Afiery redhead with an undeniable country charm, Reba McEntire embodies the spirit of music, telling stories with honesty, heart and warmth and connecting with her audience as if they were all old Oklahoma friends. Whether the 64-year-old is on stage in Louisiana or Las Vegas (where she’s performed with Brooks & Dunn at their Caesars Palace residency since 2015), storytelling—people, places and memories—will be woven through the Country Music Hall of Fame inductee’s show.
“I try to treat people like I want to be treated, so listening to The Statler Brothers tell stories on stage, and Mel Tillis, and Ronnie Milsap. That’s what I wanted to do,” she says. “That’s what I’ve incorporated into my show now, and I’m having a blast with it.”
McEntire’s career has spanned more than 40 years (she’s the only female country solo artist to have a No. 1 single in four straight decades). It’s also spanned music, film, television and retail, so it should come as no surprise that “slowing down” isn’t a topic of conversation. In fact, “2020 is probably going to be the busiest year in several decades for me,” she says.
In late January, she’ll be up for Best Country Album at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards (Jan. 26 on CBS), for Stronger Than the Truth—her first nomination in the category in 25 years. “This is probably the most country album I’ve ever recorded,” she says. “It’s songs that really touched my heart, and I’m just thrilled to death.” In late March, she’ll be headlining an arena tour running in 12 cities across the country, all while continuing her Las Vegas residency with Brooks & Dunn. Oh, and she’s throwing her hat into the celebrity podcast ring, launching a new podcast with Spotify later this year.
“I’m just thrilled to do what I get to do at the level that I’m getting to do it,” she shares. We talked to McEntire about opening the doors for females in the music industry, what she’s learned about herself at 64, surviving divorce and finding stillness in chaos.
With a 40-plus year career, how in the world do you get the energy for not only a major Las Vegas residency, but a new tour you’ll be headlining in March?
It’s been a lot of fun doing the residency in Vegas with Brooks & Dunn. We’ve been doing it since 2015, so to continue into next year, we’re really excited about that. But I haven’t done a tour in a long time. And after the television shows, the residency and a few one offs, we thought it was time to put together a tour and get out there and perform for the fans who have been so loyal to me for these past 43 years.
You have 35 No. 1 hits and more than 20 CMA, ACM, Grammy, AMA and Billboard Awards. What makes this year’s Grammy nomination for Best Country Album so special?
Well, the album I’m very proud of. I am. This is probably the most country album I’ve ever recorded. It’s songs that really touched my heart and that I wanted to do, and I’m just thrilled to death. I mean, the category is wonderful with Eric Church and Pistol Annies, Thomas Rhett and then Tanya Tucker. Good Lord, Tanya. She and I have been in this business for a long time, and that’s really sweet of the Grammys to recognize our work. That is really sweet.
You’ve said that not only do you love to entertain, but you love to be entertained. Who are some artists at the top of your list?
Oh, my gosh, that list is huge. Everybody from Annie Lennox to Bruno Mars, in concert. I love him. Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack are two of my favorite vocalists. I do love to be entertained and to listen to great stories, so that’s why I incorporate that into my show.
When I was entertaining a long time ago, I performed with Jackie Ward, and he was a great joke teller. I would try to do the same thing, and Momma would say, “Reba, just sing,” when I would try to tell jokes. I try to treat people like I want to be treated, so listening to The Statler Brothers tell stories on stage. And Mel Tillis. And Ronnie Milsap. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I’ve incorporated into my show now, and I’m having a blast with it.
The podcast launch with Spotify seems like a natural transition from what you’re already doing on stage. What was the impetus for using a podcasting platform to continue your storytelling?
Even at dinner, if we have eight people at the dinner table, they’ll instinctively talk to the person to the right or left of them. They might as well have been having dinner with that one person! So I like to start a question, like a round-robin. One question that everybody answers. And the next person can ask a question that everybody answers. It goes around the table, and you learn a lot about people. I thought a podcast would be in that same vein for me. Pick a topic and let people in. It’s really funny, when you start asking a question, you might have an opinion, but after you hear everyone else’s opinion, you might think, wow, that opened my mind a little bit. I see your point. I’m gonna go a little bit more in the middle, instead of so far to the right or to the left.
By more than one person, you’ve been called the hardest working woman in the music business, bringing females to the forefront of decision making throughout your career. What is it like looking back, knowing how many doors you’ve opened for women just by being yourself, doing things your way?
Well, it was my responsibility. It was my duty. Because Minnie Pearl, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Anne Murray opened the doors for me and all of the female singers in my generation to be able to step on that stage. Everybody and every decade improved and helped pave the way for current female singers, so that was my responsibility. That was my duty. That was my job—to make it easier for the girls who are going to be singing in the next four or five thousand decades past me.
You’ve also taught musicians how to authentically expand their brand. In a career that spans music, television, film and retail, how do you make sure the “Reba” name stays authentic?
There’s always going to be the “trend.” But my way of thinking is that if you’re gonna stick with the trend, you’re not standing out. You’re not being different, and you’re not doing it your way. A trend is something somebody’s thought of, and it’s worked. So everybody goes with it, but I don’t care for the trend, in clothing lines or in movies, television, music. I try to follow my heart, to follow my gut, which is what I call God telling me what to do.
Do you feel comfortable saying no to things now? It doesn’t often come naturally.
Absolutely. Because you think, oh my gosh, if I say no, will they bring or offer me anything else? I went to a very well-known and famous songwriter’s house to listen to songs he had written for Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, and I was very young in the business. I was honored to get the time with him, and he played me a song. I passed on it. I thought, holy crap, what am I gonna do if he doesn’t play me another one? But he did. He played me another one, and another one. And the third song was a monster hit and became a No. 1 record for me. He saw that I knew what a good song was. And when I passed on those first two, he thought, OK, she can handle this. She knows a good song when she hears it. I’m gonna let her have it. He didn’t have to, but [honesty and saying no] can create trust and respect.
What’s one thing you’ve accomplished this past decade that you’re especially proud of?
Well, I survived divorce. I’ve gone on with my career. My team and I have won a Grammy and are nominated for another, so I’m thrilled with the progress and being able to move on, regardless of what happens in your personal life. Plus, my children are happy and healthy, and I’m having more time to spend with my immediate family—my mother and my brother and sisters. Even though we’ve had a lot of lows, I’ve had a great decade.
Has anything surprised you about yourself throughout this process?
That I can be still. You know, there’s a passage in the Bible that says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Carolyn Snell, my tour manager, got me that for me a few years back, and I have it framed in my bedroom. Just to be still—that’s the hardest thing in the world for me to do. But I’ve learned I can do it. Take a deep breath, be still and just sit there for a while. It’s hard for a person used to gunnin’ and goin’ at 90 miles an hour from the time I get up. But to be present and in the moment is something that I’ve gotten better at this past decade.
And don’t forget to share this story with your family and friends.
Bless Your Heart!