Nothing about Reba McEntire's entry into country music in 1976 foreshadowed the enormous achievements she would make as an entertainer and businesswoman. From the mid-1980s until the late 1990s, she was clearly the dominant female presence in the country format. By the time she fell victim to changing musical tastes, she had already extended her talents to acting.
Born Reba Nell McEntire on March 28, 1955, in Chockie, Okla., the singer grew up on a large cattle ranch. Her father was also a champion calf roper, an activity that routinely took the McEntire family on far-flung rodeo tours. Her mother was a singer and teacher. While Reba showed an early love and talent for music, she was not alone in this interest. Both her brother, Dale (nicknamed Pake), and sister, Susie, were singers as well, and each would go on to be solo artists. While still at home, though, they performed together as the singing McEntires.
Red Steagall, then a recording artist for Capitol Records, heard her singing the national anthem at the National Rodeo finals in 1974 and was so impressed that he offered to back a recording session for her in Nashville. This led to her signing with Mercury Records in 1975. The following year, she married rodeo rider Charlie Battles. That union would last until their divorce in 1987. (At about the same time she was getting into the music business, McEntire completed her degree in education.)
On May 8, 1976, McEntire made her debut on Billboard's country singles chart with "I Don't Want to Be a One-Night Stand." The single was hardly more than that, reaching only to No. 88 and falling off entirely after five weeks. She charted steadily after that, but not conspicuously. She did not score a Top 10 record until 1980 when "(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven" climbed to No. 8. In her next three years with Mercury -- she switched to MCA in 1984 -- she gained momentum via singles that routinely landed in Top 10 and Top 5 territory. Two of her Mercury singles made it all the way to No. 1: "Can't Even Get the Blues" (1983) and "You're the First Time I've Thought About Leaving" (1984). It took her three singles with MCA to go No. 1, but she did it with the late 1984 release of "How Blue."
Well into the '80s, she made the most of her rodeo persona, both in publicity photos and stage costumes. Her powerful but still twangy voice was as distinctively rough and rural as Loretta Lynn's Appalachian yawp. But during this period, as her presence within the industry rose, she began moving her looks and sound more toward the middle. She was one of the first country stars to glimpse the potential of music videos. In her first video, "Whoever's in New England" in 1986, she played a suburban housewife who's fearful that her executive husband is enjoying carnal pleasures in Massachusetts. Her second one, "What Am I Gonna Do About You" (also 1986), had her in an urban setting playing opposite actor David Keith. In the years ahead, she would often involve famous people in her videos, among them actor Bruce Boxleitner, rock singer Huey Lewis and actor/director Rob Reiner. She also favored videos high on drama and which spotlighted her own burgeoning acting talents. One of these, "Is There Life Out There" (1992), was transformed into a television movie for her. In "Fancy" (1991), she played a rich, now-respected and very business-like former prostitute. In "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" (1992), she portrayed an old lady who has a secret to tell.
Much of her artistic metamorphosis came from hiring attorney Bill Carter as her principal manager, a duty that formerly fell to her husband Battles. It also helped her career when she moved from Oklahoma to Nashville. Under Carter's management, she would greatly spread her presence beyond country music, a point made obvious when she sold out Carnegie Hall in 1987, the same year she issued her first volume of hits on MCA. After her divorce from Battles, her former steel player and road manager, Narvel Blackstock, became her manager and later her second husband. Together, they created Starstruck Entertainment in 1988, an umbrella organization that eventually embraced concert promotion, music publishing, recording, publicity, transportation and related services.
Every year from 1984 through 1987, she won the Country Music Association's female vocalist of the year award. In 1986, she was voted CMA's entertainer of the year. She won Grammys in 1986 and 1993 for best female country vocal performance and best country vocal collaboration, respectively. Her singles continued to hit No. 1 regularly. Between 1985 and 1997, she had 17 No. 1's and another 15 Top 5s. She also put to rest the myth that women in country music couldn't sell albums. To date, she has sold more than 40 million.
In 1990, she played a major supporting role in the movie Tremors, which starred Kevin Bacon. Her other feature films and TV movies include North, The Little Rascals, The Gambler Returns, The Man From Left Field, Buffalo Girls, Is There Life Out There, Forever Love and One Night at McCool's. (She declined the role of Molly Brown in Titanic due to her touring schedule.) There were also the network specials Reba Live and Celebrating 20 Years. During the 1990s, she mounted one of the most elaborate concert shows in any kind of music, one that involved multi-tiered stage sets, a flying platform and a troupe of dancers.
At the time of its release, 1990's Rumor Has It had become her best-selling album to date with the hits "You Lie," "Fancy" and "Fallin' Out of Love." While on tour, seven members of her band and her road manager were killed in an airplane crash near San Diego on March 16, 1991. In spite of her grief, she sang a few weeks later on the Academy Awards show. Still mourning the loss, she went into the studio to record her next album and created one of the best, yet bleakest, collections of her career, For My Broken Heart. It went on to sell more than 4 million copies, making it her best-selling studio album. It's Your Call arrived a year later.
In 1993, Greatest Hits, Vol. II was released with a new Linda Davis duet, "Does He Love You." It was a smash hit, and the album has sold more than 5 million copies. The follow-up, Read My Mind, sold 3 million copies. (Rumor Has It and It's Your Call have matched that figure.) However, her career faltered momentarily after releasing an album of lukewarm cover songs, Starting Over, in 1995. Nevertheless, she continued her string of hits -- "The Fear of Being Alone," "How Was I to Know," "I'd Rather Ride Around With You" and the Brooks & Dunn duet "If You See Him/If You See Her" -- through the rest of the decade.
In spite of her wide view of entertainment, McEntire has always seen music as her bedrock. Her best songs not only incorporate the attitudes and emotional intensity of classic country, they also have important things to say. In fact, no other country artist of her era matched her when it came to recording and performing socially conscious material. "Stairs" tackles the subject of spousal abuse; "Just Across the Rio Grande" sympathizes with the plight of immigrants; "She Thinks His Name Was John" reflects on the perils of unprotected sex; "The Greatest Man I Never Knew" examines parental neglect; "Bobby" is an eloquent defense of "mercy killing"; and "All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)" focuses on emotional abandonment of the elderly.
McEntire's autobiography, Reba: My Story, was published in 1994. It became the basis of her intimate 2000 stage show tour, A Singer's Diary. She offered the inspirational book Comfort From a Country Quilt in 1999. In 2001, she took over the lead role in the Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun and absolutely dazzled the New York critics. Later that year, she began her Warner Bros. TV sitcom series, Reba. She issued the third volume of her MCA hits in 2002, followed by the studio album Room to Breathe in 2003. She resumed touring on a limited basis in 2004.