She’s the biggest little lady in country music, and made it to the top the old-fashioned way–with natural talent, a little luck, and lots of hard work.
There’s a ranch in southeastern Oklahoma with a driveway that leads to a highway that took Reba McEntire all the way to Nashville, Tennessee. She grew up ranching, rodeoing, and singing, and while the latter made her famous, it didn’t change her. She knows what makes life worth living, and her priorities are straight.
Her daddy, Clark McEntire, is a three-time world champion steer roper (1957, ’58, and ’61). His late father won the same title back in 1934. Rodeo has been important to the McEntires, and the whole family-Reba’s sisters Alice and Susie, brother Pake, and mom Jacqueline- used to travel with Clark to the summer rodeos he entered. To pass the time, while riding in the car, Mom taught the kids to sing and harmonize.
Reba still stays in close touch with her parents and siblings, and she and her husband, Narvel Blackstock, and their children often visit the Oklahoma ranch on holidays. Looking back on her childhood, Reba’s progression to the top as a singer and entertainer seems like it must have been almost predictable.
She loved to sing, and was in every school musical production that came along, from first grade on up. She followed the careers of all the Nashville stars, and could imitate their styles when she sang their songs. Then Reba developed her own style of singing, and it is that style that has brought her fame and fortune. She has legions of fans, hit albums and videos, and tours that generate rave reviews. Music critics say she sings with heart and soul, and strikes a chord in men and women, young and old.
Reba was a sophomore at Southeastern State University at Durant, Okla., the year she first sang to a really large crowd. The event was the 1974 National Finals Rodeo, in Oklahoma City, and her dad had made arrangements with Clem McSpadden, general manager of the NFR, for Reba to open the performances by singing the national anthem.
The rodeo crowd loved her. She was one of their own, for sure. But it was her strong, clear singing voice, the way she handled the difficult highs and lows in “The Star Spangled Banner,” that brought waves of applause and cheers, night after night at the rodeo. It was also the first time that the traditional singing of the national anthem received news coverage as an important part of the rodeo.
Singer Red Steagall was at the rodeo that year, and he was also impressed with Reba’s singing, so much so that he took her with him to Nashville the following month, and had her cut a demonstration tape. It was the break she needed. Eleven months later, Reba signed her first record contract, and then recorded eight albums over the next 10 years. She also continued to sing the national anthem at the NFR through 1984.
That was the year she was first named Female Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association, and became the first to win that prestigious award for 4 straight years. She was up for three other Country Music Association awards, as well as another Female Vocalist of the Year honor, again this fall, and was scheduled to host the televised awards program, to boot.
A total of 29 major awards, including a Grammy, and various accolades from the Academy of Country Music, American Music Awards, and others have come her way over the last 7 years. So have eight gold albums (given for sales of 500,000 each) and two platinums (for sales of a million).
In addition to recording albums, she and her supporting cast of musicians and technicians perform live throughout the country, 130 times a year. She and Narvel, who was a musician in her band 11 years ago and today is her manager, run their own company, Starstruck Entertainment. It’s the second marriage for both. Narvel has three children from his first marriage Shawna, 17, Brandon, 14, and Chastity, 12-and he and Reba have a son Shelby Steven McEntire Blackstock who was born February 23, 1990.
Reba says she has never been happier, balancing her career with family life. She often flies home to Tennessee after a performance, mainly to be close to Shelby, even when she is in the middle of a hectic tour. She never strays far from her roots, but it was actually young Brandon Blackstock’s interest in horses that prompted the family to move from a condominium in Nashville to horse acreage near Gallatin, Tennessee.
“It happened 3 years ago during Thanksgiving,” Reba said. “We went home to Oklahoma to my folks, and Narvel’s kids went with us. Well, my older sister, Alice, had some horses there that Brandon took an interest in, and all I can say is, before Thanksgiving, Brandon was kind of a preppie kid, but afterwards, he wanted to be a cowboy. He started hitting his dad up about getting a horse.
“So, before Christmas that year, we were looking around Tennessee for a good kids’ horse for Brandon, and we found a nice, solid Quarter Horse, 16 years old, registered, who used to be on the show circuit. We went ahead and bought him.
“But while we were looking for him, I saw this really good-lookin’, 3-year-old stud, and I told Narvel , ‘Man, he is great-but not for Brandon.’ And Narvel said, ‘Well, you really think, though, that he’s the best horse you’ve seen?’ And I said yes, but he wasn’t for Brandon, so I didn’t really think about him anymore after that.”
The family celebrated their own Christmas a few days early in Tennessee. They were planning to spend the real holiday with family and relatives in Oklahoma.
“About the 22nd of December, we opened our packages early in the morning, and I was getting ready to fix breakfast,” Reba recalled. “Narvel said, ‘Before we eat, let’s go to the apartment over the barn.’ Our nanny, Cindy Bailey, lives there, and I said, ‘Now? Aren’t you kids hungry?’ I thought they were starving, but they said no.
“So we went to the apartment and stopped by the barn, and I found that same stud horse I liked so well-Little Bit-standing in the stall right next to Brandon’s horse, and I just cried.
“I’d never really had a horse of my own. And I’d never had a saddle of my own. I always rode steer roping and calf roping horses, and rode the saddles the men used. My band and all my office people and crew knew that, and so at our Christmas party, like a week before this, they had given me a beautiful saddle. Narvel had gotten me a breast collar to go with it, and it was just wonderful. And then to get the horse on top of that, well, it was a very special Christmas for me.”
Reba used to compete in barrel racing. Her first barrel horse was Dad’s steer roping horse, old Pelican. Later on, Pake had a good calf roping horse named Silky that needed a break from the game. To keep him in shape, Reba offered to run barrels on him. She wound up filling a couple of permits (winning set amounts of money) in the Girls Rodeo Association (now Womens Professional Rodeo Association), and then became a full-fledged member of the association in 1975.
“Now, the only time I can go to a rodeo is when we’re playing at one, like Houston, San Antonio, or Cheyenne. I just get to ride for pleasure, but not all that often, even though my throat doctor told me to ride as much as I can, because that builds up my air better than anything else I do. It strengthens my diaphragm.”
Reba says Narvel wants to raise foals.
“He wants to see babies running around out there in the pasture. I said, ‘Narvel you’re talking about a lot of time and work.’ And he said that would be okay, so we’ll probably wind up with some mares, and raise some foals.”
Reba is firmly entrenched as a country music star, but she also likes to experience a certain amount of change in her life, to keep things interesting. In 1990, she added acting to her repertoire, co-starring in a science-fiction thriller, Tremors, which made it on television, and is currently on the video market. Earlier this year, she accepted a part in a new Kenny Rogers Gambler movie, scheduled to air this month on television.
“You know how you get after you’ve done one thing for a long time, how you’re not really bored, but you’ve lost a little enthusiasm,” she said. “Well, that’s the kind of rut we were in when this opportunity came up to be in the Kenny Rogers movie. I always look forward to the award shows, because it breaks up the monotony of just touring. Recording is the same way; I really enjoy that, too.
“But I had been telling Narvel on a Monday that it sure would be great if another movie part would come up, and it was that very next day, Tuesday, that Narvel came in the house and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but you wanted something new, and you’re gonna get it.’ And then he told me about the offer.
“I said I’ll take it, but when is the filming? He said it’s right during the time we were planning to take a vacation. So, we spent our vacation filming in Los Angeles.
“A lot of actors were involved,” she continued. “I mean like the whole bunch from the last three Gambler movies. There are a lot of western-type stars, and I’m really excited about that, because I’m a real western fan.”
Reba emphasized that she isn’t about to quit the country music business.
“It’s kind of like Grandpap always said. He used to tell Pake, ‘Get yourself a lick, and master that, and then go for another one.’ Meaning, go master calf roping, and then master steer roping after you get the first .one down. I don’t know why he called it a lick.
“Anyway, I have no plans to retire from the music business, but I like to branch out a little bit and take on that second event in television and movies.
“I’m real secure in the music business. I’m not saying that there isn’t somebody who is gonna come up and take my place, winnin’ all the awards and so on, because that’s to be expected. That’s the healthy part of country music.
“But I’ve been very successful, very happy with my career. I’ve been able to do almost everything I wanted to do. If I want to take more production out on the road, I get to. I have to pay for it, but I get to do that. That’s what is so great about living in the United States you can do that. If I lose money, that’s my fault. It ‘s my gamble, and I like it that way.
“I’ll tell you another reason I’m pushing so hard on the concerts and recordings. Daddy says, ‘You gotta get ’em while you’re hot. Because one of these days you might not be hot, and you may regret stopping too early.’ So, I’m pushing as much as I can now.” All of which is great news for the fans.
This article was originally published in the November 1991 issue of Western Horseman
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