To celebrate the opening of Reba McEntire’s 10-month exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, entitled Reba: All The Women I Am, the iconic entertainer gave fans a glimpse into the memories and anecdotes accumulated throughout her career. On Saturday (Aug. 10), for 1 ½ hours, the singer, entertainer, songwriter, actress, designer and businesswoman recounted lessons learned during more than three decades in the industry at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater with fans, industry colleagues and family (including McEntire’s mother, Jacqueline McEntire).
Interviewer Michael McCall of the CMHoF recalled how early on in Reba’s career, the young Country singer could expect to reach only a modest amount of success, because she was a woman. “Because of Reba, no one will say that again to an aspiring female country singer,” says McCall.
Indeed, Reba’s accomplishments more than speak for themselves—65 Top 10 hits, 35 No. 1 singles, more than 56 million albums sold, 15 ACM awards, 6 CMA awards and 2 Grammy awards. She has one of the most diverse careers of any female entertainer, encompassing multiple movie roles, two television sitcoms (Reba and Malibu Country), Broadway, and even a retail line at Dillards.
“I didn’t have the knowledge to even dream this big,” says Reba. As she spoke of her early days singing the National anthem at rodeos and performing as part of the Singing McEntires with siblings Pake and Susie, photos and video played on the screen behind her.
Reba recalled her days growing up the daughter of a champion steer roper in Oklahoma, and gave credit to her parents for instilling a hard-earned work ethic. “Mama had four kids in five years—no microwaves, no disposable diapers,” recalled Reba. “All us kids were hired hands on the ranch and our pay was room and board. I learned how to take direction. That benefited me throughout my career.”
She spoke of meeting Red Steagall, who became a mentor after helping the singer get signed to Mercury Records. “When I got started, all I thought it took to be successful was to have a song on the radio. Little did I know there was a lot of time between the first single and the first No. 1 single.”
Unlike many of today’s superstars, Reba didn’t net a No. 1 radio hit until her fifth studio album. Her first single, “I Don’t Wanna Be A One-Night Stand,” reached No. 88 on the Billboard chart in 1976. “I am lucky that I came out in the middle of the ‘70s, to a point where I had time to build my career,” she said. “Unfortunately, you don’t have that time these days for a career to slowly build.”
In 1984, she earned her first No. 1 single, “Can’t Even Get The Blues” followed by “You’re The First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving.” Though she finally achieved significant chart performance, the singer was still largely recording songs given to her, instead of songs of her own choosing.
She gave credit to then-MCA label head and producer Jimmy Bowen who allowed her to seek out her own material. “I met with Bowen at his house and said, ‘I want to play my own kind of music,’ recalled Reba. “He said, ‘Well, what are your kind of songs?’” She presented him a cassette tape of songs by Dolly Parton and Ray Price. “He said, ‘You need to find your own songs.’ So we went from publishing company to publishing company looking for songs.” The decision to record her own chosen songs was the first of many she would make in taking responsibility for her career and setting its course. “When you have success, you have more confidence,” said Reba.
My Kind of Country, her second project for MCA Nashville was released in 1984. The project earned McEntire her third and fourth No. 1 songs—“How Blue” and “Somebody Should Leave.” My Kind of Country also garnered her her first CMA Award in 1984. The outfit she wore to accept the award, which Reba recalled as costing $5,000, is on display in the CMHoF exhibit.
The singer then turned to her bookings agent(s) at the time; as Reba’s live engagements were being handled by multiple agents. “Once I was in an arena built for 17,000 people and 1,700 people showed up,” said Reba. “I got back to Nashville and said, ‘I need one agent taking care of me so he knows what arenas I can fill.’” At the time they said no, an answer the entertainer was forced to accept.
The late ‘80s brought about the changes Reba was seeking in her personal and professional life. “I was very disgruntled and unhappy in my marriage,” recalled Reba. “So I decided to take charge.” In 1987, she divorced husband Charlie Battles. In 1988, she replaced her manager with her former steel player and tour manager Narvel Blackstock. The two were married in 1989 and eventually started Starstruck. “Narvel always said, ‘When everyone else is gone, I’ll be here because I believe in her.’ We’re fans of the music business.” Blackstock and Reba began working with one booking agent on all of Reba’s concert dates. “I always wanted that individual attention,” she quipped.
Blackstock’s first test as an artist manager came during an ACM Awards show. “They had a backdrop that was real folksy,” explained Reba, “He had to play hardball and said, ‘The backdrop goes or Reba does not go onstage.’ He proved himself and gained the respect of the industry.”
Reba’s career continued to skyrocket throughout the 1990s with the success of albums including For My Broken Heart (1991), It’s Your Call (1992), as well as singles including “Is There Life Out There?” and “If You See Him” featuring Brooks & Dunn. Her tours became marvelous theatrical productions and her songs were targeted to fans of all ages.
In 2000, a chance canceling of a flight left Reba and Narvel with a night off in New York. “The catering truck backed into the Concorde and knocked the door off the hinges. How often does that happen? So I said, ‘Let’s go see a play.’ Narvel said, ‘Let’s go see Annie Get Your Gun,’ since they wanted me to do that. In the middle of the show, I said, ‘I’ve got to be on that stage.’ And Narvel said ‘It’s written for you.'”
She accepted the role of Annie Oakley, portraying the character from Jan. 26, 2001 through June 22, 2001, though Broadway brought significant changes from touring. “I did the Singer’s Diary Tour, but that was the closest thing I’d done [to Broadway],” she said. “If I’m onstage and with the band, and I mess up, you go along with it. If you forget something on a Broadway stage with all these actors, you are not professional. You are letting them down.” She recalled one of her own hiccups on stage. “I was daydreaming and it was silence. I got out on that stage immediately. It was a lag and I should have been out there. That was a good lesson for me. I paid better attention.”
During Annie Get Your Gun, Reba landed the lead for a pilot called Sally. “I didn’t know if I was over my head as a singer with a Broadway show and a TV pilot. When we got though with Annie, we had a five-week tour booked, then went right into the Sally show.” An offhanded remark from a WB executive saying the network didn’t understand why Reba was picked for this part turned into television gold for the entertainer. “They apologized saying ‘What would make her happy?’” Blackstock suggested they change the name of the show from Sally to Reba. Reba was on the air from 2001 until 2007; re-runs still air on CMT.
Reba also spoke of transitioning label homes to Valory Music Group, part of the Big Machine Label Group to reunite with Scott Borchetta who had worked with the singer at MCA Nashville. She also spoke of starting the retail line at Dillards.
Reba returned to television with ABC’s Malibu Country. The sitcom, which also featured Lily Tomlin, ran from Nov. 2, 2012 to March 22, 2013. In May 2013, the network announced the show would not be renewed. Undeterred, Reba took a vacation and began making plans for an upcoming tour. “We went to Africa, France, Ireland and Montana for a while,” she says. “We are gearing up to get the tour back on. Music is always there for me, thank God for that.”
Fans have followed Reba from music to movies and television to Broadway. It’s certain that no matter where her journey takes her next, they will be eagerly awaiting the next chapter in the multi-talented entertainer’s diverse journey.
The singer’s exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame is now open and runs through June 8, 2014.
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About the AuthorJessica Nicholson is a staff writer with MusicRow Enterprises. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine, TasteofCountry.com and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]
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