Artist of the Month
Artist of the Month December
Reba McEntire was the most successful female recording artist in country music in the 1980s and 1990s, during which time she scored 22 number one hits and released five gold albums, six platinum albums, two double-platinum albums, four triple-platinum albums, a quadruple-platinum album, and a quintuple-platinum album, for certified album sales of 33.5 million over the 20-year period. While she continued to sell records in healthy numbers into the 21st century, she expanded her activities as an actress in film and on the legitimate stage, and particularly on television, where she starred in a long-running situation comedy. Such diversification made her the greatest crossover star to emerge from country music since Dolly Parton.
Reba Nell McEntire was born March 28, 1955, in McAlester, Oklahoma, the second daughter and third of four children of Clark Vincent McEntire, a professional steer roper, and Jacqueline (Smith) McEntire, a former school teacher. Her older brother Del Stanley (“Pake”) McEntire also became a country singer, while her younger sister Martha Susan (“Susie”) McEntire Luchsinger became a gospel singer. McEntire was raised on the 7,000-acre family ranch in Chockie, Oklahoma, traveling with her parents and siblings to the rodeos at which her father competed. Clark McEntire was named World Champion Steer Roper three times, in 1957, 1958, and 1961. (McEntire’s grandfather, John McEntire, had won the same title in 1934.) McEntire’s mother had aspired to a career in music but never pursued it. She encouraged her children to sing and taught them songs and harmony during the long car trips between rodeos. Alice McEntire, the oldest child, did not actively seek a musical career, but the other three were members of a country group, the Kiowa High School Cowboy Band, as early as 1969, when McEntirebegan attending Kiowa High School in Kiowa, Oklahoma. She also entered local talent contests on her own. In 1971, the Kiowa High School Cowboy Band recorded a single, “The Ballad of John McEntire,” for the tiny Boss Records label, which pressed 1,000 copies. As the early ’70s went on, the band gave way to a trio, the Singing McEntires, consisting of the three siblings, which performed at rodeos. McEntirealso followed in the family tradition of competing, becoming a barrel racer, the only rodeo event open to women.
McEntire graduated from high school in June 1973 and enrolled at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. While attending the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City on December 10, 1974, she sang the national anthem on network television. Also present at the rodeo was country star Red Steagall, who was impressed by her voice and asked her to go to Nashville to record some demos for his song publishing company. After she did so in March 1975 during her spring break from college, he took the tapes around town trying to get her a record deal and succeeded with Mercury Records, which signed her to a contract on November 11, 1975, that called for her to record two singles for the label. On January 22, 1976, she entered a Nashville recording studio and cut the first of those singles, “I Don’t Want to Be a One Night Stand,” which, upon its release, climbed to number 88 in the Billboard country singles chart in May. On June 21, 1976, she married Charlie Battles, a champion steer wrestler she had met at a rodeo. Battles later became her business manager.
On September 16, 1976, McEntire did her second Mercury recording session, which produced her second single, “(There’s Nothing Like the Love) Between a Woman and a Man.” It peaked at number 86 in March 1977. In the meantime, on December 16, 1976, she graduated from college on an accelerated three-and-a-half-year program with a major in elementary education and a minor in music, freeing her to pursue her career full-time. Her record label, however, seemed in no particular hurry, although it picked up her option for further recordings. Her third single, “Glad I Waited Just for You,” recorded on April 13, 1977, peaked at number 88 in August, the same month Mercury released her debut album, Reba McEntire, which did not chart. On September 17, 1977, she made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry.
Two and a half years into her recording career, with very little to show for it, McEntire was paired with labelmate Jacky Ward for the two-sided single “Three Sheets in the Wind”/”I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” (the B-side a cover of the pop hit by England Dan & John Ford Coley), which reached number 20 in July 1978. That and her touring as an opening act for Steagall, Ward, and others increased her exposure, and her next solo single, “Last Night, Ev’ry Night,” reached number 28 in October, beginning a string of singles that made it at least into the country Top 40. She first got into the Top 20 with her cover of the Patsy Cline hit “Sweet Dreams,” which peaked at number 19 in November 1979. She still wasn’t selling any albums, however; her second LP, Out of a Dream, released in September 1979, did not chart.
McEntire continued to make strides on the singles chart, reaching the Top Ten for the first time with “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven,” which peaked at number eight in August 1980. Feel the Fire, her third album, released in October 1980, was another failure, but after a couple more Top 20 singles she reached the Top Five with “Today All Over Again” in October 1981. The song was featured on her fourth album, Heart to Heart, released in September, which helped it become her first to chart, reaching number 42 in the country LP list. She achieved a new high on the singles chart in August 1982 when “I’m Not That Lonely Yet” reached number three. It was included on her fifth album, Unlimited, released in June 1982, which hit number 22. But that was only the beginning. The LP also spawned “Can’t Even Get the Blues” and “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving,” which became back-to-back number one hits in January and April 1983. By then, she had moved up from playing nightclubs and honky tonks to being the regular opening act for the Statler Brothers. She went on to work in the same capacity with Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap, Mickey Gilley, and others.
It might be argued that Mercury Records had taken a 20-year-old neophyte singing the national anthem at a rodeo and, over a period of more than seven years, groomed her until she became a chart-topping country star. McEntire appears not to have viewed things that way, however. On the contrary, she seems to have been unhappy with the songs the label gave her to sing and the musical approach taken on her records, feeling that she was being pushed too much in a country-pop direction. She also has criticized Mercury’s promotional efforts on her behalf. And, despite her recent success, the long years of development meant she was nowhere near repaying the investment Mercury had made in her, which, of course, was charged against her potential royalties on the company books. (Although she received yearly advances from the label, she later said that she did not see her first royalties from Mercury until 1988.) So, she sought a release from her contract and, after cutting one more album for Mercury, her sixth LP, Behind the Scene, released in September 1983, she signed to MCA Records, her new contract taking effect on October 1, 1983. The first fruits of the switchover suggested that not much had changed. Her debut MCA single, “Just a Little Love,” was a Top Five hit in June 1984, shortly after the release of an album of the same name, but that LP was actually less successful than Unlimited.
McEntire took strong action. Set to have Harold Shedd(Alabama’s producer, and thus a hot commercial property) produce her next album, she rejected his suggestions for songs and the sweetened arrangements he imposed on them and appealed to Jimmy Bowen, the newly installed president of MCA’s country division. Bowen allowed her to pick her own material and to eliminate the strings and other pop touches used on Just a Little Love and her Mercury releases. The result was the pointedly titled My Kind of Country, released in November 1984, which was dominated by covers of old country songs previously performed by Ray Price, Carl Smith, Connie Smith, and Faron Young. Even before the album’s release, however, and before its advance single, “How Blue,” hit number one, McEntire was named Female Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association on October 8, 1984. It was a surprising win; Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, and Charly McClain had all arguably been more successful during the previous 12 months. But it was a forward-looking recognition for a performer who was wisely aligning herself with such artists as Ricky Skaggs and George Strait as a “new traditionalist,” moving country music back to its roots after the decline of the pop-country Urban Cowboy phenomenon of the early ’80s.
“How Blue” hit number one in January 1985, followed by the second single from My Kind of Country, “Somebody Should Leave,” which topped the chart in May as the album reached number 13. (Eventually, it was certified gold.) With such success, McEntire was able to start headlining her own concerts. For her next album, Have I Got a Deal for You, released in July 1985, she worked directly with Bowen, the two billed as co-producers. Another new traditionalist collection, it included her own composition “Only in My Mind,” a Top Five hit, as well as a Top Ten hit in the title song; though the LP was not as successful as its predecessor, it too went gold over time, and it helped McEntire earn her second consecutive CMA award as Female Vocalist of the Year. Another important accolade came on January 14, 1986, when she became a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Perhaps even more important than McEntire’s decision to perform music in a more traditional country style was her search for material that she felt women would respond to. Just as Loretta Lynn had spoken for pre-feminist women in the 1960s, McEntire had begun to address the emotional and empowering concerns of women in the 1980s. “Whoever’s in New England,” her next single, released in January 1986 just ahead of an album of the same name, was a case in point. Kendal Franceschi and Quentin Powers’ song was written in the voice of a Southern woman who believes her husband is having an affair during his business trips up north, but pledges that she will remain available to him when “whoever’s in New England’s through with you.” It was a career-making song for McEntire, not least because it was promoted by her first music video. Reaching number one in May 1986, it marked a major breakthrough for her, beginning a string of chart-topping hits that didn’t begin to slow down for the next three years. “Little Rock,” the follow-up single, also hit number one, as did the Whoever’s in New England album, her first LP to be certified gold. (It later went platinum.)
Her career in high gear, McEntire released her next album, What Am I Gonna Do About You, in September 1986, prefaced by a single of the same name that hit number one, as did the gold-selling LP, which also featured the chart-topping single “One Promise Too Late.” On October 13, 1986, McEntire not only won her third consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year Award from the CMA, but also was named Entertainer of the Year. On February 24, 1987, she won her first Grammy Award for Country Female Vocal for “Whoever’s in New England.” She released Reba McEntire’s Greatest Hits in April; it became her first platinum album and eventually sold over three million copies. (It also became her first album ever to cross over to the pop charts.) On June 25, 1987, she filed for divorce from Charlie Battles, her husband of 11 years. After her divorce was settled and Battles was awarded the couple’s ranch in Oklahoma, she moved to Nashville.
McEntire’s string of hits continued with the release of The Last One to Know in September 1987, prefaced by a single of the same name that reached number one in December. The album, also featuring the number one hit “Love Will Find Its Way to You,” reached number three and eventually went platinum. McEntire won an unprecedented fourth straight CMA award as Female Vocalist of the Year in October. In November, she released a holiday album, Merry Christmas to You, which, over the years, sold more than two million copies. She engendered controversy with her next album release, Reba, which appeared in May 1988. Here, an artist who had jumped on the new traditionalist bandwagon in 1984 abruptly jumped off, returning to more of a pop-oriented style, without a fiddle or a steel guitar anywhere. The album’s leadoff single was “Sunday Kind of Love,” a cover of the 1947 Jo Stafford pop hit. It peaked at number five in July, actually the worst showing for a McEntire single in nearly three years. But the album had already begun a run of eight weeks at number one by then, and it was supported by the subsequent chart-topping singles “I Know How He Feels” and “New Fool at an Old Game.” It eventually went platinum. Also in 1988, McEntire founded Starstruck Entertainment, a company that handled management, booking, publishing, and other aspects of her career and, eventually, represented other artists as well.
Sweet Sixteen, released in May 1989, was actually McEntire’s 14th regular studio album, but her 16th counting her authorized MCA hits compilation and Christmas album. The leadoff single was a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” that hit number one in July, and it was followed by three Top Ten hits, “‘Til Love Comes Again,” “Little Girl,” and “Walk On,” as the LP spent 13 weeks at the top of the charts, with sales eventually crossing the million mark. It also reached the pop Top 100. McEntire had already recorded her next album, Live, the previous April for release in September and, though it took more than a decade, another platinum certification. That gave her some breathing space. On June 3, 1989, she married Narvel Blackstock, her manager, who had been part of her organization since joining her band as its steel guitar player in 1980. On February 23, 1990, she bore him a son, Shelby Steven McEntire Blackstock. A month earlier, she had made her feature film acting debut in the comic horror film Tremors, which had been shot the previous spring.
McEntire was back on tour by May 1990, and she returned to record making in September with her 15th regular studio album, Rumor Has It, which was prefaced by the single “You Lie,” a number one hit. Three other songs from the LP placed in the country Top Ten: the title song, a revival of Bobbie Gentry’s 1969 hit “Fancy,” and “Fallin’ Out of Love.” The album eventually sold three million copies. McEntire was on tour promoting it when, on March 16, 1991, seven members of her band and her road manager were killed in a plane crash after a show in San Diego. She dedicated her next album, For My Broken Heart, to them when it was released in October. The disc was another massive hit, going gold and platinum simultaneously shortly after its release and eventually selling four million copies, its singles including the chart-topping title song and another number one, “Is There Life Out There.” Also in 1991, McEntire co-starred in the TV mini-series The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw. Her 17th album, It’s Your Call, was released in December 1992, and, like Rumor Has It, it was an immediate million seller, eventually going triple platinum. (It was also her first Top Ten pop album.) Its biggest single was “The Heart Won’t Lie,” a duet with Vince Gill that hit number one in April 1993. McEntire’s next chart-topper was also a duet, “Does He Love You,” sung with Linda Davis; it hit number one in November 1993 and was included on her September release Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, an album that sold two million copies practically out of the box and another three million over the next five years. “Does He Love You” won McEntire her second Grammy, for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, and a CMA award for Vocal Event. She also appeared in the TV movie The Man from Left Field in 1993.
By 1994, while continuing to reign as country’s most successful female singer, McEntire was increasingly turning her attention to other concerns. Her 18th regular studio album, Read My Mind, appeared in April. Another instant million-seller that went on to go triple platinum, it threw off five country chart singles, among them the chart-topping “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and, controversially, “She Thinks His Name Was John,” a song about a woman who contracts AIDS from a one-night stand. Even McEntire’s star power could propel such an atypical country subject only as high as number 15 in the charts. Meanwhile, she had parts in two feature films released during the summer, a speaking role in the drama North and a cameo in the children’s comedy The Little Rascals. (She also made an uncredited appearance in the Western film Maverick and was heard on the soundtrack album.) She executive produced and starred in the TV movie Is There Life Out There? (based on her song), and she published her autobiography, Reba: My Story, which became a best-seller.
McEntire’s 19th album was called Starting Over, released in October 1995. Intended to mark the 20th anniversary of her recording career, it was a collection of covers of well-known songs. It not only topped the country charts but hit number five in the pop charts, selling a million copies out of the box. But, boasting only one Top Ten hit, a revival of Lee Greenwood’s “Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands,” among three chart singles, and not achieving a multi-platinum certification, it suggested that McEntire finally had peaked commercially as far as country music was concerned. (In a considerable departure for a country singer, MCA released a dance remix of McEntire’s revival of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” from the album that reached number two on Billboard’s dance chart.) That didn’t keep her from starring in another TV mini-series, Buffalo Gals, playing famed Western sharpshooter Annie Oakley, a part her rodeo background suited her to perfectly. She bounced back on the country charts somewhat with her 20th album, What If It’s You, released in November 1996. The album spawned four Top 20 hits, with “How Was I to Know” reaching number one and “The Fear of Being Alone” and “I’d Rather Ride Around with You” each getting to number two. Simultaneously certified gold and platinum, the album eventually topped two million copies.
The singles drawn from What If It’s You kept McEntire’s name in the country charts throughout 1997, as did the holiday benefit record “What If,” the proceeds from which were donated to the Salvation Army. But for the first time since 1978, she did not release a new album, even a compilation, during the calendar year. Aiming for a splash, she teamed up with the popular country duo Brooks & Dunn in the spring of 1998 for a single called “If You See Him/If You See Her.” It hit number one in June, helping to set up the release of her 21st album, If You See Him, which also brought her three additional Top Ten hits on its way to selling a million copies. She appeared in the TV movie Forever Love (the title of one of those Top Ten hits) during the year and made several guest-star appearances on TV series.
After publishing her second book of memoirs, Comfort from a Country Quilt, in May 1999, McEntire had two new albums ready for the fall. Secret of Giving: A Christmas Collection, a September release, was her second holiday CD, which she accompanied with a TV movie, Secret of Giving. The disc eventually went gold. So Good Together, issued in November, was her 22nd regular studio album, prefaced by the Top Five single “What Do You Say.” Although none of the songs from the album topped the country charts, it did feature a second Top Five hit, “I’ll Be,” and a Top 20 hit in “We’re So Good Together,” and it went platinum before the end of 2000.
As in 1997, McEntire went without an album release in 2000, and in this case, it turned out that she definitely was positioning herself for a career beyond country music, as events in 2001 showed. In February of that year, she stepped in as a replacement star in the Broadway revival of Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun that had begun performances in 1999 with Bernadette Peters in the title role of Annie Oakley. Barry and Fran Weissler, the producers of the revival, were known on Broadway for making money by keeping production costs down and by the extensive use of what was derisively called “stunt casting”: bringing in a well-known personality, often one without much of a theater background, as a replacement to extend the run of a show, as a means of exciting the tourist crowd who would recognize the name of a prominent TV star, for example. McEntire had been preceded as a replacement in Annie Get Your Gun by soap opera star Susan Lucci and TV actress Cheryl Ladd, both of whom kept the show going while being largely ignored or derided by theater insiders.
McEntire turned out to be an entirely different proposition. First, although she lacked legitimate theater experience, she had by now done plenty of acting on television and even a little in film. Second, she had long since brought unusually high production values to her concerts that included choreography and costume changes, good preparation for similar demands in the theater. Third, she could, of course, sing. And fourth, with her rodeo background and Oklahoma accent, she was an ideal Annie Oakley, just as she had been in her previous TV portrayal. (Never mind that the real Annie Oakley was from Ohio; in everybody’s mind, this female sharpshooter and star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, the precursor to the modern rodeo, was a Westerner.) The result was a triumph for McEntire. Reviews were ecstatic, and tickets sold out. The Tony Awards did not have a category for replacements (one has since been added), but she was given special awards for her performance by the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World. She stayed in the show until June 22, 2001. Unfortunately, there was no new cast album recorded to immortalize her appearance.
During the run of Annie Get Your Gun, McEntire was seen in a small part in the film One Night a McCool’s, released in April 2001. Her most extensive filmed acting role began on October 5, 2001, however, when the half-hour situation comedy Reba premiered on the WB TV network (later renamed the CW network). The show became the primary focus of McEntire’s activities, and she moved to Los Angeles to accommodate it. She had not, however, given up country music entirely. In the summer of 2001, she released a single, “I’m a Survivor,” that peaked in the country Top Five and prefaced a new compilation, Greatest Hits, Vol. 3: I’m a Survivor, released in October. It topped the country charts and went gold.
McEntire was occupied primarily with her TV series during 2002 and 2003. After two years, she finally returned to record-making in the summer of 2003 with a new single, “I’m Gonna Take That Mountain,” which peaked in the country Top 20. Room to Breathe, her 23rd regular studio album and first in three years, followed in November and went platinum over the next nine months. The disc’s second single, “Somebody,” hit number one, and it was followed by another Top Ten hit, “He Gets That from Me,” and the Top 20 “My Sister.” Reba continued on into 2004 and 2005. McEntire found time in the spring of 2005 to return to the musical theater, if only for one night. In another piece of inspired casting, she portrayed the “cock-eyed optimist” from Arkansas, Ensign Nellie Forbush, in a special concert version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific performed at Carnegie Hall. The all-star production, also featuring Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell and actor Alec Baldwin, was filmed for a PBS special on the network’s Great Performances series and recorded for an album, both of which appeared in 2006.
By 2005, the catalogs of Mercury and MCA had been combined in the major label Universal, and in November MCA released McEntire’s first combined hits collection, the double-CD set Reba: #1’s, with two newly recorded tracks. It went gold and platinum simultaneously. In 2006, as she began the sixth season of Reba, McEntire also voiced a character in the holiday film release Charlotte’s Web. The sixth season of Reba proved to be the last, as the show signed off the air on February 18, 2007. Not one to sit idle, McEntire toured the U.S. from May 25 through August. On September 18, 2007, she released a new album, Reba Duets, featuring such guests as Justin Timberlake, Don Henley, Kelly Clarkson, Kenny Chesney, Carole King, Faith Hill, Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, Vince Gill, Rascal Flatts, LeAnn Rimes, and Trisha Yearwood. It was prefaced by the single “Because of You,” a duet with Clarkson. For the week ending October 6, 2007, Reba Duets became McEntire’s first album ever to enter the pop charts at number one.
The October 28, 2008 release of the three-disc set 50 Greatest Hits marked the conclusion of her contract with MCA Nashville, and McEntire signed to Valory Music. Through the singer’s Starstruck imprint, Valory released her next album, Keep on Loving You, on August 18, 2009. For the week ending September 5, 2009, it became her second album to enter the Billboard pop chart at number one. Not content to rest on her laurels, McEntire issued the single “Turn on the Radio” in the late summer of 2010, which made the Top 30 on Billboard’s country chart. The Dann Huff-produced album All the Women I Am was released in the late fall.
McEntire returned to television when she starred in the 2012 ABC sitcom Malibu Country; the show was canceled after one season. In 2015, she signed with Big Machine’s Nash Icon subsidiary and returned with Love Somebody, her first album in five years. A year later, McEntire released a holiday-themed album, My Kind of Christmas, which was released in cooperation with the popular restaurant chain Cracker Barrel. Early in 2017, McEntire put out Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope, a double-disc inspirational album featuring a disc of traditional hymns and a disc of contemporary material.
-William Ruhlmann, AllMusic.com
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