Who says tweens rule the music industry? The force to be reckoned with in country music these days is a vivacious, 54-year-old entertainer who's been in the business for 33 years. Reba McEntire topped both the country and all-genre albums charts with her latest release, 'Keep on Loving You,' breaking the record for the most chart-topping CDs by any female country artist in history, and bringing her career record sales to more than 55 million.
Reba visited The Boot's studios on a whirlwind media tour. After her flawless performance of four new songs, we sat down with the country icon to talk about the new project, marriage and motherhood secrets, and why you probably won't ever hear her singing at a wedding.
You've already conquered the music world, so what do you have to prove with this new record?
I have nothing to prove with this album. I did this album because I love to sing. I love the music business. I love and appreciate songwriters so much, and I love my fans. And you've dedicated 'Keep on Loving You' to those fans.
They've been with me through thick and thin ... through performing on Broadway in New York, doing the 'Reba' TV show, with music. They have followed me all the way around the world. So I want to dedicate this to the fans: I'll keep on loving you. How have you managed to stay connected to your older fans, who've been with you through 31 albums, while also scoring a sea of new, younger fans?
Staying involved! Today is so much different than my solo album six years ago. Technology has just flown. I have to hang around my nieces and my son and say, 'What is this? Explain this to me.' I'm not a technical person, but I'm getting into it. I love to "Tweet" [send messages via Twitter]. I love my "Tweebas!" I like to get on and see what they're saying back to me. What just blows my mind is how we can communicate so much better than we did when I started in this business.
How have you changed in the six years since you put out your last solo album?
You learn not to sweat the small stuff, and I'm more comfortable in my own skin. I love what I'm doing. My family is happy and healthy. I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life.
When you got the word that 'Strange' was the fastest-rising single of your career, were you surprised? Or are all these accolades just old hat by now?
[pointing to her microphone] Well, I would kill the sound man if I did what I did when I found out! [mocks cheering loudly] I was jumping around, high-fiving everybody. Thrilled! Valory Music Company and Starstruck Records are my new record labels, so to have that enthusiasm with these people. [Valory Music President] Scott Borchetta and I worked together over at MCA Records, along with his team, so it's like a family reunion. Everybody's back together having fun.
So many songs on this album and throughout your career have had a female empowerment message. Is that something you set out to do with each record?
I don't set out for it, they're the ones I gravitate to. I like strong women songs. They're important, they help give direction to women.
You're one of only a handful of women in country music history who've won the industry's biggest honor, CMA Entertainer of the Year. Do you think female country artists have a tougher time than males?
I think women have a tougher time with anything! Not only in music. We've come a long way, and we've got a longer way to work on it. I came from a man's world, working on a working cattle ranch when I grew up. Then when I came in the music business, I just new I had to work harder. That's just the way it is. I don't bitch about it, I just go do the work harder, and hopefully it pays off.
If you do the math, the heartache songs way outnumber the love songs on this album.
But you've been happily married for 20 years. What's the secret to conveying sincerity on a subject matter that you're not necessarily living?
People come to me and say, "I want to do a happy love song ... a love song for my wedding." And I say, "Well good luck finding one with me!" For the longest time, I wasn't attracted to love songs. They're sappy. The hardcore country songs are sad songs, breakup songs. So that's what I always did. I gravitate to the sad songs. One beautiful sad song on this album is 'She's Turning 50 Today,' which you co-wrote. What's the story behind it?
I started writing that song when I turned 50, and I wrote the first two lines: "Her husband left on Saturday for a woman that was half her age." And that was all I got! So I sent it to Liz Hengber, who's written lots of my songs, and then she got Tommy Lee James -- who's a great songwriter also -- to help her finish the song. We got it to where it was more personable, about my time leaving Stringtown, Okla., after my first divorce. My only divorce, I should say! [laughs] It wasn't my thirtieth! Stealing a line from your song, '8 Crazy Hours (in the Story of Love),' how do you answer the question, "Should I be more friend than Mom?"
That's hard, being more friend than mom. I've had to tell Shelby several times, "I'm not your buddy. That's not my job; my job is to protect you, teach you, so that when you go out into the world, I can sleep at night!" Being buddy up to a line is OK, but mainly that's not our job. Who do you turn to when you need an honest, perhaps brutal, opinion about something?
[My husband] Narvel Blackstock. Narvel loves me, respects me, he's my buddy. If I want a straight answer, that's Narvel.
Congratulations on your recent 20th wedding anniversary! What's your secret to staying so happy together after all these years?
Stay away from each other a lot! [laughs] No, I'm just kidding. Narvel and I have been working together since 1980, and he has a knack of thinking things up. He's a great ideas man. He became my tour manager, and our show grew -- we started putting risers on the stage when I couldn't afford it. That's what Narvel would do, come up with ideas. In 1988, I made him my manager, and then we got married in '89, had [our son] Shelby in '90, and it's just been one great year after the other. I highly respect him, love him and [we have] great communication. I was not a good a communicator when we first got married. I would sull up and wouldn't talk to him. And he would say, "Alright, what's the deal?" [mocks crying] I said, "You didn't remember three years ago ..." He said, "That's it? That's the problem?" And when you say stuff, you go, "That was really silly; that wasn't that big a deal." So what I've learned is when you're mad, get it off your chest. Say it then, because once you say it, it's not that big a deal.
So what does make you mad? You always seem to be in such a great mood.
Rude people tick me off. I don't like egos. My sister, Alice, always said, when people brag, "Oh aren't you proud of Reba? Reba's this ... Reba's that ..." She says, "Reba's just like us. She just happens to sing better than some." And I thought that put it on such an understandable level for everyone. We've got to have our heroes, but we've got to realize that they're just people. Idealize their talent, not them.
So many people all over the world idealize you. So do you ever miss your anonymity?
I don't. Doing the 'Reba' TV show opened the flood gates on me being so recognizable. We're on TV four times a day, five days a week. So people will come up to me and act like they know me. I understand that, because I've done that to people I've seen on television before! I've run up and hugged their neck, and they'll say, "Have we met before?" I say, "No ... oh my God, I don't think we have! But I thought I knew you, because I saw you on TV every week." That familiarity makes me more accessible to people, and I understand that, because I've done it myself!
Everyone in our studio keeps commenting today on how beautiful and young you look. What is your secret to looking 40 at 54?
I don't feel 54 years old. I'm still at 36! I always try to make my mind work. I even go to a different grocery store, because you get trained. Walk down that aisle, you know where the Cheerios are; walk down this aisle, you know where the milk is. You've got to stop that! I won't go to the same gas station. I want to have to make myself figure the new machine out, and it's very frustrating. It will take me a good 10 minutes extra to get my stuff done, but I think it's good for your brain to do that.
Put these in order of priority: wife, mother, recording artist, actress.
Mother first, wife second, and the rest just follow.
Would you ever do another sitcom?
I am reading some scripts. I've got two that are interesting. But we have no idea if they'll ever come to fruition. So we're not really worried about it right now. We're focusing on the music. We had a wonderful time on Broadway and on the television show, and if anything comes along that touches my heart, like playing Annie Oakley in 'Annie Get Your Gun' or being Reba in the 'Reba' TV show did, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
You have been doing a ton of press lately, but let's face it -- you could put out a No. 1 album without doing any of this. Why do you choose to work just as hard as if you were a brand-new artist?
I won't take any chances. "What if ....? How many more [CDs] would have sold if I'd done one more interview?" We ran hard in the '90s, as fast as you can go. And we didn't look back; we were looking forward all the time. It's good to sit on the porch swing and read a book for a day or two, to be with the family and to really savor all the beautiful things in life. And then when you go back to work, you go at it with a passion. That's what I have done with this album, and it's fun to be back talking about my passion for music! I thoroughly enjoy it. I probably won't next week [laughs], but right now I do!
What's the secret to longevity in the music business?
Good songs and hard work. If you don't have either one of those, stay home.