You could ignore half of Reba McEntire’s career credits and she’d still rank as a CMT Artist of a Lifetime. Just think of it: Singer, songwriter, recording artist, record producer, multi-media actress, music publisher, talent manager and booker and inspiration to generations of up-and-coming country artists. Yet, Reba — one name will do it — vows she’s never operated from a grand design, instead taking opportunities as they came. Of course, she’s had a hand in maximizing those opportunities.
“I have no idea what’s next,” she insists as she talks with CMT about the circumstances that made her who and what she is today. “I always look to the Lord for that. I always have. Because people will say, ’What are you going to do next year in your career?’ And I’ll say, ’I don’t have a clue. Things will be presented to me.’… I always had confidence. But as far as my plans for the future, I wait and listen.”
Fate was sending her conflicting signals when she signed her first recording contract in 1976. Everybody agreed she could belt songs out of the park. But was she singing the right songs with the right production behind them? For the first four years, the answer was, “Not quite.” In 1980, though, she scored her first Top 10 single, “You Lift Me Up to Heaven.” The landscape got better after that.
“It took me so long to even have a No. 1 record,” she recalls. “I did not know anything about the music business. I just thought that when you got a song on the radio, you’re rich. You got a bus. You got a big house. I was living in a $10 a month rent house in Chockie, Oklahoma, when my first single was released in ’76. It wasn’t until ’83 that I had a No. 1 record [’Can’t Even Get the Blues.’] I had a really strong foundation by that time. I’d gotten to go on tours with Conway Twitty, the Statler Brothers, Ronnie Milsap and Mickey Gilley.”
Playing bars in the early days of her career nearly caused her to quit, she says. “I was so allergic to smoke that I wouldn’t wait to close my eyes at night when I’d go to sleep because tears would just run out of my eyes. So when I finally stood up to that and said, ’I’m not playing any more honky-tonk bars,’ my first husband, Charlie Battles, said, ’Well, your career is over.’ And I said, ’Well, it might as well be because I can’t talk after being in smoky bars.’ And that next week the Statler Brothers asked me to go open their shows on their tour.”
In 1984, Reba moved from Mercury Records, her first label, to MCA. The switch gave her the latitude and confidence to involve herself more in selecting songs and deciding how they should sound. In 1985, at the encouragement of MCA chief Jimmy Bowen, she began co-producing her albums, the first one being Have I Got a Deal for You.
The next year she did her first music video to accompany her single “Whoever’s in New England” (which also won her a Grammy for best country female vocal). From the start, Reba insisted her videos be mini-movies that told or hinted at a complete story, not just low-budget performance clips that were so common at the time. And she cast such familiar faces as David Keith, Bruce Boxleitner and rocker Huey Lewis in supporting roles.
The video for “Is There Life Out There,” which dealt with the struggles and triumphs of a working mother, even had patches of dialogue inserted within the lyrics. It was such an impelling narrative that in 1994 it was made into a full-fledged movie that starred Reba.
“I think the videos were very important,” she says. “It was a way to get the face, the personality, the music, the song all in one package out to the folks in a different format than them just listening to it on the radio. And they got a story. … I think there were a lot of advancements in my career because of the videos.” They certainly demonstrated she could act, a talent that would come in handy later.
And the hits just kept on coming. Between 1986 and ’89, she scored 10 No. 1’s.
Not enough has been made of Reba as a singer of socially conscious songs — and there were many of them. Apart from the relevance of “Is There Life Out There,” she had such other notables as “Just Across the Rio Grande” (the plight of immigrants), “The Stairs” (domestic abuse), “Bobby” (mercy killing, a song Reba co-wrote), “All Dressed Up With Nowhere to Go” (neglect of the elderly), “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (emotionally distant parenting) and “She Thinks His Name Was John” (the dangers of one-night stands in the age of AIDS).
On March 16, 1991, seven members of Reba’s band and her tour manager were killed in an airplane crash. The pain of that tragedy echoed through her next album, For My Broken Heart, which is probably the saddest and most heart-rending album in modern country music. It also became her bestselling album, with more than four million copies purchased.
Reba regrouped and continued to tour to increasingly larger audiences. “They always told me you’re only worth as much as how many butts you can put in the seats,” she says. “They can blow smoke all day long, but when you sell the tickets that’s a rate of success. And when we started selling out arenas in 20 minutes and 10 minutes, that was a pretty good feeling. So every milestone was a ’Yeah!’ But it wasn’t a ’Yeah! Now we can rest.’ It was a ’Yeah! Now what can we do?’”
After divorcing Battles in 1987, Reba married her steel player and road manager, Narvel Blackstock. In 1988, the two established Starstruck Entertainment, not only to manage the singer’s career but also to offer entertainment-related services to other clients, including recording, music publishing, managing and booking and even aircraft rental. Reba and Blackstock divorced in 2015, and he subsequently took over ownership of Starstruck. She then established her own in-house service company, Reba’s Business, Inc.
“The hardest part about your career is not getting there, it’s maintaining,” she explains. “And so you’ve got to be creative, recreate yourself. That’s why after doing so many tours [you think], ’How many more bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors can you have?’ We had 22 trucks out on the road. I was changing clothes 15 times during a show and having a blast with it. But what do you do after that? That’s when we went and did Broadway. I did Annie Get Your Gun for six months, and went and did the Reba TV show. That was all in 2001. And you just have to keep trying to find a new way of being Reba McEntire, and we were very successful with it.”
Indeed, she was. Reba ran for 126 episodes. She played the lead role of Nellie Forbush in the 2006 Carnegie Hall production of South Pacific. In 2012-13, Reba starred again in the sitcom Malibu Country that ran for 18 episodes. To date, she’s had 35 No. 1 songs.
Since 2001, she’s released nine albums and been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (2011). Last year, she was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for her lifetime contributions to American culture. She continues her Las Vegas residency with her buddies, Brooks & Dunn.
Next month, Reba will jointly host the upcoming CMA Awards show with CMT Artist of the Year Carrie Underwood and the unsinkable Dolly Parton. That much star power together may set off the water sprinklers.
35 albums (5 gold, 10 platinum, 2 double platinum, 3 triple platinum, 1 quadruple platinum)
108 singles (35 No. 1’s)
Awards & distinctions: Member Country Music Hall of Fame, member Grand Ole Opry, 3 Grammys, CMA entertainer of the year, ACM career achievement, Kennedy Center Honor, Drama Desk
11 Movies (including voice roles)
Lead role in Reba and Malibu Country
Broadway: Lead role in Annie Get Your Gun