In the field of country music, where most artists are not also songwriters, there is a constant search among the Nashville publishing houses for that one song that will not only catapult a singer to the top of the charts, but also define a career. After a slow build lasting nearly a decade, Reba McEntire became an established country star in the mid-'80s, winning the Female Vocalist of the Year award from the Country Music Association in 1984 and again in 1985. But she had never had even a Top Ten LP on the country charts, and her successes seemed to vie with her failures in a back-and-forth pattern. She had turned to the new traditionalist style with her 1984 album My Kind of Country, and seemed to have hit on a theme of embodying the emotional conflicts of women with "Somebody Should Leave," a song from that disc that went to number one. But Have I Got a Deal for You in 1985 missed the mark. Whoever's in New England, which followed in early 1986, was a bull's-eye. The first reason was, of course, the title song, written by Kendal Franceschi and Quentin Powers, and sung by McEntire with the clenched emotion that the lyrics required. Against a stately ballad setting, the singer embodies the character of a Southern wife whose husband is, it seems to her, taking more business trips to Boston than he really needs to. Her surprising response is to tell him she thinks he's cheating on her, but that "when whoever's in New England's through with you," she will be waiting for him. The singer's sense of martyrdom is both unbearable and irresistible, and Franceschi and Powers achieve the added effect of casting the story in a South vs. North context. A mere 121 years since the end of the Civil War, that's a subtext that remained compelling to Southerners.
"Whoever's in New England," which quickly soared to number one on the country singles charts (and later won McEntire her first Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance), was reason enough for the album named after it to be considered a triumph. But producers McEntire and Jimmy Bowen surrounded it with other material of a similar ilk, female-oriented ballads like "You Can Take the Wings Off Me," "I'll Believe It When I Feel It," "I've Seen Better Days," "If You Only Knew," and "Don't Touch Me There" that explored women's emotional turmoil as they tried to navigate the troubled seas of romance. In "If You Only Knew," for example, a single woman counseled a married one that, however rocky things might get, having a husband was infinitely better than being alone as she was. And in "You Can Take the Wings Off Me," a woman submitted to seduction rather than continue to be a chaste angel, but not without a somewhat solemn and mournful feeling about it. (Either of these songs could have been a chart hit on its own if released as a single.) McEntire and Bowen threw in some up-tempo material for contrast, beginning with the frisky honky tonk number "I Can't Stop Now"; leading off the LP's side two with the cheery cheating song "Little Rock" (another number-one hit); and providing the requisite Western swing romp with "One Thin Dime." But it was the big ballads that were at the heart of Whoever's in New England, and they sold Reba McEntire to her female country constituency once and for all. The singer who'd never had a Top Ten album before went straight to number one with this one.