a cowboy onscreen to great commercial success. It was a moment in American history when traditional country motifs were synonymous with contemporary Americana.
By this measure, McEntire -- who starred in the clip as a Nashville housewife with a businessman husband who’d been frequent trips to Boston -- wasn’t unique, but a representation of the genre as a whole; however, she allowed a country music video to share the airwaves with the era’s more mainstream fare.
“Whoever’s in New England” was McEntire's fifth Hot Country Songs chart-topper, but the album of the same name became her first platinum-selling record. She co-hosted the 1986 CMA Awards with The Dukes of Hazzard star John Schneider, and won both Entertainer of the Year and Best Female Vocalist that night; additionally, she won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for the song.
McEntire’s career has moved onward and upward in a diverse manner in the years since “Whoever’s in New England.” The music video’s success, in particular, spurred a television and film career that’s spanned 200-plus credited appearances, including six seasons of a self-titled sitcom, Reba, that aired on the WB and CW networks from 2001 until 2007.
In 2020, Cody Johnson released a cover of “Whoever’s in New England,” completing the song’s circle from male-recorded demo to McEntire hit to a song once again sung my a man. Shortly thereafter, Johnson and McEntire collaborated on a new version of his single “Rodeo,” and in an interview alongside Johnson regarding that song, McEntire revealed what she feels makes a song “timeless.” It’s a note that applies well to her 35-year-old star-making cut, too.
“Well, everything happens for a reason, and timing is everything," McEntire says. "My point is that this song is timeless. Because the way people can relate to it in many, many different ways. And that’s when it’s a great song. No matter what decade it’s recorded or written in, it’s timeless.”
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