Thanks to Reba McEntire’s decades-long luminescence as a recording, concert, stage, television and movie star, most people are by now familiar with the broad details of her rise from aspiring Oklahoma barrel racer to international mistress of media.
But the busloads of high school and middle school students who confronted her Tuesday morning (May 13) at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum were looking for more specific and personal information.
Designed as part of the museum’s educational outreach, the 75-minute question-and-answer session was moderated by WSM-AM disc jockey Bill Cody and streamed live.
“There’s not a stage she hasn’t tamed. There’s not an award she hasn’t won,” Cody boomed as he beckoned McEntire into the spotlight.
She emerged wearing a purple, long-sleeved sweater and black pants and boots.
She and Cody took their seats in side-by-side armchairs to look out at a crowd that filled the main floor and the first two tiers of the recently opened CMA Theater.
Cody reminded the students McEntire was well on her way to becoming a school teacher before she got her break in country music.
“I was going to teach second grade,” McEntire added, noting that both her mother and grandmother had been teachers.
Her experiences growing up on a cattle ranch, touring the rodeo circuit in the summers, playing basketball and performing with her brother-and-sisters trio, the Singing McEntires, taught her some important lessons.
“In life, it’s a team that gets you where you are. … I learned to take directions, and I learned to volunteer,” she said.
She was a sophomore in college when she got the job of singing the national anthem at a rodeo in January 1975. Singer and recording artist Red Steagall heard her and paved the way for her to get a contract 11 months later with Mercury Records.
After the biographical matters were taken care of, Cody opened the floor for questions, and a steady stream of students trooped to the two open microphones just in front of the stage.
One student wanted to know what’s it like living on a tour bus.
McEntire said she didn’t even have a bus until 1982, six years after her first single came out. Before that, she traveled in vans and trucks. There were 14 people, including her band and road crew, on that first bus, she remembered.
“I taught the guys how put toilet paper on the roll,” she said.
She continued to travel on buses until 1989 when she became pregnant with her son, Shelby. Since then she’s used chartered jets.
Another student asked if she still got nervous before going onstage and, if so, how she handled it.
McEntire admitted to being “anxious” sometimes before the curtain rises, particularly if she’s introducing new songs, costumes or sets.
“I just take a big breath and get out there,” she explained. Being prepared, she added, is the best way to combat nervousness.
In response to another question, McEntire said the worst thing that ever happened to her onstage was during a concert in Michigan when she tripped over a monitor in the dark, ripped her costume, hurt her side and had to crawl about to get her bearings and still be in place to sing when the lights came up.
Her father, she said, always took a dim view of her rodeoing prospects and, seeing no future for her there, was a big supporter of her and her siblings’ musical ambitions.
“We got our talent from mama and our volume from daddy,” she cracked.
After mulling over the questions, she said Carnegie Hall has been her favorite stage, primarily because she was afraid she couldn’t attract a crowd there — and that the audience wouldn’t understand her music even if it came.
“I got a standing ovation when I came out onstage,” she said, her voice still filled with wonder. “There were a lot of people with briefcases who had [stopped to see me] on their way home.”
“Do you have any hidden talents?” one questioner demanded.
“If I do, they’re hidden from me,” she said.
Of Parton, McEntire added, “She’s very classy, but she tells the best jokes.”
Apart from country music, McEntire told the students she’s a fan of classic rock — “the Eagles, Three Dog Night, Chicago, bands with great harmonies.”
Asked to pick favorites from her own catalog of hits, McEntire singled out “Can’t Even Get the Blues,” the first No. 1, which came in 1982, and “Is There Life Out There,” from 1992, because “it inspired a lot of women to go back to college.”
“How do you handle stress?” a middle schooler asked.
McEntire confessed she’s twice had shingles, which she attributed to stress.
“Admitting you have [it] is the first step,” she said. Sometimes she relaxes, she said, by walking in the woods.
“What career advice do you have for people who don’t have any connections in the music business?”
“Learn all the aspects of the business,” she counseled. “If you’re a singer, sing everywhere you can. … You never know who’s going to be in the audience listening to you.”
One student was so shaken by talking to McEntire, she burst into tears before she could ask a question. A sympathetic Cody offered her words of reassurance, and the crowd applauded her.
There were also questions about:
Switching from singing to acting on TV: “At first, I didn’t like it, but I miss it terribly.”
Her favorite song: “Fancy.” (She sings it in every show.)
Leaving her family to go on the road: “Before I had a band and crew — which is like your second family — it was hard.”
The greatest day in her life: “I guess the day I had Shelby.”
How she picks her set list: A combination of personal favorites, a sampling of her No. 1 singles and suggestions from fans via her website.
Favorite stage costumes: Various red dresses.
Brightest career moment: When she won her first CMA female vocalist of the year award in 1984. “That was kind of a turning point for me.”
The crowd gave McEntire a standing ovation, and she obligingly posed with them for a group photo.