Reba McEntire on Life, Music & What Makes Her An Eternal Optimist (INTERVIEW)

From her start on the rodeo circuit to country superstardom, Reba McEntire talks about her four decade career and the music that keeps her going.
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Reba McEntire Photo

Country powerhouse Reba McEntire is always looking for songs that touch her heart. "I want songs that move me," she says, "because when I sing them, I can truly mean them and I think that touches other people too." (Photo: Jeremy Cowart)

Despite the brassy, euphonious boasts she made as Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley in her critically acclaimed, award winning 2001 Broadway revival of Irving Berlin’s prized musical, Annie Get Your Gun, Reba McEntire cannot bake a pie. But that may be the only thing the persimmon-haired, cobalt-eyed, contralto Country Music Hall of Famer, whose 27th studio album, Love Somebody, debuted in Billboard’s Top 10 last spring, cannot accomplish with sweeping élan. (According to Berlin’s intoxicating soufflé of history, prairie lore, and lyrical mythmaking, the rollicking, rifle-toting 19th century spitfire Oakley could sing more excellently, shoot more precisely, speak more softly and much louder, shop more thriftily, chug-a-lug more liquor quicker, crack safes more proficiently and, uh, wear girdles more alluringly than any frontier stud). Though McEntire’s dexterity with a Stevens Tip-Up trick-shot rifle, the effervescent Renaissance Woman – with 35 number-one singles, several-dozen prestigious awards, and nearly 60-million albums sold, not to mention an apparently boundless knack for lighting up film and television screens, invigorating the world’s most venerated stages, and blitzing the bestseller lists with her works of nonfiction – plays first fiddle, figuratively speaking, in the 21st century with a blazing, charming aplomb that would make Oakley proud. 

As her brand new single, “Until They Don’t Love You,” ascends the charts and the spritely country powerhouse prepares for an eight-night December run with multi-platinum cowboy crooners Brooks & Dunn at Caesar Palace’s opulent, 4,300-seat Colosseum, the Oklahoma-raised McEntire has never sounded more robust and vulnerable, a potent musical collision. Love Somebody brims with mammoth melodies, intimate, aspirational lyrics, and McEntire’s marquee déposée – that singular, mellifluous, gilded voice. Colored with authentic Sooner State twang, dashed with the occasional pop accent, her hushed confessions giving rise to soaring, Melismatic crescendos, McEntire remains a force majeure. 

Love Somebody, its title a credo, a humble suggestion, a “note to self,” a simple rule for living a happier life, is the work of an artist four-decades deep into a career born on the rodeo circuit in the early 1970s and burgeoning still, a crystalline, sovereign purveyor of an art form once described by country music legend Harlan Howard as “three chords and the truth.” 

So what if McEntire can’t bake a pie? If she ever wanted to, there’s no doubt in the world she’d have your mouth watering and the rest of your spirit and senses crackling with new energy before the dough was ever fluted. 

In 1976, your first single was released. From “I Don’t Want To Be A One Night Stand” back then to your brand-new single, “Until They Don’t Love You,” is quite a journey. Love is just plain hard, isn’t it?

(Laughs) It sure is!

“Ain’t one the loneliest number/ It takes two to make it right/ Just three little words I should’ve told you/ Before you left last night.” That’s some crackerjack songwriting from a team of truly gifted songsmiths (Shane McAnally, Lori McKenna, and Josh Osborne, who have released their own albums, won Grammys, and penned hit songs for artists like Kelly Clarkson, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, and Kenny Chesney). 

Isn't it amazing how songwriters are so witty? It's just genius. They use one, two, three, A, B, C, up, down, left, right. I just love it. They are so good!

So “until they don’t love you” – whoever “they” might be: a lover, a friend, an audience – what are three things Reba McEntire will keep on doing? 

I'm going to keep on loving life. I'm going to keep on working hard – which is easy for me because I love what I do. I'm going to keep making new friends. I'm going to call the ones I love in my life – my friends and family – a little more often, and I’m going to keep on telling them how much they are loved.

And if the day comes when they don’t love you?

Well, I’ll be thankful for the love that I did receive from them in the past. And I guess I’ll go find somebody else to take their place! (Laughs)

The new album is called Love Somebody, after all!


Reba McEntire Photo

Reba McEntire's new album "Love Somebody." (Photo: Nash Icon Records)

Going through the lyrics you’ve sung in this storied career, there are hundreds of gems, lines that appear at least semi-autobiographical. But it’s a lyric from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which you performed at Carnegie Hall a decade ago, that seems to fit you best: “When the sky is a bright canary yellow/ I forget every cloud I’ve ever seen/ So they called me a cockeyed optimist.”

That sure does make sense to me. I am definitely an optimist. How could I not be with all the blessings life has given me? 

Indeed. When you’re choosing a song – or writing one, like “Pray for Peace” on the new album – how do you know it’s the right song for you? 

I’m so happy that you mentioned that song! “Pray for Peace” took a long, long time to write because it started out, really, with me, literally, just praying for peace. And then it kept growing and growing and getting bigger. Even when we went into the recording studio, we kept adding to it. I’ve never spent that much time on a song before, but to me, it’s the most meaningful and powerful song I’ve ever written and recorded – and I think that’s because God told me to write it. The song came to me one day when I was taking a walk at my place in Tennessee, and I was just sort of thinking, “God, what do you want me to do?” And what I heard in response was, “Pray for peace.” We kept having that conversation, He and I, and so I kept praying for peace. And then one day, the prayer came with a little melody. 

That’s so beautiful. How about when you’re choosing songs by other writers? What are you looking for?

It’s always about finding a song that really touches my heart, that makes me feel happy or sad or touches on a big emotion of some kind. Those are the songs I choose, the ones that I respond to as someone who not only makes music, but truly loves music. I want songs that move me because when I sing them, I can truly mean them and I think that touches other people too. 

You were Billboard’s Number-One Female Country Touring Artist a couple years back, selling 9-million tickets to the “All the Women I Am” tour. You’ve played with Brooks & Dunn before, back in the ‘90s, and now you’re in the middle of a stunningly successful residency at Caesars Palace with the duo. Looks like you’ve found a few good men!

(Laughs) I have such a good time with those two characters! They are totally different in personality, work ethic, ambition, the things they want to do, but they're both so very intelligent, very witty, very smart. They totally entertain me, and I learn from them, and that’s good company to keep. I like to hang out with people that are smarter than me, and they definitely are. 

What are the differences between doing a big tour and doing a residency, both as an artist and as a human being?

Oh, it's the wear and tear of the travel for sure – the different hotels, the different dressing rooms, the different towns. My crew has to work so hard when we’re on the road, driving 600 miles to the next town, setting everything up, tearing it all down again after the show, and then driving 600 miles again. I think it’s harder on every one of us to do a tour, but I think we’ll always do both. The only time you’re going to see Reba, Brooks & Dunn, though, is at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace!

You’ve done several dates at Caesars this summer, with another eight in December. It seems like you’re having an extraordinary time.

Oh, I am! It’s kind of like summer camp. We’re in Vegas. We’ve got all the great restaurants, all the great shopping, the great shows by other performers, and then I’m hanging out with my buddies all day long. I couldn’t ask for a better job. 

Does taking the stage for big shows today, like the ones at Caesars, ever remind you of your earliest days as a singer, the way-back shows at regional rodeos when you were a teenager? 

There's no similarity whatsoever — except that I was singing. Just everything is different. (Beat) Well, now, hold on a minute. I take that back. You know what was the same – or what felt the same to me at least? The audiences. The crowds. The fans. They’ve always been so kind to me, so attentive — even when I was just a little girl singing at a rodeo in Oklahoma. There has always been such a specialness to performing for me, and it has always been about the people who give me the gift of listening. You couldn’t put on a show without the fans. 

It’s so refreshing to hear a superstar express that kind of gratitude. Too often, artists achieve a certain level of success and then forget that, fundamentally, they’re still singing for their supper. 

Oh, no, no, no. Not me. No, I remember when I was booked for two shows at a little rodeo and there would be 70 people at the first show and 72 people at the second show – the 70 people from the first show, plus two people who wandered in. They’d come back for me! I appreciated those audiences with all of my heart for being there back then, and I feel exactly the same about my audience today. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have a job. 

You’ve been singing your entire life, essentially. What was the first song you remember singing? 

Oh, that’s easy: “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers. I used to sing that song all the time when I could barely walk! The first time I was ever behind a microphone was in the first grade. I sang “Away in a Manger” for the school Christmas program. I always loved to sing. There is no greater joy for me than being able to do that for a living. But I was also the third kid out of four, not the oldest, not the youngest, not the only boy, so I think I also really craved some good attention and singing was the way I figured that out. When the success came much later, I have to be honest: I was so, so thankful for the money that it brought too. I grew up on an 8,000-acre working cattle ranch. My family, we were hired hands. I knew from a very early age that if I was ever going to make any real money, I’d have to find me a trade, so I started singing in bars and honky-tonks when I was 13 years old. 

What do you learn, touring that baroque underworld as a teenager? 

Mama and Daddy would take us to our gigs, Pake and Susie and me, The Singing McEntires, and they’d look after us and make sure we got to the stage safely. Once we were on the stage, though, it was all up to us. What we learned is that if a fight broke out on the left side of the crowd, we’d move over to the right side of the stage to divert the audience’s attention. Fight over here, we go over there, the audience moves with us, security can break up the fight and drag out the drunks. And then the fun would carry on!

Your mother had her own musical ambitions, and then taught you and your siblings to sing, yes?

That's very true. Mama had a best girlfriend and they were going to go out to California together and become a singing duo, but Grandpa wouldn’t let Mama do it. He said, “Absolutely not!” We were sharecroppers in my family tree, and Grandpa needed Mama there at home to help. So she missed her opportunity to make music for a living. I guess she could’ve run off and done her thing, but she chose to stay and became a schoolteacher. She taught school in the winter when she was only 16, 17 years old in a little one-room, country schoolhouse, teaching eight classes a day. In the summer, she went to college. By the time all of us kids were born, she’d become secretary to the superintendent at the school district in Oklahoma City. No matter how hard she was working, though, Mama always made the time to sing with us. Always. She taught us how to sing harmonies. She was so great!

From local rodeos to Vegas residencies, applying your Midas touch to all you do. Was this the dream you dreamed as a little girl? 

No, and it’s funny that you asked that! When I was a really little girl, I wanted to be a world champion barrel racer in the rodeo! When I got a little older, all I wanted to be was the best basketball player ever in the whole wide world! Even when I started singing professionally at the rodeos and the clubs, I’d spend all of my time playing basketball. It’s what I really wanted to do. Can you believe it? 

At 5’7”, you’re about six-inches shy of making the WNBA!

You think? (Laughs) I wasn’t that good really, I promise you. But I sure did try hard. One thing I learned back then: when the Coach asks, “Who wants to go first?”, you need to be the one that gets your hand up first and get up on your feet. That’s how things happen. 

Where does that instinct or temperament come from, that carpe diem mentality? 

Mama was always, "We can do this, kids. We can do it. Come on," and we'd say, "Oh, my gosh, getting up a four o'clock in the morning, and having to go work calves." She said, "In 24 hours, you won't know the difference." I get older and I said, "Oh, Mama, I've got a carpet factory get together. I got to play tomorrow," and she said, "You can get through it. You can do anything. You can stand on your head for 24 hours if you have to. Just go do it." It's that positive, "Go on and you can do it." When you have faith in God, and when you have hope and faith and love in your heart, you can do anything. But you've got to have that in your heart, because bad things will be put in front of you, and you got to really realize how you're going to deal with it, so if you have a belief, and hope, and faith, and a strong backbone, you can get through anything.