The legendary performer chats about music, family, acting, and fashion lines, and shares her decades-long approach to being an entertainer.
Reba McEntire stands in the middle of Caesars Palace’s Colosseum stage and begins to sing the opening lines of a song she’s performed too many times to count. But the 4,000 fans packed into the venue lean in as though it’s the first time they’ve heard it. They’re here for every word; they want to take in this particular story one more time. And with Reba’s famously drawn-out syllables, her steely-eyed gaze at the audience, and her subtle but confident movements, she sells her mega-hit rendition of “Fancy” as brilliantly as she did when she recorded it 28 years ago.
Yep, give Reba a red dress, a spotlight, and a redemptive story to tell, and the 62-year-old country music queen still captivates like no other. Before the big “Fancy” moment, which arrives late in the Vegas production she headlines several times a year with her friends Brooks & Dunn, she works through decades of hits, from the lovelorn “Whoever’s in New England” to her empowerment-themed Reba sitcom opener, “I’m a Survivor.”
In many ways, the Vegas residency is the culmination of a career that has continuously surprised and thrilled fans since the raised-on-rodeo Oklahoma girl broke into Nashville’s scene in the late 1970s. Reba has conquered the Broadway stage (in Annie Get Your Gun), starred in the hit self-titled TV comedy, made memorable appearances on the big screen, claimed spots in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and launched winning fashion lines including her latest, a collaboration with a classic bootmaker dubbed Reba by Justin.
But Reba’s greatest accomplishment, if you ask her and her biggest fans, is the fact that she’s won acclaim in so many different worlds without sacrificing her own personality, without throwing away the qualities that set her apart. We picked up on that particular theme when we chatted with the star a few days before we were captivated by “Fancy” in Vegas. She was happy to talk about music, acting, fashion, and the curveballs in life that can unexpectedly take you to a better place.
Cowboys & Indians: Your first-ever gospel album, Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope, won a Grammy recently — what did making the record mean to you?
Reba McEntire: It’s been very healing for me. Two and a half years ago I went through a divorce, and it was a really rough time, and the three things that got me through it were my faith, my family, and my friends. And so faith being No. 1 up there on that list, the songs are really healing for me and, from the response I’ve been getting from other people, it’s been helping a lot of other people too.
C&I: I suspect you’ve been singing some of these songs your whole life, so was the recording kind of like slipping into a comfortable shoe?
Reba: It sure was. I had Mama, and Susie and Alice, my two sisters. Mama sang with me on “I’ll Fly Away” and then I got The Isaacs to sing with me, and it was just great having friends on the album, and my band playing with me. What I did first of all, to make my list: I took my old hymnals from the little one-room church house in Chockie, Oklahoma, population probably 18 at the time. Took it down, went back into the index, and I just started writing down my favorite old songs that I did when I was a kid. It was just so much fun, and I had probably 40 songs written down.
C&I: So you can do volume two, volume three?
Reba: And four and five and six.
C&I: Well, I have to say, anytime you record with Trisha Yearwood and Kelly Clarkson — as you did on “Softly and Tenderly” — it brings goosebumps to hear those voices together. Have y’all talked about doing more as a trio?
Reba: Every time we get together, we’re saying, “OK, we got to find the time for the new Trio.”
C&I: Yeah, that was a wishful thinking question. I loved it when Dolly, Emmylou, and Linda did their Trio records.
Reba: Me and you both. Absolutely. Our voices just blend together. Kelly’s really high, I’m in the medium, and Trisha’s got that low, round beautiful voice. But both of them are just working up a storm, Trisha’s with Garth touring, and then Kelly’s on tour taking care of her new album that’s out, so everybody’s busy right now.
C&I: Yeah, y’all are three of the busiest people in the game.
Reba: Yeah — staying out of trouble!
C&I: We’ll talk more about music in a minute, but I first wanted to get to the Reba by Justin boot line that you just started. We saw some of the boots and shoes come through when we were doing our fashion shoot. It’s fun and whimsical, with different styles and designs. What was your vision going into this? What did you want out of this line of footwear?
Reba: I wanted high-end. I wanted great quality. I wanted comfort. And then
we were sitting around and I said, “OK, where is the boot that the girls are going to be running barrels in at the rodeo?” And then they said, “Oh, we don’t have that, gotta add that.” And I said, “Now, when the girls get through running barrels and they get back to the trailer and unsaddle their horse and hop him up in the trailer, what are they gonna do?” And they said, “Well they put on comfortable shoes.” And I said, “Well we’ve gotta have a sneaker, a tennis shoe, something for them to put on to drive back to the house.” And so that’s the way all that came about.
But they had already come up with beautiful lines of high-quality, great-quality boots, and that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want anything that would fall apart. Justin is the same way — they’re not going to have anything but the highest quality of material for the people that are going to buy a boot.
C&I: Yeah, and growing up where you did with the rodeo, you know that performance wear is important. It has to be functional.
Reba: It has to be functional, it has to be comfortable, because if you get off your horse and you’re walking around, that’s what you’re thinking about.
C&I: You have other lines, too, including the Dillard’s apparel and the Reba Beauty line. How does this work when you develop these things? Do you talk to the designers about what you want and then have meetings where you look through everything they’ve created and kind of say, “This, this, this”?
Reba: I’ve had the clothing line for going on 12 years with Josephine DiMarco and Dillard’s. Josephine is my vendor in New York City, and what we do is we try to please our ladies, our customers who come in weekly, month after month, and wait for that new shipment to come in. We know what they like. We listen to them, we listen to the feedback, and what they want is what we put back out there.
C&I: It’s done so well for you that one can now outfit herself from head to toe with all of the items in your arsenal.
Reba: And it’s fun to get to do that. I’ll be on a stage at a concert and I’ll look down and I’ll say, “Oh, I like your shirt.” And she’ll say, “It’s a Reba!”
C&I: Your personal style has evolved over the years just like everybody’s, but what is your own impression of your style and how it has changed?
Reba: My style has changed a lot because I was searching, I was looking for what really fits Reba, what fits me. My ideal is boots, jeans, a comfortable top, sweater, or a T-shirt, long sleeve; and if I’m not wearing boots, I’m wearing tennis shoes, sneakers. And so that’s why when Justin Boots came to me and said, “We’d like to team up with you,” I told them, “That’s all I wear.” Now, I do have to wear high heels sometimes when I go on an awards show, or I’m onstage, but that’s not for very long and it’s just for looks only, because they kill my feet. So I was very honest and upfront; I said, “This is what I wear and this is what I want in my line,” and they said, “Absolutely, we’re for it.”
C&I: Your musical styles have also progressed since those first few hits. Do you approach singing and performing and recording much differently than you did when you first started?
Reba: Oh yeah. Everything’s changed. I’ve been in the business 41 years. My first single was released in 1976, so yeah, my voice has developed, it’s grown. I think it’s better than it was when I first got started, because I try new things, I use my voice more, I warm it up, I take care of it better. It’s a God-given gift, and I take care of it the best I can.
The way I find songs has changed because at the beginning the producers found the songs for me and it wasn’t until the mid-’80s when I kind of said, “Hey, I don’t like what y’all are finding for me.” And my head of the record label, Jimmy Bowen, said, “Well, woman, go find your own songs.” And I did. And that’s when I found “Whoever’s in New England,” which was on my first gold album. So, you’ve got to go with what touches you. And that’s what I do. If it touches me when I sing it, hopefully it will touch your heart too.
C&I: I remember something you said in an interview years ago: You don’t record “ditties,” and I love that. It seems as though it’s getting harder and harder now to make an impact with lyrically rich story songs, songs that require some thought. Is it harder, in your experience, to make an impact with meaningful tunes?
Reba: You’ve got to look for them. I’ve got a song called “Maggie Creek Road” from two, three albums back. I did it at my concert the other night and the crowd just roared, because my point was that you can only put two or three singles out in the life of an album. And then there’s so many great songs left behind, and so on our concerts we pull one of those every once in a while and say, “This is the song that we feel should have been a single.” And from the response of the crowd, they agree.
C&I: And as far as the Vegas shows with Brooks & Dunn, how did you guys develop the flow and content of it? And how do you inject a fair amount of Las Vegas spectacle?
Reba: We basically just do our show. We come on together, I leave, they do three songs, they leave, I do three songs, we come back together in the middle, and then we end the show together. And the glitz and glam comes from my outfits, my costuming, ’cause I’m the girl. And the staging and the lighting and the backdrops, the video. That’s where the production comes in, that’s the Vegas glitz, along with my sequins. One of my dresses is seven pounds.
C&I: My goodness.
Reba: Yeah, it’s heavy. So yeah, it takes a lot of give and take. You know, [Brooks & Dunn] are used to a certain sound and a way of doing things. I’m used to a certain way. So we have to adjust to each other’s needs onstage. And it works out.
C&I: Have you been doing other kinds of shows besides the Vegas ones, or has this been your chance to do live performances?
Reba: The last couple of years since the divorce, I have slowed down an awful lot. This year, I’m kicking it into high gear. I’m touring, we’re looking for a new TV show, looking at movies — we’re doing a lot of things in 2018. I’m taking some great trips; I’m enjoying life. I think I’m happier than I’ve been in probably 30 years.
C&I: That’s wonderful. And at the end of last year, you and your mom were both inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. How do you stay personally connected to the Western lifestyle when you are now traveling everywhere all the time? Does the Oklahoma way never leave you?
Reba: It keeps you grounded. When I go home, I’m just Reba. I’m not Reba who gets up on stage and sings. Somebody asked Alice, my older sister, they said, “Is Reba different than everybody?” And she said, “Reba is just like everybody else. She just happens to sing better than some.” So, if that doesn’t keep you grounded, nothing will. And Alice and Pake and Susie, they treat me just like they treat each other. I mean, I get in there and I help with the dishes and cooking, and then we play games, we’ll go on a walk, and we love each other. We support each other, and we’ve always been there for each other. So that does ground you because you’ve got somebody, they’re going, “Hey, get off your high horse. You’re just like us.”
C&I: They remember things you did when you were, you know, 3, 4, 5 years old.
Reba: And 15, 16, and they hold it against me. Sometimes it’s kind of like blackmail material.
C&I: How is your son Shelby doing?
Reba: He’s doing great; thank you for asking. He’s in Charlotte, North Carolina. He’s getting ready, staying in shape for the next racing season to come in 2018.
C&I: Are you still a nervous mama about his racing, or have you gotten over that?
Reba: Oh, yeah. I don’t think anybody gets over that, watching their kid run between 175 and 200 miles an hour.
C&I: It takes impressive skill and athletic ability.
Reba: Yeah, it sure does. It’s very nerve-wracking, but that’s passion, that’s his love.
C&I: You mentioned that you’re looking for a new TV project. There was one you did with creator Marc Cherry in recent months that sounded great but didn’t make the pilot season. Is it still in consideration?
Reba: It’s gone. We were all shocked; you couldn’t have slapped me harder. ... I loved it and everybody who watched the pilot was like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to see what happens.” But ABC just decided not to take it, and so we’re back to the drawing board trying to find another project. We’ve got several writers developing things for me and looking for movies. What we do is we put a lot in the funnel and whatever is supposed to come out comes out.
C&I: Are you wanting to stay in the comedy world?
Reba: I’m always looking for a comedy, and I’m always looking forward to going back and working with Melissa Peterman. That’s something that I would absolutely love to do. She and I get along so well, and our chemistry is just amazing. So, to do a comedy with her would be the icing on the cake.
C&I: I also saw that you did the online MasterClass last year for students wanting to break into country music. How was your experience as a teacher in that capacity?
Reba: I loved doing MasterClass. I learned a lot of things myself, because they asked me questions that really made me think, How do I do things? Because when you’re given a talent, when you’re given a gift, you do it. You don’t really understand how you do it and why you do it, so it made me think about why and how and then to help explain it to somebody so it would help them do it. What do I do before a concert? What do I do when something goes wrong onstage? It was a lot of little things that I think I was able to share with people who are either in the business or getting started or who are having a hard time with one of the topics.
C&I: Your strength throughout your career seems to be about sticking to who you are. Be true to yourself, and you can’t go wrong.
Reba: I think so too. Garrett Smith, my niece, went out to California and wanted to be an actress, and she was a great actress. The agent told her she was brown-headed and had a thick Oklahoma accent. “OK, first thing you need to do is dye your hair blonde, bleach it out, and then lose the accent.” And she said, “Why would I do that?” And that’s what I told her. I said, “Garrett, my accent has gotten me a long way, made me lots of money. You can’t be cookie-cutter. You’ve got to stand out and be different. A good kind of different.”
Find the latest music and links to Reba by Justin, Reba at Dillard’s, Reba Beauty, and MasterClass at her website.
From the April 2018 issue. Available on newsstands now or click here to purchase the issue.