Clad in blue jeans so old she can’t remember who made them, Reba McEntire effortlessly greets the high-powered guests at her album release party at the trendy Ashton Kutcher-owned Dolce Enoteca restaurant in Los Angeles.
Relying on some of the moves she learned while barrel racing, she ducks, turns and bobs into the crowd as she nibbles on tuna tartar and exchanges pleasantries with actor Beau Bridges, talk show host Leeza Gibbons and N’SYNC’s Lance Bass.
It’s a long way—literally and figuratively—from her family’s 7,000-acre cattle ranch (and later, her $10-a-month rental house) in Chockie, Okla. (pop. 18), to the bright television lights of California’s largest city, where McEntire lives with her husband, Narvel Blackstock, and son, Shelby, while taping the third season of her WB sitcom, Reba. The journey has taken the feisty redhead down some bumpy backroads as she’s experienced unprecedented success in the entertainment industry.
“Everything I’ve done in my career is a result of growing up in rural Oklahoma, because if I hadn’t had the training from Mama and Daddy to work hard, to do what I’m told, to take directions, to mind and to do a good job at anything I set out to do, then I wouldn’t be where I am today,” McEntire says.
Driven by her small-town values and work ethic, McEntire, 48, has sold nearly 50 million records, earned 31 No. 1 hits and garnered the reputation as the most influential female country singer of her generation. Her 1994 autobiography, Reba, made the bestsellers’ list. The former ranch hand earned rave reviews on Broadway in Annie, Get Your Gun. After gaining acting experience in movies such as Tremors, North and Buffalo Girls, she landed her own sitcom, which has become the network’s highest-rated show.
She can’t recall any specific conversations about the importance of hard work with her father, Clark, a champion calf roper, or her mother, Jackie, a former singer. “I don’t remember them telling me to work; we just did it,” she says.
“I guess Daddy made me work a lot of the times when I didn’t want to,” she says. “You just had to go do it. That was your job and that is what you did.”
She’s the boss
McEntire sits on a sofa in “The Gallery,” the high-tech recording studio in the upscale Nashville, Tenn., building that she owns to house her company, Starstruck Enterprises. It’s immediately apparent that in this domain, she’s in charge. But, she’s quick to point out, that wasn’t always the case.
“On the road, I’m the boss, but back home on the ranch, Daddy was the boss,” she says. “I was the low man on the totem pole, just one of the lowly ranch hands. On the ranch, you followed directions and orders and you did what you were told.
“In the music business, I was the one who had to make sure it all came together and had to rely on my voice and my talent to fill those seats. You are only worth as many tickets as you can sell.”
McEntire has the reputation as being one of the hardest-working entertainers in country music. Despite her long hours and tiring travel schedule, she insists a hard day on the road is easier than a light day on the ranch.
She vividly recalls round-up season that occurred every fall, when she and her three siblings—Alice, Pake and Suzie—had to gather the cattle to prepare them for sale. “Us kids would get up on a school day way before daylight while Daddy would cook breakfast,” she recalls. “We would go outside and gather the horses on a 40-acre pasture. They were frisky and you can barely see them running toward you and we would put some feed in the feed trough.
“They would eat and they would be kicking and acting real rambunctious,” she adds. “We would slide up between the horses and run our hands up around their necks and put a halter on them before they would really try to kick at us or bump us into another horse. Then we’d take them over and saddle them up, tie them to the fence and go in and eat breakfast.” After eating, they would climb the hills and gather the cattle so their mother could weigh them. “By the time we got them to the pens, usually Daddy would say, ‘OK, you kids go on to school now.’”
Lesson in courage
She says she developed the courage to try new things and challenge music industry naysayers from watching her parents. “I saw Mama and Daddy stick their neck out,” she says. “Mama was raised by a man and woman who were sharecroppers. Daddy’s mama was a schoolteacher and his daddy was a rodeo cowboy who gave away almost everything he won. What they accomplished in their lives . . . I mean, everybody probably said, ‘It will never happen. You’ll never amount to a hill of beans,’ but they persevered. They had the courage and drive and ambition to never listen to anything negative.
“Mine came out of total ignorance,” she says. “They would say, ‘Weren’t you scared to sing a song like “She Thinks His Name Is John,” about AIDS, in country music?’ I never thought of it; that never entered my mind. ‘Why are you singing “Fancy” on an awards show? That is a rock and roll song.’ That never entered my mind. I did things because I wanted to; it felt good to me.
“It’s bull-headedness, it’s perseverance and it’s just really, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ Why did I think I could do Annie, Get Your Gun? I had never been in a play in my life. How dare me have the nerve to think I could go pull off a Broadway play? It never came into my mind that I couldn’t do it. That’s not bragging or egotistical; I just never had the fear and doubt. I just went and did it.”
McEntire readily admits that she never dreamed she’d be where she is today. In fact, singing was her Plan B, a backup in case she failed at her first love, rodeoing. “The rodeo was very romantic, living on a ranch was romantic,” she says. “The western part of the United States has always been very romantic to me, so that way of life has always appealed to me.
“Daddy used to always say, ‘Reba, why do you want to do something you can’t do very well?’ I would say, ‘What? I thought I could do this pretty well.’ But I never was very good at rodeoing because it wasn’t my calling. My singing was always my calling. But it did help me get ready for what I was supposed to be doing. It educated me on travel; I did it in front of people, so it was showmanship. It prepared me for that next step of what I was supposed to do, which was singing.”
McEntire recently completed the next step in her recording career, an album titled Room To Breathe, an emotional and wide-ranging CD that features very traditional country and bluegrass songs that showcase banjos, fiddles and dobros. “I guess you could call it my autobiography of songs because it sums up my 27 years in the music business,” she says. “When I started out, I did very hard-core country songs—they’re in this album. My last album had more contemporary songs—they’re in it. I’m known for story songs and they’re in it.”
Despite being so famous that she’s known nationwide by just her first name, McEntire remains the same person who gathered cows before dawn. “I’ve managed to stay grounded because I don’t want to become anything else,” she says. “I don’t want to be an uppity person; I don’t want to be superior. I want people to like me. If you want to be liked, you’ve got to act right. I try to treat people like I want to be treated.”