Originally published in the February 1, 2016 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Forty years ago, around the time country music fans were debating the merits of Robert Altman’s controversial film Nashville and Charlie Rich took a flame to John Denver’s Entertainer of the Year announcement at the CMA Awards, a single slipped into the charts, causing barely a ripple. Titled “I Don’t Want to Be a One-Night Stand,” the 1976 release was recorded by a young Oklahoman named Reba McEntire and written by Martine Layng, who would later compose one of Reba’s many smash successes, “The Greatest Man I Never Knew.”
But that was still years ahead. For now, making it up to No. 88 was enough to persuade the young Oklahoman that she was born to sing. “I always had the faith that God was going to show me what to do,” Reba says. “And He always did. He opened the doors and I took the lead and went on.”
The latest door opens to one of Reba’s most moving performances. Her current single, “Just Like Them Horses,” is an uplifting story of farewell whose fiddle and message affirm the country roots she has never abandoned. More than that, it captures an extraordinary singer at the pinnacle of her power, touching listeners with eloquence and deep connection to the lyric. She doesn’t launch any vocal fireworks—she doesn’t need to. It’s her gift to enable great songs to speak for themselves.
“‘Just Like Them Horses’ was a song Liz Hengber was writing for a friend who was dying of cancer,” Reba explains. “She couldn’t finish it, so she asked our friend Tommy Lee James to help her. They finished it and Liz sent it to me to hear. I loved it! I wanted to record it and have it played at my daddy’s funeral. He had been sick for several years. My producer, Tony Brown, insisted on it being on the new CD. I said OK. We put it on the CD and also played it at Daddy’s funeral.”
Reba completed her video shoot for “Just Like Them Horses” shortly before sitting down for this interview. “I had the idea one day. It just came to me—another gift from God. I told Jim Weatherson, GM at Nash Icon Records, and he loved the concept. I almost waited too long to go to Oklahoma to film it because of the rain and cold weather everyone expects there in November. But we got two beautiful days of filming. I’m so proud of it, especially since Mama and the horses, who belong to my nephew Sam Luchsinger, have a major part in the video. I wanted to do it in black and white. We had a crew of 10 people, actors, photographers, videographers, cooks, glam and tour manager there at our home place in Chockie where we filmed it. You can see Susie and Mark’s house, my little sister’s home, up on top of the hill. Chockie Mountain is a beautiful place—where we grew up. I have so many wonderful memories of it.”
There’s love in Reba’s voice whenever she talks about her family, friends and fans. But ask her to look back on her epic career and she speaks as she sings, letting the facts, like a song lyric, speak for themselves. More than 56 million albums and 9 million concert tickets sold, No. 1 hits spread across four decades, membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame—that’s just the beginning of her story. Add to it her triumph on Broadway, her shelves of awards (including a National Artistic Achievement Award from the United States Congress) and you get the makings of a fascinating biography, which, by the way, she’s already written and titled Reba: My Story.
Start a little more than 40 years ago. In December 1974, having performed locally with her brother Pake and sister Susie, she was booked at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. “I saw my friend Ken Lance there,” she recalls. “We sang a lot at his rodeo [the Ken Lance Sports Arena]. He introduced me to Red Steagall. It was very quick because I had to get back up and sing the national anthem. The rodeo was fixing to start. That was a monumental event because Red and Mama talked about getting Pake, Susie and myself into the music business. But then about a month later he called Mama back and said, ‘What if I just try Reba first and then we get the other two kids in after her?’ Mama said, ‘Well, OK.’ So Red asked me to come down to Nashville. I recorded two or three songs that Red and Glenn Sutton, Lynn Anderson’s husband, had written. It went from there.”
Reba scuffled for the next few years. She released her self-titled album in 1977, but more important that year was her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. She had grown up listening to it each week with her family, so when she was invited to perform on the show, her parents and older sister Alice made the drive to share the unforgettable moment with her—except they almost didn’t make it into the venue.
“When Daddy rolled down his window and said, ‘I got Reba McEntire here to sing at the Grand Ole Opry tonight,’ the security guard said, ‘She’s not on the list.’ Daddy said, ‘What do you think we ought to do?’ He said, ‘Well, I suggest you go home.’ And Daddy said, ‘We can’t. We drove 700 miles!’”
Then Reba, the pragmatist, took over. “I said, ‘Daddy, get back over the Interstate. We’ll go to that Get-N-Go and I’ll call my booking agent,’ who was Shorty Lavender. He said, ‘You go right back over there. I’ll take care of it.’ We pulled up again and the guard said, ‘Yes sir, Mr. McEntire, you go right in. We’re glad to have Reba at the Grand Ole Opry tonight.’”
That night marked the young singer’s entry into a lineage that she holds dear to this day. “It was very important for me to become part of that tradition,” she says. “I just hope I can pave the way for the newcomers coming behind me.”
Reba admits that it’s hard to pick any single album as a landmark. But in 1984, My Kind of Country did assert her determination to present herself genuinely to the public. “Harold Shedd was producing me at the time,” she remembers. “I went to [MCA Records president] Jimmy Bowen and I told him, ‘I’m not really liking the orchestras and the symphonies I hear on a lot of records today. I want steel guitar and fiddle.’ Jimmy told me to look for my own songs. And I did. I went with [song scout] Don Lanier—‘Dirt,’ that was his nickname—to publishing companies and found the songs we put onto My Kind of Country.”
Her efforts paid off, as the Country Music Association honored her with the first of four Female Vocalist of the Year awards. Still, being Reba, she was only just beginning to challenge herself.
It took guts for any woman to vie for influence in the male-dominated music industry. That didn’t slow Reba down at all, though, as she breezed by her next career milestone in 1988. With help from her former husband Narvel Blackstock, she founded Starstruck Entertainment, under whose auspices she took control of every major aspect of her career, from management and publishing to concert booking and more.
“That was huge,” she says. “I wanted to do it because people kept saying ‘you’ve peaked’ or ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘that’s not the way we do it.’ I would be like, ‘One of these days, I’m gonna do it my way.’ And we did. We hit a few snags and butted a few heads, but it was very well worth it.”
In 2001, the country superstar began a six-year run with her own TV sitcom, Reba. But it was earlier that year that she took her first decisive step into acting as the star of Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway.
“I’d never even been in a play before, but I knew I could do it because I’d been a big fan of Annie Oakley since before I went to school,” she explains. “It was the hardest work I’d ever done. Number one, the lines you learn are somebody else talking. Number two, they’re not in melody, and since they don’t rhyme they’re harder to memorize. But I found out I’m pretty dang funny. I found out I have pretty good endurance. Doing eight shows a week was pretty hard, but I never lost my voice, thank God. And I got rave reviews, so I was very grateful.”
Today, Reba spends more time looking forward than reliving her past. “So much has changed in our world, especially in technology, by far—how we record, how we get music out to our fans,” she reflects. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is the talent. It’s a new breed, a new generation, a new kind of country music. I’ve tried to keep up and embrace it because when I stepped in to do it my way 40 years ago, I had criticism. But change is good. Change is healthy. If we stay the same, it becomes stagnant. So I need to embrace and encourage and sit on the sidelines and be a cheerleader and continue to help all I can, steer them in the right direction like Red Steagall and Ken Lance and so many other people helped and guided me.”
So what’s next for Reba? Perhaps a live duet with a hologram of one of her heroes? Reba replies emphatically, “That’s totally possible! Patsy [Cline] would be a great one to appear with. That’d be pretty cool, wouldn’t it? I mean, I’d buy a ticket for that!”
We would, too. NCW