LAS VEGAS • Her dressing room has rooms. Wings, even. It’s not so much a changing area as a backstage chateau. This is Reba McEntire’s sanctuary when she plays Caesars Palace in the town’s longest-running country music show. She’s the reigning Okie on the Strip.
“You don’t have to be the best,” she says. She swings her cowboy boots over an armchair; they’re from the REBA by Justin line, naturally. “You have to have that special something that connects with the audience.”
It took McEntire seven hard years of honky-tonks and dance halls to break through. So even as she emerged as one of country’s top-selling and most influential female artists, McEntire resolved not to depend on the mood swings of Nashville’s Music Row. Instead, she seized opportunity everywhere: movies, Broadway, a television series (two actually), Carnegie Hall, a clothing line, a gig as the first female Colonel Sanders. She Reba-fied our world.
“There’s a lot of people, a lot of girl singers, who are 10,000 times better than me,” she says. “They don’t have the drive. They don’t have the work ethic. They don’t have the want-to, and they don’t love it as much as I do. And they’re not willing to sacrifice what it takes to do this.”
The want-to. McEntire, 63, is only the third female country artist (after Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton) and seventh artist from the genre overall to receive the Kennedy Center Honors in the awards’ four decades. Was she surprised? Heck, no. “I’ve been wanting it for a long time.”
McEntire is dubbed the Queen of Country, though nothing’s regal about her. She never would cop an attitude, and her fans wouldn’t have it. The last name is superfluous. The hair, forever red, has whipped through so many permutations: big, bigger and Hello, Dolly! After four decades and 60 million albums sold, McEntire’s success remains rooted in her down-home, playful accessibility — and powered by innate business savvy and drive to succeed.
She has little talent for mystery. “An open book,” declares her son Shelby, a race car driver. Her manager agrees. As does her producer. Actually, pretty much everybody.
Unbidden, she shares that the longest break from touring occurred in 2002: “I had a hysterectomy, and I took the summer off.”
Discussing her first husband, steer wrestler Charlie Battles, “a piece of work” a decade her senior, whom she married at age 21, she divulges, “I think I married my daddy.”
On her 2015 divorce from Narvel Blackstock, her husband of 26 years (and her manager): “Well, there’s not much you can do about it when you’re not the one that walks away. You get on your big girl panties, put your big boots on, and set an example for the children.” (The children — Shelby and her three stepkids — were all adults. She’s now in a relationship with Skeeter Lasuzzo, a photographer and retired geologist.) For a while, after the separation, McEntire managed herself.
“She’s the epitome of getting back on the horse,” says Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn, who share the Vegas stage with McEntire.
McEntire has prevailed by packing houses with what she calls her “tear-jerker, eat-your-heart-out songs,” delivered with her robust contralto and dexterous vibrato. “Reba is the bridge between Loretta Lynn and Shania Twain,” says critic Ann Powers.
“She loves the gusto of it all,” says Vince Gill. “She loves songs that are emotional, that tell stories. Like Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash — one note, and you know it’s her. That’s what separates an amazing artist from an OK one.”
Paving the way for fellow women
Being a woman in country never was going to be a night at the Opry.
“I saw it quick,” McEntire says. “And you don’t complain. You don’t cry. You work twice as hard and try to find a better way to do things. And that’s what I did.”
In turn, she supported female artists who followed.
“Ask Faith Hill. Ask Martina (McBride). We’ll all say the same story: We’re part of her team. Reba was one of the first women to pave the way and support us,” says Trisha Yearwood. “If you’re looking for a role model for women to own your own stuff, good and bad, and be your own boss, it’s Reba. She was way ahead of her time.”
McEntire was particularly prescient when it came to embracing music videos, starring in sophisticated mini-films that helped broaden her brand, including a six-minute sudser for her 1991 tour-de-force cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy.” One of her first videos — for her 1986 earworm, “Whoever’s in New England” — was more Lifetime than “Hee Haw,” a white-collar wife’s lament, featuring snow, Boston and not a single Stetson.
She understood early the power of fans not only hearing her songs, but also seeing her perform them. Which, in turn, became a portal to her movie and television career. “Now they could put the voice, the face and acting the story all together,” she says. “They got five times more for their buck.”
McEntire, too. “Whoever’s in New England” became her first platinum album.
“She hears songs and makes movies in her head,” says Gill, whom McEntire corralled into a four-day shoot for their 1993 duet “The Heart Won’t Lie,” starring Navy officer Reba pining for Marine drill sergeant Vince. (He jokes that he rues it to this day and salutes her whenever they meet.) The song soared to No. 1.
Record producer Scott Borchetta, now the head of her label, Big Machine, recalls a pivotal conversation with McEntire when both were attached to MCA in the 1990s. “How do we figure out how to sell out arenas?” she asked him. “I want my show to be as big, if not bigger, than Kiss or Garth Brooks.”
Oh, and while they were at it: “How do I get a TV show?”
She got one. Six seasons of “Reba,” from 2001 to 2007, playing a salty, non-famous version of herself. The show thrives in syndication, airing on some station at some hour on most days.
In an industry that adores shiny and new, she’s hosted the ACM Awards 15 times — “a very relevant place to be in the middle of all the young acts coming up,” says Brooks — and toured with Kelly Clarkson, who became her stepdaughter-in-law.
And then there was Broadway — how did that happen? In 2001, producers asked her to take over the lead in a revival of “Annie Get Your Gun,” though she had no musical theater experience and never had seen the show. On a whim, after a flight out of New York was canceled, she decided to take in a performance.
“Well, that fixed it. Wanted to do it. Had to do it. Couldn’t wait. They had to shoo me off the side of the stage because I wasn’t in it for the first 17 minutes. The thrill of my life. Six months, eight performances a week.” And raves. The New York Times: “The most disarmingly unaffected Annie in years.”
This Okie blessed, lucky and thankful
McEntire comes from rodeo and ranching, and the tiny town of Chockie in southern Oklahoma. “Oklahoma,” she says, “is everything.” She visits five or six times a year.
Her family tales and memoir are steeped in Okie lore and shined into myth like a rodeo belt buckle, sounding more Dust Bowl than Baby Boom. There were tar paper-lined coffins, $2 cemetery plots, sock-stealing rats, a grandmother who spoke in tongues. She competed at the rodeo in barrel racing, where riders trace a cloverleaf pattern around barrels. She grew up castrating bull calves: “I was literally raised on mountain oysters.”
At age 5, she realized she could sing. “Best attention I ever got,” she says. “I was the third of four kids. I wasn’t a boy. I wasn’t the youngest or the oldest. I was in the middle.” It’s something she mentions a lot. “I had to fight for attention.”
And she craved it, especially from her father, who died in 2014. Clark McEntire was a three-time world champion steer roper, tough as dirt, who never told his children he loved them. “He liked being known as a champion cowboy,” says McEntire’s older sister, Alice Foran, who lives in Oklahoma along with most of the family, including their 92-year-old mother, Jackie. “You didn’t have to worry about what was on his mind. He would tell you in a heartbeat. By our standards, they would say he was cruel.”
For fun and support, the McEntire kids turned to their mother, who encouraged them to sing. She once told Reba: “If you don’t want to go to Nashville, we don’t have to do this. But I’m living all my dreams through you.”
She was discovered as a college sophomore in 1974, singing the national anthem in a white cowboy hat at the national rodeo finals in Oklahoma City. Signed to Mercury Records, she watched her singles stall in the chart’s cellar. Her first No. 1 hit, “Can’t Even Get the Blues” (1982), she will tell you, came from “the fifth single off my sixth record,” seven years after she was signed. In today’s Nashville, she says, executives would exhibit less patience.
“But I was very blessed, very lucky and very thankful” that success took time, McEntire says. Those hard years “molded me, they taught me,” she says. “Slowly, the foundation grew. If I had a first No. 1 hit after my first single, I wouldn’t have known anything.”
The job, she says now, “is to entertain.”
So this is what she does. Last year, she helped develop a small-town detective drama with producer Marc Cherry of “Desperate Housewives” fame. The network passed. “I was so sad. I was mad,” she says. “I was curious: What do you have to do to get a good show on television?”
Naturally, she’s pitching another series with a different team. And she is working on a traditional country roots album with producer Buddy Cannon, scheduled for release next spring.
“She changed things up to keep herself relevant. She could stop all this and live a comfortable life,” says “Reba” co-star Melissa Peterman, “and she wouldn’t be happy.”
Oh, no, she most certainly would not.