photography RUSS HARRINGTON
I was pretty much forced to do it,” Reba McEntire admits, at the back end of a full day. “It wasn’t my choice to take over my career as manager. I didn’t see it coming, but you know, that’s life.”
For McEntire, the Grammy-winning Country Music Association Entertainer and four-time Female Vocalist of the Year, looking life in the eye – and refusing to believe she can’t – has been the roadmap to unprecedented things.
In the 1980s, after what many would deem a lackluster recording career at Mercury, she walked into MCA Nashville head Jimmy Bowen’s office to complain about the songs she was being pitched. At a time when women were “chick singers,” the legendary producer replied, “Well, woman, go find your own songs.”
“I didn’t know how, but people like Bowen, Bruce Hinton, Tony Brown, Donald Lanier, Narvel Blackstock, they all helped me figure it out,” she marvels. “I wouldn’t say I’m fearless, but I would say ignorance is bliss ... and listening to great songs is one of the greatest pleasures I have!”
That bliss saw McEntire do all sorts of – what Alice Through the Looking Glass’s Red Queen proclaims – “impossible things before breakfast.” Co-producing her own albums when it was unthinkable. Taking Broadway by storm in Annie, Get Your Gun, a role she was born to play. Giving working women a range of clothes that are comfortable and stylish at Dillard’s. Grounding the long-running sitcom that bears her name.
“I’m adaptable; that’s a very important word,” the plucky redhead says. “I’m a person who likes change, accepts it and knows it’s part of living. But I also believe change brings and encourages growth. Even mistakes you learn from – and it helps take you to the places you need to go or be.
“I think about everything I’ve gotten to do! What if I didn’t continue singing and stayed in rodeo? If I’d not taken the role on Broadway? Or read that script for Reba? All those things happened, because I trusted and followed even though it’s not quite what I set out to do.”
You can hear the joy in her voice as she recounts the journey. All the people along the way, the lessons, the missteps, and stumbles. Even now, thrust in part by her divorce from manager Narvel Blackstock, she’s taking the reins and learning to ride a whole new way.
“I’m getting a business education,” she pronounces with mettle. “Looking back, I’m amazed at how much I didn’t know about how this business works, and I didn’t realize. And I always thought I was a pretty good business woman.”
Conspiratorially, she lowers her voice a bit, “I’m a hard worker, and I’ve always tended to business. In some ways, I’m more of a businesswoman than an artist. To me, it’s like magicians: I’m satisfied to be amazed and entertained, that thrills me – whereas an artist maybe gets a little too deep into it, and that’s way over my hairspray.”
McEntire, a third-generation rodeo competitor, is being old west modest. Since cracking country radio’s Top 20 with Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” her songs of love and its inevitable wreckage, as well as incredible spunk have served as the soundtrack for real women working long hours while juggling family, friends, and that thing called love. “How Blue,” “New Fool At An Old Game,” “Whoever’s In New England,” “Greatest Man I Never Knew,” “For My Broken Heart,” “Why Haven’t I Heard From You,” “You Lie,” “The Fear of Being Alone,” “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter,” “I’m A Survivor,” and “Consider Me Gone” are just a few of the songs she’s offered on the altar of modern women’s psychological aches and furies in getting the job done.
There’s her incredible string of unlikely covers. Sure, Ray Price and Connie Smith are obvious, but Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night The Light Went Out in Georgia,” Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy,” and the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” provided chart-toppers; her recent exploration of Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy” tries on, then turns men’s callousness inside out.
“People used to say to me, ‘How do you sing these songs because they’re so hurtful?’ And I was always, ‘Well, that’s probably what makes them so powerful,’” Reba says. “Those songs are my life story now, and I really do understand that (notion). All the songs from this album (Love Somebody, her 27th No. 1 Billboard Country Album), I really feel it: how those songs are pretty much how it is.”
Empathy – as a vocalist and a human being – has always marked the woman routinely tagged as sassy, tough, smart, ballsy. Over the years, she’s been drawn to topical songs, from domestic abuse (“The Stairs”) to the farthest reaches of AIDS (“She Thinks His Name Was John”); both recorded when messages were considered avoidable at all costs.
“When I heard ‘She Thinks His Name Was John,’ I said, ‘I’m gonna cut that.’ ... Right there, right then. Same thing with ‘The Stairs,’ I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s people who are living this song. ... If I I can sing it, maybe I can help somebody.’ Whether they won’t feel so alone, or know someone understands what they’re facing, or even maybe even get up the nerve to leave.”
Then in a burst that split rail humility, McEntire dives a little deeper, “I’m not the best singer in the world, but I work to really understand where the song is taking me. I put myself in that person’s place, imagine what they’re going through. I love stories, I love the journey.”
Pressing on, she continues, explaining her process, “When I’m in the (vocal) booth, I see the video, too. When I start thinking about singing the song, I’m seeing it. With ‘Somebody Should Leave,’ I was thinking, ‘I’m in the living room, and it’s snowing. There’s a fire, and we’re watching TV. There we are, but we both know, you know, somebody should leave...’”
Her voice and vivid imagination trail off. All those days in southeastern Oklahoma left plenty of room for dreaming. Those pictures made the transition to acting easy, picking up rave notices for Tremors, as well as subsequent films. Though Broadway, where it’s live and in the moment, was a little scarier, making her imagination more literal drove her to – and through – the challenge.
“It scared me to death,” she says. “The first time I went blank, and I paraphrased, then looked at my costar and went, ‘Do ya?’ He just picked it back up. But that’s live theater.
“The thing about fear, though, is it doesn’t change anything. I used to be terribly afraid of the dark, and I’m not any more. I told myself, ‘It’s not that big a deal. It’s the same out there, whether it’s dark or light.’ You know, you have to believe that ... and it’s been the way I’ve tried to face things.”
It’s also been the way she’s worked to make a difference for so many. Reba’s Ranch House in Dennison, Texas, where families needing a place to stay during a relative’s profound medical care, was built through a doctor’s suggestion, a series of benefit concerts and her ongoing support. Quietly, she explains, “It’s where we went to the doctor when we were kids. ... It just seemed like the thing to do.”
The Country Music Hall of Fame member and Golden Globe nominee also quietly supports Thistle Farms’ many projects and has been involved in the Nashville Rescue Mission's annual Valentine’s Day luncheon called "Hearts of Hope". For her, it’s not about giving back as much as buying into the fabric of humanity, making the world stronger, kinder, more loving.
“People who are homeless,” she marvels. “I don’t know how to address how they face it, because I’ve always had a home. But my level of compassion for them is huge. I was listening to Rick Warren’s wife, and she was saying she always talks to the homeless, and asks the person, ‘What’s your name? How’s your day been?’
“I never thought of it like that, and I really respected her. You suddenly realize: it’s that easy. People want to be seen, and recognized. It’s simple.”
Listening to the woman whose career spans four decades, it does seem simple. Some of it’s grace, some grit. In the end, though, there is also heart – and McEntire’s is bottomless.
Having stepped into the management role, she is quick to cite the many people she works with for her success, and for her happiness. “My greatest thrill growing up was basketball. I love being on the team! Everyone around me has the same goals – and we’re all committed to doing things we’ve never done before. If it’s fresh and new and it’s adventuresome, we’re ready.
“... Many, many years ago, I was playing an arena down in Florida for 17,000 – only I wasn’t ready, and 1,700 people came. It was embarrassing! I went back to the agency and said it wasn’t the right thing. They told me, ‘Well, this is how we do it,’ and I thought, ‘Well, that’s not how I want to do it.’
“So, in 1987, I moved to Nashville, and in 1988, we started Starstruck. The first building we looked at was an old carpet factory; we could put our two buses in, keep the merchandise in the back. We hired Trey Turner to do bookings, Mike Allen for privates and special events. We didn’t know, but we kept building...
“Things are changing tremendously. In the music business, the television business, the entertainment industry,” she says. “Part of me goes, ‘Ehhhh,’ but part of me goes, ‘Hmmmm, what’s all this about?’ Social media, the way people watch. But what’s more fun than being with a bunch of young people asking, ‘What’s your newest, greatest app?’ or ‘How are you watching?’ There’s tons of people going in all kinds of new and innovative directions – and I’m curious about them all.
“The more things change, the more you grow. The more people say I can’t, well, I want to figure out how. If you’re gonna buck the system, it’s gonna be hard work. People are going to tell you why it’s never gonna happen. But I think it’s just taking the steps, thinking a little different and being willing to keep trying.
“And when they tell you what you’re doing won’t work, then ask, ‘How would you do it?’ Get them thinking about it in new ways, too. That’s the pleasure of this, and the responsibility – and the fun.”
Few artists ever achieve single moniker success. Dolly. Loretta. Tammy. Patsy. And yes, Reba. By not being bound by “can’t,” by working hard, by reaching for the dreams she didn’t even know to dream, she became a franchise: the embodiment of the American woman holding her ground, feeling all her emotions, loving without limit, giving and believing and finding her way.
“I think the biggest thing is to be kind,” she offers finally. “Be kind and smile. It goes a long way. No matter how bad a day you’ve had, somebody’s had one worse. You never know what it is, so when it happens, that’s when you give them the gentle word that they may need even more than you know. To me, that’s the best thing there is.”