Somewhere out there are a few grizzled truck drivers whose salty CB radio conversations were once interrupted by a scolding nun. If they had any inkling that they were being messed with, that this radio interloper was no more a nun than their own sainted mothers, they certainly couldn’t have known her true identity.
She was, in fact, a scrappy, Oklahoma-bred, country-singing barrel racer named Reba McEntire.
These little episodes might’ve been lost to history if McEntire hadn’t included them in an autobiography a couple of decades ago.
“I forgot all about that!” she says when reminded now. “That’s funny! I’ll have to read the book over again.”
She adds with a laugh, “When I was rodeoing, I’d stay on the CB radio all the time. My handle was Rodeo Red.”
When McEntire helped the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum prepare an exhibit on her life and career this summer, she found herself taking numerous strolls down memory lane and often coming face to face with evidence of how important her early role-playing was to her artistic formation.
“I was watching a film clip of me, approving some stuff for the Hall of Fame, and I was emulating Barbara Mandrell, the way she did her hand, everything,” she marvels. “I just copied her. Well, mama had gotten onto me when I was a kid to quit copying Loretta Lynn. And then I would copy Dolly. And then I was copying Barbara.
“You’ve got to find that niche for yourself.”
McEntire knows of what she speaks. She didn’t stop at carving out her niche as a country entertainer but went on to embody the archetype of the extravagantly staged, flashily coiffed superstar who was also an earthy, unreserved modern woman.
As she graduated from trucker-heckling to playing parts on screens big and small and the Broadway stage, she aimed for larger-than-life relatability. Sometimes, that involved authentically mastering a new skill — sharp-shooting, say — that neither her dramatic climb to the pinnacle of the entertainment business or her cattle-ranching youth had called for.
“I didn’t shoot on the ranch at all,” McEntire explains. “Between Buffalo Girls, Tremors and Annie Get Your Gun, I’ve become a pretty good shot. Because, yeah, you have to learn how to hold a gun. I didn’t want to get up there and look like an absolute novice. I’m supposed to be a gun-totin’ survivalist in Tremors.”
She adds, “Getting to play Annie Oakley was one of the biggest thrills of my life. It’s that rags-to-riches story, starting from nothing and getting to see the world, sing for presidents and queens. Those are the stories that I love to see and love to tell. It’s kinda like ‘Fancy,’ the song I sing every night.”
Actress and comedian Lily Tomlin was an admirer of McEntire’s even before they began rehearsing for their short-lived TV sitcom Malibu Country last year. Tomlin said of her co-star, “In the theater, she was breathtaking in that old chestnut Annie Get Your Gun. She was so alive. … She’s just a natural actress. When she’s married to that part, the right part, it’s like she’s living on the stage.”
McEntire stands as a veteran of snappy sitcom banter, cult films and theatrical projection while straddling the line between current country hitmaker and Hall of Fame heritage act. Having put on some of the biggest stadium productions imaginable and arriving at the place where she favors fewer costume changes and more conversational moments, she has a pretty clear view of the next part she’d like to get her hands on.
“What am I looking for?” she says. “In the future, I would love to do a Western. I would love to do a Western with, you know, like, Sam Elliot, Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones. … If I could just have a small part in that, I would love it.”