Rock & Pop: Heart of rhinestones

Reba McEntire Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
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The Independent Culture
As every pub quiz-machine addict worth his bag of Ready Salted knows, Barbra Streisand has sold more albums than any other female artiste. And in second place? A week ago, I would have probably pressed the button that corresponded to Madonna, or Diana Ross, if Ms Ciccone wasn't one of the options. I'd have lost my money in either case. The second-best-selling woman in pop is, as you may have guessed, the one whose name is in that little box on the right: Reba McEntire.

McEntire may be entirely unknown in Britain, but elsewhere, she has sold an inconceivable 40 million albums. What's more, her autobiography set up camp in the New York Times's best-seller list for 14 weeks, at the last count she'd won 49 awards, and she's an actress who was too busy to accept the role of Molly Brown in Titanic. She is a household name. But only in households with a pick-up truck in the yard and a Confederate flag above the door. If you haven't heard of her, it's because McEntire, the 44-year-old daughter of an Oklahoma rodeo champion, lives in the world of country music, which gets as little coverage in Britain as, well, any British music whatsoever gets in America.

To be exact, she lives in the continent of pop-country: her songs are generic, sentimental, and buffed until they gleam like rhinestones. They're close enough to the middle of the road to appeal to people who would normally drive away from country, and when these songs are allied to McEntire's big voice and wholesome purtiness, the incredible sales figures start to make sense.

The next reason why McEntire has sold so many records is that she's put so many out. Counting live albums and greatest hits compilations, McEntire has 27 entries on her discography. And country and western is probably the only genre in which you can pump out at least one hit album a year for two decades. As a country star, you're not expected to write your own material. You're not encouraged to venture down new musical avenues or take account of new trends: when McEntire releases a track without pedal steel on it, Nashville commentators accuse her of betraying the cause. And for all the youth and sex appeal of LeAnn Rimes and Shania Twain respectively, neither quality is fetishised quite as slaveringly in country as it is elsewhere in the pop universe. McEntire is in the right business.

For all my talk about her obscurity on this side of the Atlantic, her first ever European tour would be the envy of many a better known celeb. She has enough fans in Glasgow to sell out two nights at the Royal Concert Hall. And on Thursday, the first of these, one devotee stood up and confessed that his two ambitions in life were to see her perform, which he was doing that night, and to visit his long-lost brother in Australia, which he was doing the next day. It was a touching testament to the esteem in which McEntire is held, although it did ruin the next four songs for me. I kept worrying if the reality of the evening could match up to the poor man's dreams.

The responsibility didn't appear to weigh too heavily on McEntire. The concert was OK, but her reputation for putting on much showier shows than her peers was hardly justified. Some criss-crossing spotlights and some long curtains festooning the backdrop still leave you closer to the Grand Ole Opry than to a stadium rock spectacular.

McEntire herself is a dimple-cheeked, pixie-like redhead with glittering eyes, sticky-out ears and a Cheshire Cat grin. In her latest TV movie, Forever Love, she plays a wife who falls into a 20-year coma - a masterly piece of casting. From the front, McEntire is a boyish young girl, and from the side she is a mother in her forties, so the producers could have saved money on make-up just by shooting her in profile for the second half of the film.

She doesn't have a natural command of large venues. To compensate, she walks across the stage in tight black trousers and a sparkly black top, interrupting her promenade every 30 seconds to smile and point as if she has just recognised an old friend. If nothing else, this is a good advert for her acting. When she pointed at me, I had one heart- stopping moment of struggling to remember when it was we'd met.

Her favourite songs, she said, are "good ole tear-jerkin' ballads", but my own tears remained unjerked. And I'm not just being sniffy about fake emotion, as one is when Whitney Houston or Celine Dion lets rip with a chin-wobbling, operatic caricature of heartbreak. The fact is, I genuinely couldn't tell which songs were supposed to be the sad ones. There were no mountainous choruses for her voice to scale. And it didn't help that even when the subject was death or divorce - and it usually was - McEntire couldn't stop grinning. Her band, consigned to the purple darkness at the back of the stage, kept up the same forced brightness. Except on "The Greatest Man I Never Knew", which was played on three acoustic guitars and a violin, their sound was too tightly organised to breathe, and too reliant on the glugging synthesiser chimes which were the trademark of the 1980s pop ballad.

The most memorable parts of the show were her reminiscences of life on the ranch, which contained two of the most gloriously surreal examples of stage banter I've ever heard. She told us that "Momma and Daddy had a total of four children, me bein' one of 'em". And she lamented that her daddy never said "those four precious words, 'I love you'." As with so much about McEntire, the thought behind these baffling pronouncements must remain a mystery.

Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000), tonight; Belfast Waterfront (01232 334455), Mon; Dublin Point (00 353 1 836 3633), Tues; Sheffield City Hall (0114 278 9789), Thurs; Manchester Apollo (0161 242 2560), Sat; Theatre Royal Drury Lane, WC1 (0171 494 5000), Sun 17 January; Birmingham Symphony Hall (0121 212 3333), 18 January.

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