Being Reba: On TV, On the Radio and In Real Life
Reba McEntire revels in her TV successes and makes plans for a wedding in the family.
Originally published as the cover story for our March 25, 2013, issue.
Reba McEntire couldn’t have it any better. She commandeers the cast and crew of a successful TV sitcom, is still an in-demand touring act and is the essential figure in an ambitious and certainly successful family. “I’m just thrilled to pieces,” she says in the exuberant, Oklahoma-born tone that has endeared her to music and television fans alike. “So far, everything looks really positive.”
Reba’s mainly referring to her new TV sitcom on ABC, Malibu Country, which launched this past November and stands as the hottest debut comedy hit of the season. The series allows Reba to combine her two loves, music and acting, and blend them into a show that is starting to develop some serious story lines to go along with the predominant down-home humor. There is some typecasting involved, as Reba plays a country singer named Reba Gallagher, which is where the similarities come to a halt. The Malibu Country Reba has nothing resembling platinum (likely not even her credit card) and can boast of not a single industry award. She’s moved to California with her two teenage children after a rough divorce in the hopes of starting a new life and rebooting her music career. The venerable comedienne Lily Tomlin co-stars as Reba’s offbeat mom.
The critics haven’t exactly doused the series with praise, but to paraphrase a timeless quote about Lawrence Welk, “Nobody likes it except the public.” Malibu Country’s premiere drew ABC’s highest numbers for its time slot (Fridays at 8:30 p.m. ET) in nearly five years. The network has trumpeted the show as the highest-rated new comedy of the TV season and has committed to more episodes. Not too shabby, right?
Everybody Loves Reba
“I think it’s resonating very well with the TV audience,” Reba says in a cautious but upbeat manner. “Everybody is telling us what a great chemistry Lily and I have together.” As to her legendary co-star, Reba will gladly offer that Lily is the ultimate team player and a generous performer who prefers to share the wealth. “Lily is just absolutely amazing to work with,” Reba says. “She is always asking, ‘What’s in the works for next week?’ or ‘Are we working on some more guest stars?’ She wants to see everyone succeed. I mean, she’s worked with everyone in the world, like Steve Martin and Dolly Parton, but there is just no ego about her.” Lily continues to fascinate her castmates with a youthful energy and a physique that’s remarkably limber for a 72-year-old. “She skips right across the set like a 14-year-old,” Reba says in amazement.
Malibu Country, as most fans know, marks Reba’s second foray into the sitcom world. Her first series, the singularly titled Reba, proved a hit with viewers and aired on the WB and the CW networks from 2001 to 2007. Stepping right back into series television after a six-year hiatus hardly intimidated Reba. In fact, the challenge seemed to inspire her.
“I was not apprehensive at all about coming back,” Reba notes with particular conviction. “Heck, I didn’t want to leave in 2007.” To put it simply, she loves the television medium. “You get in front of a lot more people than you can just singing,” Reba explains. “So this helps my singing career. And I just love the schedule. We go August to March and I have my summers free. Can’t get better than that!” she adds with an extended laugh.
Stars on Parade
Malibu Country appears on its way to becoming a country Columbo, in the sense that stars from all over Nashville—and elsewhere—are jockeying for guest spots. Blake Shelton recently showed up in an episode, playing Reba’s brother (suspension of disbelief not fully required). “We wanted to have him for a while, because he’s one of my buddies, but his schedule has been so crazy lately,” Reba says. “That really worked out great. He is so hilarious.” Famed actor Stacy Keach also made an appearance on another episode. “He was just marvelous,” she raves. One of Reba’s favorite episodes tackled a subject of far more consequence than many of the earlier shows, which tended to play up the laughs. Laura Bell Bundy guest-starred as the character of a bad-girl singer with whom Reba had agreed to collaborate (shades of Nashville?), who became a potentially harmful influence to Reba’s children, even asking one to purchase alcohol for her. Such story lines mark a further step in the show’s evolutionary process, Reba asserts.
“The first season is always hard, when you’re figuring out where you’re going with the characters and all the story arcs and everything,” she says. “I remember the first season of Reba being very difficult and the second one being much easier. I think with Malibu Country, the folks watching are getting to know the characters better. And I think the stories have been great.”
Meanwhile, the guest-star list continues to grow. Kelly Clarkson has agreed to appear in a future show, while Martina McBride has expressed her wish to step in front of the cameras as well. “Miranda Lambert also wants to do it, and I would love to have Martina,” Reba says. “So if we can all make our schedules work, it’ll be great.”
Welcome to the Family
Speaking of Kelly, the “Don’t Rush” singer is about to become part of Reba’s actual family. Kelly is engaged to Reba’s stepson, Brandon Blackstock, who manages Blake Shelton. Brandon is the son of Reba’s husband and manager, Narvel Blackstock, who also manages Kelly.
The wedding is slated for sometime in the fall. “They just celebrated their first anniversary of dating,” Reba points out. “I have known Kelly for years and she is just wonderful. We’ve gone on vacations together and toured together and done some TV shows. It’s going to be very nice to welcome her to the family. We’re really excited.”
Reba’s also pumped over the fast-paced career progress of her son, Shelby, who’s making some headway down the speedways. Shelby’s passion is driving race cars at around 170 miles per hour and he’s competed in the Skip Barber National Series, the Mazda MX-5 Cup Championship and other circuits, with some degree of success. Currently, Shelby drives for the Andretti and Roush race teams. “For a kid who’s only been racing about three years, he’s doing very well,” says the proud mom. “He’s been at Daytona the last three years at the Grand Am Continental Tire Series. He just loves to race. He’s very competitive, and he gets that honestly,” Reba says, laughing.
The premise of Malibu Country allows Reba to keep up her vocal chops while devoting time to her acting. She performs the show’s theme song as well as other tunes—like “The New Me” from the series premiere—that make their way into the various story lines. But the show’s shooting schedule and long production days are putting Reba’s personal music projects on a “hold” status for now. She will, however, continue to tour during breaks in the show’s schedule. “We kept booking more dates,” she says, “because we didn’t know if we were going to get picked up after the pilot show. We try to sprinkle some music into the TV show and I have to go and record that. But as far as making a new album or anything like that, there is nothing in the works right now.”
The creative wheels, however, are still turning. Although she’s not necessarily known for writing her own hits—most of her classics throughout the years have stemmed from the pens and keyboards of Music Row’s finest—songwriting is starting to become a newfound fascination. “Every once in a while, I get an idea and I send it to [songwriter] Liz Henberg, who I write with a lot, or Phil Vassar, who’s a good friend,” Reba says. “I usually send them to the people that I know will get a kick out of it. I just need to get back to Nashville and get in the studio and do demos of them. But it’s a little hard, because we’re in Los Angeles so much of the time with the show.”
And the genesis of those ideas? She tends not to draw from the well of personal experience, the most standard method of those who write the songs. “I get them from watching movies,” she says with particular delight. Reba points to her 2010 song “Somebody’s Chelsea,” the fourth single from her All the Women I Am album, as an example. The title was inspired by the movie P.S. I Love You, which starred Hilary Swank and Harry Connick Jr. “In the movie, the Harry Connick Jr. character says that he wants to be ‘somebody’s Gerry.’ I thought that was a great line,” Reba recalls. “I just changed the title to ‘Somebody’s Chelsea’ for a female point of view.” Reba sent the idea to her friend Liz and they completed the song with another writer, Will Robinson. One recent film that caught her eye was Life of Pi, which garnered three Oscars at the Academy Awards. “Wasn’t that incredible?” she says. “The whole idea about the nature of belief was just wonderful.”
Movies may serve as an inspiring force, but Reba’s focus these days is on television. She’s been at the business long enough to realize that today’s hit show can be tomorrow’s flop, given the fickle nature of the viewing public and the plethora of channels that are all vying for the same number of eyeballs. “You never know what the public is wanting,” Reba says of Malibu Country’s success. “So far, our ratings are very good but we have to keep improving. Everybody at the network seems happy with it,” she adds, before a well-timed pause. “And so are we.”