IF SOUL SINGER Anita Baker can cross over into the pop charts, why can't country singer Reba McEntire? Like Baker, McEntire boasts a magnificent voice and a sure touch with a ballad that brings out all the mixed emotions of adult romance. Perhaps her country drawl and her use of fiddles and acoustic drums are too big a barrier for urban audiences, but her new album, "The Last One To Know," is as good a collection of romantic balladry as we'll get this year.
The angel-voiced Oklahoma singer has been maturing steadily, and her new album is her best yet. As always, she manages to combine the open-hearted emotion of country singing with the precise phrasing and diction of art song, but this time she has refined her ability to convey two conflicting emotions at once. The album is dominated by ballads about being hurt by the man she still loves; she communicates the sharp surprise of the pain as convincingly as the helplessness of her lingering affection. The album also departs from her usual heartbreak material with thoughtful songs about a Mexican immigrant and an abused wife.
One can trace McEntire's development on her newly released "Greatest Hits" album, which contains two songs each from her five previous MCA albums. The first two songs are still stuck in the Nashville formulas of her Mercury recordings, but the other eight songs feature her stripped-down, neo- traditionalist arrangements and her gorgeous, translucent singing. The serious collector will want the original albums, but this is a good introduction. Much less appealing is McEntire's "Merry Christmas To You," the inevitable collection of holiday songs. McEntire's voice shines on the traditional carols and pop classics, but the album is marred by narration corny enough to make Dolly Parton blush.
If understated honesty is the trademark of McEntire's records, excessive and contrived histrionics are the mark of Lee Greenwood's work. On his new album, "If There's Any Justice," Greenwood once again jerks at his listeners' tear ducts shamelessly with his self-pitying breast-beating. Despite some pretty guitar picking by Billy Joe Walker throughout the record, Greenwood's clumsy grandstanding makes the ballads and uptempo pop tunes unlistenable. REBA McENTIRE --
"The Last One To Know" (MCA 42030). "Greatest Hits" (MCA 5979). "Merry Christmas To You" (MCA 42031).
LEE GREENWOOD --
"If There's Any Justice" (MCA 5999).
Both appear Saturday at the Patriot Center.