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Reba McEntire on women in country music and returning to her roots
Judy Woodruff: She's a musical legend, the star of sitcoms, movies, and Broadway, not to mention a retail mogul.
Reba McEntire sat down with Amna Nawaz recently for our regular series on arts and culture, Canvas.
Reba McEntire: Walk down memory lane, with lots of great things I have gotten to do.
Amna Nawaz: Over the evolution of her career, Reba McEntire's music has undergone an evolution of its own. She's boosted the bass, cranked the electric guitars, and turned up the flash.
For four decades, the reigning queen of country music has changed with the times, churning out hit after hit after hit.
Reba McEntire: Just to make it more country, like an old Haggard song.
Amna Nawaz: But it wasn't until 2019, McEntire says, that she could finally get back to her musical roots.
Reba McEntire: Every time I would try to do something very country, you know, the record label or somebody would want me to go more contemporary, or what mainstream is at the time, or what radio was playing at the time. So, it's just back to basics for me.
Amna Nawaz: Why was that important for you to do at this stage?
Reba McEntire: It's my heart. It's me. At this stage, I have been wanting to do it forever, but, finally, I get to.
Amna Nawaz: Her new album, "Stronger Than The Truth," drops April 5. It's McEntire's first country album since her split with Narvel Blackstock, her husband of 26 years and longtime manager.
Reba McEntire: Music is very healing. If you bring something that hurts you out into the open, into the light, the darkness seems to go away. You have confronted it. You have addressed it. And then you can let it go.
Amna Nawaz: It's like naming your fears, right? Once you say it out loud, it's less scary.
Reba McEntire: Yes, your hurt and -- yes, your hurt and fears, absolutely. Let them go.
Amna Nawaz: For decades, McEntire has led the charge for women in country music, even hosting the Academy of Country Music Awards 15 times. She will host again this year, and spoke out on CBS when the top category failed to include a single female nominee.
Reba McEntire: I'm missing my girlfriends on this.
Disappointing. Didn't surprise me. But when anything like that happens, I just know us gals got to -- we got to work harder. We got to support each other. We have got to get in there next year. It's got to change.
Amna Nawaz: You recently called it a bro culture too in country music.
Reba McEntire: Yes.
Amna Nawaz: What do you mean by that?
Reba McEntire: Well, it's the bro trend. You know, "Hey, bro, let's go down to the river and catch some fish." And everybody's good old boys. And that's the bro -- bro music.
I think it's kind of going away from that a little bit. I would really like it to get back to the real strong country, the country of Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap, Mel Tillis. I miss that kind of country.
Amna Nawaz: McEntire was raised to love that kind of country on a cattle ranch in Chockie, Oklahoma. Three of the children -- Reba, Pake, and Susie -- performed as the Singing McEntires, coached by their mother, Jacqueline.
Reba McEntire: Pake and Susie and I would be in the living room rehearsing, practicing, learning a new song, and mama would be in there cooking dinner. And we'd say, OK, we got it to where we think it's about right.
And she would come in there with the spatula and she'd say, "All right, sing it for me."
She'd listen, and she'd go: "That was perfect. Now do it again." She'd go back to frying potatoes.
Amna Nawaz: The siblings toured local rodeos, clubs, and dance halls, singing what they knew.
Reba McEntire: The very first song that I ever sang in a studio with Pake and Susie, in 1971, was "The Ballad Of John McEntire."
Amna Nawaz: Do you remember how it goes?
Reba McEntire: Oh, yes: "Gather round me, boys, got a story to tell, about a friend of mine that you all know well. He's an old cowhand and he's known near and far. He goes by the name of John McEn-tar."
You know, we really weren't supposed to say "tar," but it rhymes with far.
Amna Nawaz: But it was a 1974 solo performance in Oklahoma City, when 19-year-old McEntire sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the national rodeo finals, that caught the ear of country star Red Steagall.
The next year, McEntire signed her first record deal, stepping into a spotlight that's stayed with her for over 40 years, and has yet to dim; 29 studio records, 35 number one hits, and 56 million albums sold worldwide.
The songs, she says, helped her navigate the lows, like in 1991, when she lost eight band and team members in a plane crash. Her music, McEntire says, helps her to keep going, like the rags-to-riches tale of "Fancy."
Reba McEntire: She's a survivor.
Amna Nawaz: Why does speak to you?
Reba McEntire: Well, it's a strong woman, a survivor. She could have just rolled over and died, and totally give up. But she didn't. She persevered and did what she had to, to survive.
Amna Nawaz: That has been a theme in, not just your songs, but your life.
Reba McEntire: Yes.
Amna Nawaz: What is it that you tell yourself in those moments? How do you keep moving forward?
Reba McEntire: The alternative is not a possibility. It's not even a suggestion to me to quit. I'm not a quitter. I persevere. I continue on.
How about that hair?
Amna Nawaz: Hairstyle number one. Are you going to bring this back?
Reba McEntire: No.
Amna Nawaz: OK.
Reba McEntire: No. That's a perm.
Amna Nawaz: The halls of McEntire's Nashville office are lined with hallmarks of her career.
Reba McEntire: The grand entry at a rodeo. See the Oklahoma flag?
Amna Nawaz: There's a statue of her in that famous red dress.
Reba McEntire: Daddy told me, he said -- he asked me when we got through with the awards that night, he said, "Reba, did you have that thing on backwards?"
Amna Nawaz: There are the albums, 27 of them certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum. There's memorabilia from 11 movies, countless awards shows and her stint on Broadway, and from her sitcoms, one of which ran for six seasons.
Reba McEntire: Let's be perfectly clear. The color is stunning. It's everything else that's freaky!
Actor: Calm down, Reba.
Amna Nawaz: And then there's this.
Reba McEntire: Well, I was the first female to ever be Colonel Sanders. And they put fringe on my outfit for me, so I was a happy camper.
Amna Nawaz: Just for you?
Reba McEntire: Just for me.
Amna Nawaz: But all the success, McEntire says, has not been without sacrifice, something she hinted at in an earlier interview.
You said, "There's a lot of people, a lot of girl singers, who are 10,000 times better than me." But, you said, "They don't have the drive. They don't have the work ethic. They're not willing to sacrifice what it takes to do this."
What did you mean by that?
Reba McEntire: Just that. They want it, but they don't want to have to do everything you have to do to get there.
You have to stay away from home a lot. You have to leave your kids home with a nanny. You have to say no to a lot of great things that you would get to do at home and with family. Like missing your kid's championship hockey game. You can't be there because you're shooting a movie in L.A.
A lot of that stuff, I wish -- if I could go back, what would I do? How would I do it again now, knowing what I know now? But you can't look back. You can't live on regrets.
Amna Nawaz: You wouldn't do it differently if you had to?
Reba McEntire: I don't know.
Amna Nawaz: It sounds like you think about it.
Reba McEntire: Yes, I do. I do. But, like I said, there's no need of crying over spilt milk. You just got to go on. Take the day, and move forward.
But my past is written. It's in the autobiography, 1994.
Amna Nawaz: Reba's next chapter? Amplifying other female artists, including her daughter-in-law, Kelly Clarkson, who celebrated her at last year's Kennedy Center Honors.
In the meantime, McEntire says, she will continue to write her own story.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Nashville.
Judy Woodruff: There's only one Reba.
Multimedia assets courtesy: Reba's Business Inc., Big Machine Records, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Academy of Country Music/Dick Clark Productions, CBS, Nashville Now.