June 25, 2008
Her rise to the top was slow, with four years passing before her first top ten single and a decade before she earned her first gold album. But with time, Reba McEntire would emerge as country music’s most popular female artist, with a longer run at the top than any other female hit-maker in history. Along the way, she made the transition from singer to entertainer, becoming a powerful force on both the stage and screen.
McEntire was born and raised in Oklahoma, the daughter of a championship steer roper. As a child, she joined brother Pake and sister Susie in The Singing McEntires, but she also pursued her family rodeo tradition. Back then, the only competition open to women was barrel racing, and she became an adept competitor. By 1974, she was majoring in education at an Oklahoma university, but still singing in her spare time. That year, she sang the national anthem at the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City, which led to her discovery by Red Steagall.
The industry veteran pushed her to pursue a Nashville recording contract, and with his help, the young redhead recorded some demonstration tapes during her spring break from college. Mercury Records was impressed, and she joined their roster in late 1975. Thus began the slowest ascent to superstardom of any woman in country music history, as her debut single “I Don’t Want to Be a One Night Stand” stopped at #88 in 1976. Three more singles fared no better, but all four were included on her debut album Reba McEntire, which also included covers of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues” and Patsy Cline’s “Why Can’t He Be You.”
McEntire got her first taste of success in 1978, when a double-sided single of duets with Jacky Ward reached #20, one of which was a cover of the pop hit “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” This gave a boost to her sophomore set Out of a Dream, which produced five top forty hits, the most successful being her revival of “Sweet Dreams (Of You),” her take on the Patsy Cline hit reaching #19. Later in her career, McEntire would bring the house down when she sang the song a cappella as an encore. Four years after her first single, she finally hit the top ten in 1980, with “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven,” the lead single from her third set, Feel the Fire. She did even better with her fourth album, Heart to Heart. It was her first album to chart, largely on the strength of her first top five hit, “Today All Over Again.”
By this time, McEntire was saddled with a bland country-pop sound, and her producers were telling her to calm down the vocal curlicues in the studio that she let loose on stage. Despite being out of her comfort zone, her songs kept doing better, and her fifth album Unlimited produced her first two #1 singles in 1982, “Can’t Even Get the Blues” and “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving.” However, album sales were still low, and when her sixth album for Mercury, Behind the Scene, produced lower-charting hits than its predecessor, McEntire jumped ship. After seven years with the label, she walked away from Mercury and signed with MCA Records.
At first, her music was still a hot mess. Her debut for MCA, Just a Little Love, was saddled with strings and the production was dated. The title cut was a top five hit, but the album was a personal disappointment for McEntire, who resolved to change her musical direction. She received support from Jimmy Bowen, who became label president soon after. He later confessed that he was thinking about “dropping the redhead,” but he was impressed by McEntire’s grit when they met for the first time. With his blessing, McEntire set out to make a traditional country record, which she dubbed My Kind of Country. When the producer of the album took off the traditional touches that McEntire had demanded, Bowen intervened and backed up his artist, taking over production duties himself.
The album established McEntire as a force in country music. It produced a pair of #1 singles, “How Blue” and the Harlan Howard classic “Somebody Should Leave,” and was nominated for CMA Album of the Year in 1984. It also kicked off a four-year run at both the CMAs and ACMs in the Female Vocalist races, the longest consecutive run in both shows’ histories. At the ACM’s, McEntire would come back and win three more times after the first run.
McEntire was now gaining acceptance within the industry and was an important force in the new traditionalist movement, but My Kind of Country and its follow-up Have I Got a Deal For You still weren’t selling as well as the awards would suggest. It was McEntire’s 1986 single “Whoever’s in New England” that became the career record she needed, as the ballad was accompanied by a music video that finally helped fans connect the voice they heard on the radio to the woman doing the singing. It served as the title cut for her next album, and won her a Grammy. In the fall of 1986, McEntire became the fourth woman to win CMA Entertainer of the Year. A few months later, Whoever’s in New England became her first gold record, with its successor What am I Gonna Do About You following suit shortly thereafter.
For the rest of the eighties, McEntire was a consistent gold-selling artist, as all of the albums that followed—The Last One to Know, Reba, Sweet Sixteen and Live—cleared that mark. She was a mainstay on country radio, having fourteen #1 hits under her belt, and her live shows were getting more ambitious, incorporating choreography and costume changes. But as McEntire recuperated at home from a difficult pregnancy, she felt a growing need to raise the bar musically. She switched co-producers from Jimmy Bowen to Tony Brown, the new head of her label, and sought to craft a more ambitious sound that could compete with the hot new country acts that had taken over the radio.
The result was Rumor Has It, which would quickly become her highest-selling solo album to date. The multi-platinum set had big hits in “You Lie” and the title cut, but it was her cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” that became a signature song, accompanied by a music video that bordered on mini-movie. McEntire’s star kept rising, and she was invited to perform on the Academy Awards in 1991. However, shortly before the big night, tragedy struck, as a plane carrying seven members of her band and her road manager crashed, killing all aboard.
McEntire was devastated, and poured her heart into the performance of “I’m Checkin’ Out,” which she did through tears on the Oscars. More so than at any other point in her career, she poured herself into her music, and the result was her 1991 masterpiece For My Broken Heart. The heartbreaking album dealt with issues of loss and missed opportunities, like a housewife who settled down too soon (“Is There Life Out There”), the career woman who missed her chance to settle down (“I Wouldn’t Go That Far”) and the woman who never got a chance to say goodbye (“If I Had Only Known”). The album even dealt with issues of a distant parent (“The Greatest Man I Never Knew”), elderly neglect (“All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)” and mercy killing (“Bobby.”) That it became her best-selling album was nothing short of amazing.
Throughout the early nineties, while young men dominated the country music industry, McEntire was the only woman who competed on the same scale. Her albums It’s Your Call and Read My Mind sold multi-platinum and stimulated sales of her older catalog, resulting in earlier eighties albums going gold and platinum. Her videos were better than anyone’s, and her stage show was a theatrical spectacle that put all other performers – male or female – to shame. She starred in high-rated network specials and sold out arenas across the country. Her autobiography, My Story, was a New York Times bestseller. She won a Grammy and another CMA award for her hit collaboration with Linda Davis, “Does He Love You,” and in 1995, she was named ACM’s Entertainer of the Year, a full nine years after the CMA had given her the same honor.
She endured a backlash when her pop-flavored covers album Starting Over stalled at radio, but it still sold platinum, and she returned with her best album in years in 1996, What If It’s You, highlighted by one of her best singles ever, “The Fear of Being Alone.” In 1997, she co-headlined a popular tour with Brooks & Dunn, which led to their #1 duet the following year, “If You See Him/If You See Her.”
By that time, McEntire had become a popular actress, featured in films on the big screen (Tremors, North, Little Rascals) and small (Gambler IV, Is There Life Out There, Forever Love.) Though she continued to record, releasing a studio album in 1999 and a hits collection in 2001, her attention turned away from recorded music and to the stage. In 2001, she took over the role of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. Contrary to the myth often printed in the country music media, Broadway was not taken by surprise with McEntire’s stunning performance in the role, as producers had been clamoring for her to take over the part but were delayed by conflicts with her touring schedule. The theatrical elements of her stage shows had well-prepared her for the daily grind of Broadway performances, and she turned the show into a must-see for the first time, earning a Drama Desk and an Outer Critics award in the process.
McEntire premiered her sitcom Reba the following fall, on the small WB network, and that was a surprise success, running five seasons and firmly establishing her as a television star. The theme song for the show, “I’m a Survivor,” was her last country hit for a couple of years, until she returned to music in 2003 with Room to Breathe. The four-year gap between studio albums was the longest in her career, but she was rewarded with her first solo #1 single in seven years, “Somebody.” The album sold platinum, as did her follow-up compliation, Reba #1′s, in 2005.
Her album Duets fared even better in 2007, becoming her first to top the pop albums chart upon its release. The breadth of McEntire’s influence and popularity was demonstrated by the wide array of collaborators on the project, which included legends like Carole King, pop stars like Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake, and some of the women who claim her as a major influence, like Trisha Yearwood, LeAnn Rimes and Faith Hill.
As of this writing, McEntire has sold more than forty million albums in the United States alone, making her one of the top-selling female artists in history. She has 26 gold albums to her credit, trailing only Barbra Streisand among women and George Strait among country artists. Among the women with the most #1 hits and top ten hits in country music history, she is bested only by Dolly Parton. And while her music has often seemed to take a backseat to her stage and screen career in recent years, she’s probably only one roots album away from renewed critical acclaim. Destined for the Country Music Hall of Fame, and sooner rather than later, McEntire is proof that sometimes, slow and steady really does win the race.
- “Somebody Should Leave,” 1985
- “Whoever’s in New England,” 1986
- “You Lie,” 1990
- “Fancy,” 1991
- “For My Broken Heart,” 1991
- “Is There Life Out There,” 1992
- “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” 1992
- “Does He Love You” (with Linda Davis), 1993
- “The Fear of Being Alone,” 1996
- My Kind of Country (1984)
- Whoever’s in New England (1986)
- Rumor Has It (1990)
- For My Broken Heart (1991)
- What If It’s You (1996)
- ACM Top Female Vocalist, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992 & 1995
- ACM Video (“Whoever’s in New England”), 1987
- ACM Video (“Is There Life Out There”), 1992
- ACM Entertainer, 1995
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1984, 1985, 1986 & 1987
- CMA Entertainer, 1986
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Whoever’s in New England”), 1987
- Grammy: Best Country Collaboration With Vocals (“Does He Love You”), 1994