Reba McEntire was back in town, and — for a few perfect moments — country music seemed exciting, eloquent and limitless again. On hiatus from her WB TV series, McEntire has returned to Nashville to start work on a new album. On Thursday night (June 26), the svelte redhead was guest of honor at the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame banquet, held at the downtown Hilton Suites, where she was given the organization’s Career Achievement Award.
Prior to the presentation, ardent admirers Trisha Yearwood and Sara Evans entertained the crowd with selections from McEntire’s long string of hits. They also told of what the star has meant to them as a vocal and role model. Yearwood recorded with McEntire on the 1995 single, “On My Own,” and Evans was a member of the 2001 Girls’ Night Out tour that McEntire headlined.
Unseen by most of the audience, Garth Brooks slipped in to watch the tribute performances. “He was in a suit and tie, and he looked very slim and very dapper,” said the event’s publicist, Jeff Walker. “I asked him, ‘Any new music coming?’ and he said, ‘No. I’m having fun with my family.’”
Backed by a guitarist and pianist, Evans began McEntire’s segment of the program with “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven,” a 1980 hit. Then, apologizing in advance for her mischief, she imitated McEntire’s Oklahoma twang on “Cathy’s Clown” (1989), drawing out the word “sound” to “s-a-a-o-o-u-u-n-d.” Tiptoeing delicately around the age difference — she’s 32, McEntire’s 49 — Evans said she had been studying McEntire’s vocal style since she was a “teenager.” She finished with an emotion-perfect version of “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (1992) that prompted a standing ovation.
Yearwood, also working with a guitarist and pianist, professed extreme nervousness at singing her idol’s songs back to her. “What was I thinking,” she asked rhetorically. “I’ve never ever done a medley,” she continued, “but I’m going to do one now.” She began with “How Blue” (1984), segued into “Why Do We Want (What We Know We Can’t Have)” (1983) and wrapped up the package with “Somebody Should Leave” (1985). From there, she moved on to a blistering rendition of “Little Rock” (1986).
Noting that she might not have chosen it if she had realized how hard it was to sing, Yearwood nonetheless brought the house to its feet with her finale, “Whoever’s in New England” (1986).
Following the music, record executive Tony Brown, one of McEntire’s most celebrated producers, came to the stage to present her award. Still recovering from a critical head injury he sustained earlier this year when he fell while leaving a Los Angeles restaurant, Brown sparked one of the biggest ovations of the evening when he walked into the spotlight. He thanked the people for their prayers on his behalf. “I’m so happy to be standing here,” he said, “just feeling the love from this crowd. I’m so happy to be standing anywhere.” Brown recalled the first time he heard McEntire’s voice on the radio as he was driving through Nashville. She was singing “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven,” he said. “My first thought was, ‘Who is that? I want to meet her.’” Later on, as a top executive for MCA Records, he would produce some of McEntire’s most popular albums.
When Brown called McEntire to the stage, the crowd stood and applauded for well over a minute and would have cheered longer had McEntire not begun speaking. Dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, her first words were about Brown. “I thought we had lost him [because of the accident],” she said, “and I didn’t think I could go on with that.” She thanked the disc jockeys for “letting me into your world” and hoped that there would still be a place for her there as she continues to make recordings. She was clearly the evening’s big draw. After she concluded her remarks, a sizable portion of the crowd left the room, even though there were more Hall of Fame presentations to go.
Among the music business bigwigs on hand to applaud McEntire’s success were former TV host Ralph Emery, Grand Ole Opry star Charlie Walker, former MCA and Capitol Records chief Jim Foglesong, Country Music Association executive director Ed Benson, broadcasting legend Irving Waugh and Country Music Hall of Fame member Jo Walker-Meador.
This year’s inductees into the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame were W. Steven Martin, Dan McKinnon, Bob Cole, Duke Hamilton and the late Dick Haynes. Frank Mull, the former longtime director of Country Radio Broadcasters, was given the President’s Award for his work in developing the annual Country Radio Seminar.