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Reba McEntire: Her First 30 Years (2011)

Originally published in the March 7, 2011 issue of Country Weekly.

In 1981, a gallon of gas cost about a buck and a half, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, MTV debuted and played actual videos, and the space shuttle took off for the first time. 

And so did the career of a very young Reba McEntire. The then-26-year-old singer scored her first-ever Top 5 single with the release of “Today All Over Again.” Though she says she didn’t expect it, the chart success foreshadowed a three-decade career of near continuous hits for the Oklahoma kid. In honor of the milestone—and with her latest single, “If I Were a Boy,” climbing steadily—Country Weekly asked Reba to recall a dozen of her most pivotal songs and to reflect on her career’s Big 3-0. “It’s mind-boggling to me,” she says. “And totally a team effort. You can’t do it by yourself. And I never would want to.”

“Today All Over Again” (1981) – The First Top 5 Single 
“It was a waltz. I was considered the ‘Queen of the Waltzes.’ That’s what Jerry Kennedy, my producer at Polygram/Mercury Records, called me,” Reba says, recounting the hard-won satisfaction of watching the song ascend. “It was a huge milestone. It took years to get into the Top 5. I think my very first single started at 99 and went to 98!” she says, laughing, exaggerating just a tad on the weak performance of 1976’s “I Don’t Want to Be a One Night Stand.” It actually peaked at No. 88.

“Can’t Even Get the Blues” (1982) – The First No. 1 
Six years after that lackluster debut single, Reba finally notched a No. 1. “I was sitting in Jerry Kennedy’s office just visiting. I loved Jerry and we’d be in there talking about the business,” she recalls fondly. “He said, ‘I want to play you this song that I’m going to get Jacky Ward to record.’ And it was ‘Can’t Even Get the Blues.’” Exactly the kind of song Reba, as “Queen of the Waltzes,” wasn’t performing on the rowdy honky-tonk circuit. “At that time, I was playing clubs, dance halls and rodeos, and I asked Jerry, ‘Why don’t you ever play up-tempo songs like that for me?’” Jerry asked if she was serious, Reba said, “Absolutely,” and then watched as her new style took her to the top of the charts.

“Somebody Should Leave” (1985) – The Harlan Howard Hit 
In search of great songs, Reba turned to a great songwriter, the legendary Harlan Howard—whose initial material she promptly shot down.

“I went over to Harlan’s house and I was sitting in this leather wingback chair in his office. He said, ‘OK, I’m going to play you some songs,’” Reba remembers, still shell-shocked by her reaction to the first tune. “I was just deflated. I thought, ‘How am I going to tell Harlan Howard I didn’t like that song?’” She politely passed, he played another, and she passed yet again. Until . . . “He played ‘Somebody Should Leave,’ and tears just welled up in my eyes and hair stood up on my arms. I looked at him and said, ‘Oh my God, can I have that one?’” Reba says, happy to have trusted her gut instinct. “You know, if I had taken those first two songs, he would never have played ‘Somebody Should Leave’ for me. He wasn’t going to give his special baby to just a nitwit who didn’t know a good song!”

“Whoever’s in New England” (1986) – The First Music Video 
Unenthused by the Countrypolitan tracks suggested by producer Harold Shedd, Reba looked through her record collection. “Harold was finding songs for me then and they were good, but he was putting an orchestra on them,” she says. “So I went to [producer] Jimmy Bowen and said, ‘I want to record my kind of country,’ and made him a cassette tape of all my favorite songs.” Sold on the idea, Jimmy dispatched Reba and musician Don Lanier to publishing companies around Nashville, where they first heard “Whoever’s in New England.” “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’ll take that one.’”

The single also marked Reba’s first foray into making videos, and afforded her a chance to brush up against the Queen of Soul. Well, sort of. “We were in a Holiday Inn somewhere the first time I ever saw it on television. That was when they played videos in between movies on HBO,” she says. “Aretha Franklin’s video came on, followed by ‘Whoever’s in New England.’ I liked that.”

“Sunday Kind of Love” (1988) – The Bluesy Cover Song 
“I had just moved to Nashville in 1988, divorced in ’87, and my publicist, Jenny Bohler, turned me on to this,” Reba says, recalling Etta James’ version of the pop standard. “I just fell in love with it. It’s very bluesy.”

“You Lie” (1990) – The Vocal Challenge That Paid Off 
“The range of this song was just so different from anything I’d ever recorded,” Reba says of the tune she found with new producer Tony Brown. “I went to Jimmy Bowen and said, ‘I think it’s time to change producers.’” The plain-spoken Jimmy gamely stepped aside. “He said, ‘Woman, I think you’re right,’” Reba recalls with a chuckle. “So I went to Tony and we found ‘You Lie.’ We put it out as a single and the album sold 5 million copies. Afterward, Jimmy called me and said, ‘Couldn’t you have just stumbled a little bit?’” 

“Is There Life Out There” (1992) – The Rallying Cry 
This tale of personal empowerment became a touchstone for women everywhere, thanks in part to Reba’s own family. “When I first heard the song, I was driving down the road going to the office and I thought about my cousins and my family. We had done a lot, but is there more out there to do? I could relate to this song, not only by myself, but through my relatives. I knew it was going to be a big hit,” she says. And so it was, reaching No. 1 on the charts and becoming a hallmark of Reba’s concerts. “I would sing this song and there would be women who went back to college or got their G.E.D. standing up with their diplomas in their hands.”

“Does He Love You” (1993) – The Daring Duet 
If you’ve seen Reba on her current tour with George Strait, then you’ve likely heard her and tourmate Lee Ann Womack give new life to this dueling duet (Reba calls it a “catfight”) originally recorded with Linda Davis. But Linda wasn’t the record company’s first choice. “They wanted me to do it with one of their gals on the label. Mainly Wynonna. But I wanted to do it with Linda, because she was on the road with me and I thought she just slayed it,” says a knowing Reba, who slyly suggested to producer Tony Brown that they use Linda and replace her later. “But she just knocked it out of the ballpark. When Linda was through, Tony said, ‘I think that’ll be fine.’ I was like, okey-doke!”

“If You See Him/If You See Her” (1998) – The First Duet With Brooks & Dunn 
“This was before we knew each other really well,” Reba says of her first pairing with B&D, a precursor to 2008’s “Cowgirls Don’t Cry.” “Now we go on vacations together. I just love those two to pieces.”

And the feeling is clearly mutual. “Reba’s my cowgirl mentor,” says Ronnie Dunn, reflecting on his pal’s tenacious 30 years on the charts. “I’m going to keep trying ’til I’m as tough as she is. I thought my ‘Cowboy’ tattoo was a big step in the right direction. She didn’t!”

“I’m a Survivor” (2001) – The Reba Theme Song 
This No. 3 single opened every episode of Reba’s eponymous sitcom. “They needed a theme song for the television show and [husband-manager Narvel Blackstock] and I thought ‘I’m a Survivor’ would be killer for that,’” she says. “What’s so funny is that Shelby Kennedy is one of the co-writers and his dad is Jerry Kennedy. It’s all in the family.”

“Because of You” (2007) – The Kelly Clarkson Crossover 
Originally written and recorded by American Idol winner, pop star and Reba’s close friend Kelly Clarkson, the song was hatched during a taping of CMT’s Crossroads. Recalls Reba: “Kelly and I had already recorded a duet for my Duets CD. But when we were rehearsing Crossroads, Narvel came up to the stage and said, ‘This has got to be on the album.’ So we went back into the studio and recorded it. It was the first single off of the CD, which sold 300,000 the first week. We were just throwing babies in the air! We were tickled to death.”

“Consider Me Gone” (2009) – The Return to the Top 
A return to form netted Reba her first No. 1 in five years—since “Somebody” in 2004, to be exact. “‘Consider Me Gone’ reminds me a lot of some of the songs I had recorded in the past,” she explains. “I think that’s what really connected with my fans. It reminded them of earlier Reba. It’s a strong-woman song and that fit right in with my repertoire.”

What’s next? Got me, says Reba!

With three decades of hits under her belt, not to mention success in film, television and on Broadway, what can Reba possibly do in—as Tim McGraw might say—her next 30 years? Surely, the famously ambitious redhead must have something planned. “I have no idea,” she contends. “I really don’t. And I’ve never known. I’m a firm believer in the Lord making up my schedule. Wherever He wants me to go, I’m going. Whenever I’m sitting around and just listening, He always sets it up for me. He’s my favorite agent!” 

But Reba does know what she would like to do. “At 55 years old, the thing that is so important to me is watching my children, and grandchildren, grow and evolve. What [son] Shelby is going through right now is, to me, bigger than anything I’ve ever accomplished,” says Reba, thrilled that her son with husband-manager Narvel Blackstock is driving professionally on the racing circuit. (See sidebar on page XX.)

She also reveals that she’d like to help country music’s younger stars get a leg up. It’s all part of giving back, Reba says, the way her own idols helped light her own path. 

“I’ve always felt like I’ve done things in my career that I hope the generation coming up can learn from, both my mistakes and the things I’ve done right. I look at Dolly, Barbara Mandrell, Loretta Lynn. I studied them and read their books to see what they’ve done and how they’ve coped with things, how they’ve handled being out on the road as a female, and leaving family behind,” Reba says. “It’s great to be able to share your life and your thoughts with the younger generation. All my gals that I’ve looked up to, they’ve sure helped me. I hope I can help somebody else.”

Son, Start Your Engine

Late this past January, Reba found herself breathless and surrounded by fans in Daytona Beach, Fla. But her exhaustion didn’t come from belting out her latest hit. And the crowd wasn’t there to hear music. Instead, Reba, along with fellow race fans, watched as her son, Shelby (who’s just turned 21), and a line of competing cars roared around Daytona International Speedway in the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Challenge 200. 

“When he flew by at 170 miles per hour, I had to go sit down,” Reba says. “My tour manager asked if I was all right. I said, ‘Just give me a second, I have to breathe.’” Such is the nerve-wracking toll of Reba’s new title: race mother. “I’m a racing mom! And that’s perfect for me,” she says, excitedly telling how after she caught her breath, she rushed from the pit to the wall with her video camera. 

Even with more races on the horizon, she wasn’t about to miss capturing Shelby’s first professional race—the culmination of months of training and racing with the Skip Barber Racing School. “It was the biggest thrill in my entire life,” Reba raves, claiming the experience even trumps her own career achievements, a notion reinforced by a phone conversation with her mother. “I called Mama after she watched it on Speed Channel and we talked about 30 minutes. I said that it was a huge thrill and she asked if it was bigger than when I won Female Vocalist [at the Country Music Association Awards in 1984]. I said yeah. And she said, ‘Now you know how I always felt.’” 

Behind the Scenes: “If I Were a Boy”

From the big-haired period piece for “Sunday Kind of Love” to the epic “Is There Life Out There,” Reba’s music videos have always played like mini-movies, constructed around sprawling narratives. So for “If I Were a Boy”—Reba’s interpretation of Beyoncé’s 2008 hit—director Peter Zavadil wanted to mix it up.  

“A lot of Reba’s videos are very story-based because she’s a narrative person and so many people know her as an actress,” says Peter, who also helmed Reba’s clip for “You’re Gonna Be,” along with videos for Josh Turner, Steel Magnolia and Brad Paisley, among others. “The thought for this video was to take a very straightforward performance piece and make it about her delivering the song. Reba is such a compelling singer that we just let her do her thing.”

But that doesn’t mean staid images of Reba onstage. The production set up shop inside an elaborate, for-sale mansion in Franklin, Tenn., where Reba was captured wearing a long, flowing dress that grows longer as she sings about the rigors of being a woman in a relationship. “The idea is that as she moves, this train off the back of the dress has grown as the relationship has withered. And it’s become a burden,” explains Peter. “It’s an albatross that has weighed her down.”

Still, Reba’s own camaraderie and spirit were far from dampened on the set, even when faced with another blast from Nashville’s bizarre winter. “The night before we shot, they were forecasting snow, and you know how Nashville is when it snows. People panic,” says Peter with a laugh. “But Reba is a true pro. She is very unassuming, very positive and very on-the-spot. Her experience and her talent really shine through when you see her work.”

And hear her sing. “I’ve had people say to me that Reba’s is a stronger take on the song than Beyoncé’s,” Peter reveals. “She really nailed a truly emotional performance.”

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