McEntire, Reba (1955—)

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McEntire, Reba (1955—)

Reba McEntire has sold more than 50 million albums, scored more than two dozen number one hits, and joined the company of those recognized worldwide by merely her first name. Although she has won scores of honors including Grammy awards and People's Choice awards, the major contribution of the feisty redhead may be that she has shattered stereotypes within and without the country music industry. She has shown Nashville that "girl singers" may be limited in their achievements, but women singers can play with the big boys, and she has shown the music industry at large that a country singer can be as glamorous and as successful as any pop diva.

Because she has diversified into movies and assorted business interests, McEntire is frequently compared to Dolly Parton, but a more telling comparison may be to Loretta Lynn, who earned her fame singing songs of women's lives. McEntire, whose songs reflect the lives of women of her own generation, has sung of women surviving on their own, of women refusing to be used, and of women suffering from AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). But the defining song of her career may be "Is There Life Out There?" The video shows Reba as a young woman struggling to balance home and children with a low-paying job and college classes. The happy ending on graduation day suggests that there is a life for women beyond the domestic sphere, a reality McEntire and thousands of her listeners have discovered for themselves.

McEntire is not alone in selecting material clearly crafted for a female audience, but no other woman has yet achieved her level of success. Her first charting record came in 1978, and her accomplishments increased over the next two decades as her album sales and concert revenues placed her in competition not merely with the men of country music but also with major artists in other music formats. Barbra Streisand is the only other woman who has reached this pinnacle. Like many successful women, McEntire has been the target of criticism for her ambition, but she remains undeterred by these attacks.

McEntire credits her determination and pragmatism to her stable middle-class rearing in Chokie, Oklahoma. The daughter of a teacher and a rodeo champion/cattle rancher, she grew up tending cattle, barrel racing, and singing with her siblings. Discovered while she was singing "The Star Spangled Banner" at the 1974 National Rodeo Finals, she signed with Mercury in 1977, but her early efforts were mediocre thanks to the pop veneer that muted her distinctive sound and minimized her emotional range. The 1980s brought a change of direction with a more mature McEntire assuming control of her career. She signed on as opening act for established artists such as the Statler Brothers and Conway Twitty, a decision that gave her expert tutelage in the profession and exposure to core country audiences, a move both wise and timely. By the time she signed with MCA in 1984, two of her songs for Mercury had reached number one, including "Can't Even Get The Blues," an upbeat tune that reversed the woman as victim stereotype. McEntire was beginning to understand what she had to offer.

In Jimmy Bowen, president of MCA's Nashville division, she had someone secure enough to encourage artist involvement and smart enough to allow McEntire to return to her distinctive voice and style. The first result of their collaboration was My Kind of Country (1984), which included "Somebody Should Leave," a Harlan Howard tune that showcased the emotional power of McEntire's voice. The song became her first number one on her new label.

Not only did My Kind of Country fit seamlessly into the wave of New Traditionalism that was capturing country audiences in the 1980s, but it also hit as The Nashville Network (TNN) and Country Music Television (CMT) became established venues for country artists. McEntire's sassy persona and down home accent had immense appeal for TNN and CMT audiences, and she proved as well to have a deft touch with videos. Country music's audience was also changing. Baby boomers dissatisfied with pop lyrics were searching for a new musical format and discovering the appeal of country. Audiences were more diverse and, in significant ways, more sophisticated. A real cowgirl, McEntire had the credentials to satisfy traditional country audiences, but she was also part of a college-educated, television-addicted generation for whom regional barriers were blurring. She was poised to take advantage of the changes.

In 1986, her career exploded. With "Whoever's in New England," she had a crossover hit in both audio and video. The album (by the same title) went gold, and McEntire was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. Both the Country Music Association (CMA) and the Academy of Country Music named her female vocalist of the year, and CMA added the coveted Entertainer of the Year trophy. The redhead from Oklahoma had arrived, and her world was about to grow larger. Determined to control all aspects of her career, she created Starstruck Entertainment in 1988, a corporation that expanded as Reba saw need. Starstruck now encompasses everything from music production, publishing, booking, management, and publicity to film production, construction, and a charter jet service started after McEntire lost seven of her band members in a 1991 plane crash.

The album that followed the crash, For My Broken Heart —in part an act of public grief—went double platinum. Her platinum plus record sales continue, her concert revenues and film credits increase, as does her empire building, and she continues to add music and humanitarian awards to her lengthy list of honors. Her stage show, which requires five buses and 13 trucks to transport, rivals even Garth Brooks in its dazzle. More than 30 years after Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" defined a woman's place in a relationship and on a country stage, Reba McEntire has proved that a woman can challenge heavy hitting male music stars and win. In the process she has changed the face of country music.

—Wylene Rholetter

Further Reading:

Bufwack, Mary A., and Robert K. Oermann. Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music. New York, Crown, 1993.

Cusic, Don. Reba McEntire: Country Music's Queen. New York, St, Martin's, 1991.

McEntire, Reba, with Tom Carter. Reba: My Story. New York, Bantam, 1994.