“I’ve always been driven by curiosity: Can I do that? Can I do it again?”
Reba McEntire settled into a comfortable armchair Saturday afternoon (Aug. 10) on the stage of the Ford Theater at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and for the next 90 minutes regaled a capacity crowd with stories of how she became one of the entertainment industry’s most enduring success stories.
The appearance was in conjunction with the Aug. 9 opening of the exhibit called Reba: All the Women I Am. It will be on display at the Hall of Fame for the next 10 months.
In addition to more than 200 fans clogging the theater proper, an overflow crowd of 300 watched her performance on closed-circuit TV in the Hall of Fame rotunda. The event was live streamed as well.
Seated facing McEntire and pelting her with questions was former entertainment reporter and current Hall of Fame staff member Michael McCall. A screen behind them showed still pictures and video clips.
As customary, McEntire was dressed casually, this time in a long-sleeved purple blouse and black pants tucked into the top of knee-high black boots. Her red-haired mother, Jacqueline, sat front row center, alongside other close friends and associates, drinking it all in.
Early in the conversation, McEntire spoke about making a quick costume change during a concert and winding up with her boots on the wrong feet as she sang “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”
Multiple costume changes became a big part of her stage shows as her career blossomed, she said “Velcro was our friend.”
McEntire was a green 20-year-old ranch kid from Chockie, Okla., when she first came to Nashville in 1975. It was not a great time in country music for women to thrive, she acknowledged. But it was a period during which record labels still allowed artists time to develop — rather than discarding them quickly if they didn’t catch on at radio.
She signed to Mercury Records and released her first single, “I Don’t Want to Be a One Night Stand” in 1976. It went only to No. 88. She wouldn’t have a Top 10 record until four years later or a No. 1 until two years after that. That historic first No. 1 was “Can’t Even Get the Blues.”
During those early years, she had no say at all about which songs she would record. That was a decision left entirely in the hands of her producers.
“I didn’t even have the knowledge to dream big [then],” she recalled.
In October 1980, she noted, she hired a steel player for her band. His name was Narvel Blackstock. He would become her manager in 1988 and her husband a year later. He still occupies both positions.
Things began to change, she said, after she switched from Mercury to MCA in late 1983. MCA assigned Harold Shedd, who was having enormous success with the group Alabama, as her producer.
Shedd put an orchestra behind her, she said, and basically ignored her when she told him that this wasn’t the sound she wanted. So she took her complaint to Jimmy Bowen, the head of MCA. He took over as her producer and sent her out to visit music publishers to choose her own songs.
She gave Bowen credit for allowing her the artistic freedom she needed to flourish. “When you have successes, you get more confidence,” she said. “It just kept getting better and better.”
In 1984, McEntire won the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year award. She and McCall paused in their conversation to watch a clip of her acceptance speech for that honor.
“That outfit is upstairs [in the exhibit],” she observed, alluding to the gown she was wearing on screen. “It took me a long time to pay it off. It was about $5,000.”
She would go on to win the same award the next three years.
McEntire made her first music video in 1986 to accompany the single “Whoever’s in New England.” The record won a Grammy for best country female vocal, and the video stirred her interest in acting.
In 1987, she divorced her husband, Charlie Battles. The next year, she parted with her manager, Bill Carter, who helped steer her toward a number of successes, and appointed Blackstock in his stead.
“I’ve always wanted individual attention,” she confessed — and then added, with a grin directed at her mother, “since I didn’t get it at home.”
With Blackstock, she established Starstruck Entertainment, which would move much of her career oversight functions “in house.” She told the crowd that the company name was inspired by Cher’s 1987 romantic comedy, Moonstruck.
McEntire said Blackstock’s muscle as a manager was first tested when she was scheduled to sing on an Academy of Country Music awards show. She said the backdrop chosen for her number clashed with the image she was trying to project with her costume and song. So she sent Blackstock to do something about it.
When the show’s producer told Blackstock the backdrop was “just fine” as it was, Blackstock said, in effect, “The backdrop goes or Reba goes.” The backdrop went.
“If he’d backed down,” McEntire declared, “he’d have been over as manager.”
In 1990, McEntire appeared in her first movie, Tremors, and gave birth to her son, Shelby.
After several albums with Bowen, McEntire switched to Tony Brown as her producer. “One of the things Tony Brown let me do was the song ‘Fancy,’ ” she said.
When she had suggested the song to Bowen, she recalled, his response was, “Woman, that’s about a prostitute.”
“I never finish a show without [singing] ‘Fancy,’” she added.
On March 16, 1991, seven members of her band were killed in a plane crash. “We finally got the call that nobody survived,” she said. Blackstock was faced with the sad duty of calling the victims’ parents before the story hit the news.
The music community rallied around her, she said. Vince Gill volunteered his services to her as a musician, and Dolly Parton offered her the use of her band. Ken Kragen, who was managing Kenny Rogers, called and asked her to be in one of the Gambler movies. “I think that saved my sanity,” she said.
The extent of her emotional pain became evident in the album she recorded with Brown just months after the accident occurred. For My Broken Heart, which contained not a single happy or upbeat song, became her tribute to the band members lost — and one of the most moving pieces of music in country music history.
As McEntire was finishing up her reminiscences about the tragedy, her mother’s cell phone began ringing loudly. “That’s a treacle-cutter,” the singer observed wryly.
McCall moved on to ask her about the elaborate stage shows she did as her career escalated, including the 1996 concert tour, which featured three separate stages and 15 costume changes.
“Once you start developing stuff,” she said, “they become three-ring circuses.”
In 1999, McEntire did the more intimate and autobiographical the Singer’s Diary tour.
McEntire said she and Blackstock were scheduled to fly from New York to Europe on the Concorde to do some promotional work when a caterer’s truck backed up and damaged a door on the supersonic plane.
With their flight canceled, they decided to see a Broadway production, and McEntire chose Annie Get Your Gun, the Irving Berlin musical then being revived with Bernadette Peters in the lead role. McEntire had already been approached about starring in the play, and after seeing it, she was hooked on the idea.
She said she began rehearsals as Annie Oakley on Jan. 2, 2001, and started her run in the role on Jan. 23. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done but the most fun I’ve ever had onstage,” she mused.
The critics loved her. “After the opening night reviews came in,” she said, “I just bawled.”
From recalling this stage triumph, the conversation moved on to her six-and-a-half years as the star of the sitcom, Reba. “Pretty much the ‘Reba’ character was just me,” McEntire admitted.
After leaving MCA and signing with Big Machine Records, she continued, her recording career took off again. As a side venture, she developed a clothing line with the Dillard’s department store chain. And she returned to series television last year with the ABC sitcom, Malibu Country.
When the series wasn’t renewed, McEntire said, she had time to indulge herself in one of her favorite pastimes — traveling. She said she’d gone to Africa, Ireland and France and hopes to travel even more recreationally.
She used the last few minutes of her conversation to bring the crowd up to date on her son, Shelby, who is distinguishing himself as a racecar driver.
“What’s next?” McCall inquired.
“It’s touring,” she said. So it’s back to the spotlight and Velcro.