Reba McEntire - If You See Her....

First Published in Country Music International – Oct 1998

Today Nashville, tomorrow the World. Following hot on the heels of her smash album IF YOU SEE HIM, Reba McEntire’s newly released Greatest Hits album chronicles her 22-year rise from Oklahoma ranch wife to one of Music City’s most successful country stars, as well as marking her ascent to the international stage. “I’m an executive who finances the project by making real good money singing,” she informs a cosmopolitan Alan Cackett.

“If I didn’t have a career, I'd probably weigh five hundred pounds,” laughs Reba McEntire, “because I just love to eat.”

Reba looks the picture of health, slim and petite, she now sports the shortest, sassiest haircut on the Row, making her appear younger than ever. Maintaining her figure and good looks does not come easy, and is the result of self-sacrifice. She readily admits that she loves to eat and has even had cosmetic surgery—though she politely refuses to divulge details.

“I am very conscious of what I eat and my exercise routine,” she explains. “I wake up in the morning thinking: ‘what can I eat?’. My regimen is so strict now. It's fruit and vegetables and a little bit of carbohydrate from midnight to lunch. That’s a vanity thing—because when I get on stage, I want to look thinner.”

Entertainer, executive, wife and mother, Reba McEntire is one of the most powerful figures in country music today, with not only one of the most phenomenally successful careers on record, but also a personal life that she manages to keep in perfect balance. Her home life with husband/manager Narvel Blackstock and their son, Shelby, continues to be a source of personal satisfaction.

A native Oklahoma, Reba was raised on a ranch and began her career as a rodeo barrel racer. She grew up on the rodeo circuit—her father and grandfather were cowboys—and she and her sister, Susie, and brother, Pake would often perform at rodeos as the Singing McEntires. In fact, the dynamic redhead got her big break in the music business when she was discovered by cowboy singer Red Steagall singing the National Anthem at the National Finals Rodeo in 1974.

Though she only gets to sing occasionally at rodeos nowadays, her rodeo roots still show through. She raises horses on her sprawling farm near Nashville, and is host of the Reba McEntire/Ben Johnson Pro-Celebrity Rodeo, a charity event televised on TNN. 

The benefit rodeo features cowboys, country stars and other celebrities competing in team roping, team penning and barrel racing events. In recognition of her rodeo and country music accomplishments, McEntire was inducted into the Hall of the Greatest Western Performers at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1995.

When she first came to Nashville 20-odd years ago, it was as an outsider—an Oklahoma ranch-wife—and a greenhorn to the industry. In 1983 she was still pulling a U-Haul trailer with a 4x4, occasionally opening a string of package shows and struggling to make enough money just to live.

Today she’s the corporate figurehead of the biggest artist organisation that country music has ever seen: Starstruck Entertainment is a Music Row empire that handles every management aspect of her own career, and offers professional services for other music-biz clients. The sparkling 25,000 square foot office building that houses her conglomerate is one of the most impressive buildings on the Nashville skyline, with its full-size, metal-sculpture thoroughbreds adorning the lot at Chet Atkins Place and Music Square West.

When Reba and Narvel set up Starstruck ten years ago, they couldn’t realise how big it would grow. The main misconception today is that Reba goes into the office every day and oversees this vast personal empire, which includes recording studios, song publishing, booking, a jet service, publicity, horse breeding, transportation and construction. In fact, she only steps into the Starstruck building for recording sessions and occasional business meetings.

“We have great people at the office to run each of their own departments,” she explains. “Les Williamson oversees the office and Narvel is the head chief and makes all the final decisions and makes sure everything is running smoothly as possible. I'm an executive who finances the project, because I can go out and make real good money singing.”

“I don’t come in every day and run this thing, absolutely not. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t want to do it because I can’t do it as well as Narvel can. He is a great schemer, planner, and he has great ideas.”

When the Starstruck building opened in 1996, both fans and music biz people felt that maybe Reba had overstepped the mark. She was, after all, just a country girl, who appeared to be getting above her station as she sought greener pastures of stardom outside of Nashville’s traditional parameters. She recorded an album of pop standards that blurred the boundary between country and pop, her lavish, theatrical concerts often seemed closer to Broadway than Nashville, and she had made forays into Hollywood with appearances in several films, including Tremors, North, The Little Rascals and Is There Life Out There?

These flights of ambition left some people wondering if Reba had forgotten who—and what—had brought her to the dance. She admits that some of her pure-country fans have occasionally voiced disapproval as she pushed the country envelope, but she counters that she’s never gone for a pop following. She straddles the country/pop fence to invite—or even entice—pop fans over to her side.

“I don’t care if people think I’m pop, country, rock and roll or whatever,” she says, “because when I sing it’s going to be country. I'm a very country person. I'm very proud of my country roots and I am a country singer, but if there’s a pop fan out there who hears me sing and likes some of my songs, I've accomplished something. I have broadened my audience, and I'm always striving to do that.”

Reba can speak with authority about country music both yesterday and today because she’s experienced both eras firsthand. No other country entertainer consistently on the charts today had hit records as long ago as she did. Her first chart record, I Don’t Want To Be A One Night Stand, was in 1976—before Garth Brooks and George Strait, and long before any of the current crop of mega-selling women came along. And other superstars of the 1980s, like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, haven’t been able to come close to Reba’s multi-platinum success in the 1990s.

She has collected every award the music profession has to offer, including two Grammy Awards an unequalled four successive trophies as CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, nine TNN Music City News Female Artist of the Year awards, and Entertainer of the Year honours from both the CMA and the Academy of Country Music. Yet she is one of the few American superstars who has not been able to build an international following, which she rightly acknowledges as having been mainly her own fault and something she intends to put right during the next few years.

There was a half-hearted attempt in the spring of 1989, when she made a solitary British concert appearance at London’s Dominion theatre. Since then she has left British fans frustrated as they have watched her build a phenomenal following in America at the expense of what could have been a huge international following. She says it was not a case of snubbing her loyal British fans, more a case of finding the right time.

“Timing is everything,” she explains. “When you look back at it, it was probably not the right time for us to do it. I think we’re more geared, more ready mentally to do something like that now. So I see us broadening out more, not just staying in the United States as we have done.”

The first step in this new and exciting build-up of an international following took place last year when Reba made her first ever trip to Australia. She says that she learned many valuable lessons there, and intends to utilise her Downunder experiences as a broad base for tackling the European market. “Everything has been a little step up,” she says. “Nothing in my career has been a big leap.”

“We had a wonderful time down in Australia,” she continues. “We got to tour with Kenny Rogers. No one really knew who I was down there, so I was pretty much starting over by going to Australia and trying to get a career started down there. But they were very hospitable. They opened their arms to my whole group.”

It was quite a risk, and took more than a little humility on Reba’s part to spend time as an opening act for Rogers, who could now be termed something of a spent force. But it worked, and introduced her music to thousands of Aussies, who had probably heard some of her songs but could never put the name and the face to the singer. By the time she left after her three-week stay, which not only included sold-out concerts, but numerous radio and television shows, Reba’s name was well-known in Australia and a special compilation album of her Stateside hits charted and went on to gain her a platinum disc.

“I’ve had 25 albums out, and I don’t know how many were released down there,” she explains. “But because they weren’t that familiar with my music, we gave them a compilation album of my past hits, and now my new album, IF YOU SEE HIM, has been released down there.”

Like the hits-compilation, that album has also charted in Australia, and Reba intends to return on a regular basis. She recognises that going in once and never returning is not the way to build up a long-lasting, loyal following in foreign lands.

“It was a very nice trip, very rewarding,” she says. “I can’t wait to go back. I think the most important thing is to go in first, do the publicity and let the people know who you are, that you are interested in coming over ad introducing them to you and your music.”

Reba intends to use the same strategy for Britain and Europe, and by the time you are reading this, will have completed a flying promotional visit prior to the release of a special Best Of compilation entitled MOMENTS AND MEMORIES. The plan is to follow-up with a full tour early next year.

Pleasing the fans is something that is always uppermost in her mind. It was to please fans wishes that she and Brooks & Dunn recorded her duet hit If You See Him (If You See Her). During last year’s tour, the two acts would perform a couple of songs together and discussed the possibility of having a song specially written for this year’s tour. Fans wishes were met with a calculated blockbuster song that has proved to be a huge commercial success for both Brooks & Dunn and Reba.

Reba herself has ascended to a place of respect, prominence and power, but is always striving for greater things, realising that if you stand still in showbiz, you can soon become a forgotten name. She has never chased big unobtainable goals and has always maintained a work ethic that most superstars could never match. She readily admits that she doesn’t have to tour, doesn’t have to have the big-production shows, but that she thrives on doing the very best as a singer and performer and that the music is still the most important aspect of her career. 

“My goal has always been to put out the best possible music I can find,” she says. “When I find a song that melts my heart or makes me feel really good, that’s a song I want to sing. That hasn’t changed. My fans know I can sing. They don’t have to come out and see me, they can just as easily buy the CDs, stay at home and save a lot of money. They come to see something more, so I try and give more every time I step out there.”