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"I JUST WENT OUT AND DID IT": REBA SPEAKS

INTERVIEW BY HOLLY GLEASON

Reba McEntire isn’t just a survivor; she’s a force of nature. A hardcore third-generation rodeo rider, she came to Nashville in the late ’70s, chasing success, and came up short. But a move to Jimmy Bowen’s MCA Nashville—home to Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and a young George Strait—put the spunky redhead with the unstoppable work ethic on her path to iconic status.

A Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year, she’s won Female Vocalist of the Year 10 times, nabbed a Grammy and scored 35 #1s, while selling in excess of 50 million albums. But music is the tip of the iceberg. The Oklahoma sweetheart has starred on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun, added spark to movies such as Tremors and had her own TV series, Reba.

In addition, the woman is currently holding down a Las Vegas residency (with her good friends and sometime duet partners Brooks & Dunn) and has her own line of clothes and home furnishings at Dillard’s. And she’s a committed philanthropist, founding Reba’s Ranch House in Dennison, Texas, for families needing a place to stay when their loved ones need profound care, as well as working with The Nashville Rescue Mission, Thistle Farms and Big Machine Label Group’s partnership with General Mills, Outnumber Hunger.

She’s always been a masterful interpreter, reworking Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” for her first Top 20 hit, assaying Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” and Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and giving Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” a country spin. Meanwhile, she’s taken on domestic violence (“The Stairs”), AIDS (“She Thinks His Name Was John”) and modern-day cheating (“Somebody Should Leave,” “The Last to Know”) in her songs. McEntire launched Big Machine’s Icon label with the 2015 hit “Going Out Like That,” a song that reflects her strength, heart and resilience—the very qualities that have made her the Oprah of country empowerment for almost four decades.

You’ve always been so strong, and so brave.

I didn’t think about it, I just did it. I didn’t know. Men like Jimmy Bowen, who I went to complaining about not liking the songs they were pitching me, said, “Woman, go find ’em yourself.” And I didn’t know how, but people like Bowen, Tony Brown, Narvel Blackstock and Don Lanier all helped. They gave me suggestions and thoughts, and I went out and did it.


And when most women barely had any say in what they cut—people always talk about Billy Sherrill saying “If I told Tammy Wynette her next single was ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb,’ she’d say, ‘What key, Billy?”—you were co-producing your records. That’s pretty fearless.

I would say “fearless,” but really, ignorance is bliss. God has given me curiosity, and that’s taken me further than anything. You know, just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You just have to figure out how. Brett Freedman, who works for me, would say, “Wouldn’t it be fun to try?” It’s not bullying, but more a different way of finding the joy in it.

You started taking the reins in your career pretty early. After leaving Mercury for MCA, pushing for song input, then co-producing your records, you got very serious about your business.

I was playing the arena down in Florida before I needed to be playing arenas. It was 17,000 [capacity] and there were maybe 1,700. It looked like soundcheck! It was embarrassing, and I went back and told the agents, and was told, “Well, that’s how we do things.” All I could think was: Shouldn’t you look at the individual, figure out what’s right for them?

So in 1987, I moved to Nashville. In ’88, we started Starstruck Entertainment. The first building we looked at was an old carpet factory where we could put the buses and the merch in back, run everything out of. We hired Trey Turner to book all our regular shows, and Mike Allen did all of our private events; we started really being strategic.


But it wasn’t easy.

[Laughing] Any time you’re gonna buck the system, it’s gonna be hard work. But even when you make mistakes, you’re learning. You have to think of it like that. And how they’re going to tell you this isn’t going to work. That’s part of it.

My eighth-grade teacher said, “Collect your thoughts before you talk. That way you’re thought-out and know what you’re going to communicate and are trying to say.” So I try to always do that. And when someone tells me I can’t, I always ask, “Well, tell me, how would you do it?” It starts a conversation.

Like managing yourself.

Well, I was pretty much forced to do it. It wasn’t my choice to take over my career as manager. I didn’t set out to do that. But here I am!

I feel like I’m getting a business education: Music Business 101. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much I didn’t know and didn’t realize, because I think I was a pretty aware businessperson.

I’m a hard worker and I tend to business. In some ways, I’m more a businesswoman than I am an artist. I don’t have the focus to be an “artist.” I don’t have to immerse myself like that; I look at songs to see if they’re moving: does it make you cry or laugh or feel good again? To me, music’s a rollercoaster.

You’re not an artist?

That’s way over my hairspray! An artist gets a little too deep into it. For me, with a magician, I’m satisfied to be entertained and amazed. That’s the thrill for me: to experience it. I love to go listen to songs. That’s one of my greatest pleasures. When you hear something, and you think, “Oh, my gosh! People are living this song!”

You hear things like “The Stairs” or “She Thinks His Name Was John” and you think, “If I can sing it, maybe I can help somebody.” Whether they won’t feel so alone in the circumstances, or know somebody understands. Or even maybe gets up the nerve to leave. Songs can do that.

And sometimes you grow into your songs.

Those songs are my life story now. All the songs from this album, I really feel it now that I’m here.

I remember when people would say, “How do you sing these, because they’re so hurtful?” I always said, “Yes, that’s probably why they connect with people so deeply; why they’re such hits. It’s people’s lives.”

I know any time people can relate to those songs, you’ve got something. And I say, 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, and imagine what they’re going through. I love stories: sassy, ballsy, sad!

And fearless.

I think “adaptable” is a very important word. I’m a person who likes change, accepts it and knows it’s just a part of living. But I actually believe change brings and encourages growth. You learn from mistakes, and it helps take you places you need to go.

In my adult life, I really started listening. It’s not my way; there are angels who are there directing me. You listen and you trust, and good things happen. I think about everything I’ve been able to do! That’s trust.

You can ask, “What if I didn’t continue singing, and I’d stayed in rodeo?” Or “What if I’d not taken the role on Broadway and been Annie Oakley?” Or if I’d not read the script for Reba? All those things happened, and I trusted and followed—even though those things aren’t what I’d set out to do.

What if I didn’t listen to people along the way? There’s a lot of pleasure and responsibility that comes with this. My greatest thrill in high school was basketball: I loved being on the team! And that’s how we’re doing this. Everyone around me knows, I want to do things we haven’t done before. It’s fresh and new and adventuresome. We all try to be forward-thinking, trying to decide how to get there, and knowing there may be a way someone else hasn’t tried yet. That’s the fun of it.


How do you feel about all the upheaval in our business?

Things are changing tremendously in the music business, the television business, the whole entertainment business. Massive changes. Part of me goes, “Ewww,” because there’s just so much, and so much unknown. But part of me goes, “Hmmm, what’s all this about?” What’s happening with social media? And the way people watch watch TV has changed so much. There’s nothing I love more than having dinner with a bunch of young people, going “What are you listening to?” or “What’s the newest, latest and greatest app? What does it do?” Or “How are you getting your TV? Is it Hulu or Netflix or something else?”

There’s tons of people going in all kinds of new and innovative directions, and I’m curious about them all. How can you not be?



Does that curiosity drive you beyond doubt or fear?

I used to be terribly afraid of the dark, and I’m not anymore. I used to be afraid of heights, too. Then you realize: it’s not that big of a deal. It’s the same out there whether it’s dark or light. When you figure that out, it gets easier.

I wanna get out there and live, find out what’s out there. I don’t know whether it’s fear or ignorance, but it’s always been the way I’ve tried to live.



Tell me something that’s scared you as an adult.

Broadway scared me to death. It’s so live and in the moment. The first time I went blank, and I paraphrased. Then I looked at the guy, and went, “Do ya...” like “come on.” He picked up the line and we got back on script. But that’s very nerve-wracking, because there are no do-overs.


So with all you’ve done, how many incarnations of Reba are there?

Six or seven, or probably more. Even before I was signed to Mercury, I was singing in clubs from age 13, singing cover songs and stuff like that, and then there were all the rodeo things with my family. It goes from there.

I’ve got four or five different looks in my house. There’s Southwest/Sante Fe, Ralph Lauren, tough, sexy, but colorful and friendly and comfortable. That’s the fun of it: Taste it all. I’m really happy to get dressed up and go to a Broadway show and a nice meal, but a meat ’n’ three [vegetables]? I’m there in a skinny second!

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