Women in Music 2016

Reba McEntire on Teaching Her 'MasterClass' & Not Shying Away From 'Sad Songs' on Christmas Album

MasterClass
Reba McEntire

"The best advice is to work hard, be on time and be prepared," she says of her MasterClass takeaway. "Don't waste other people's time."

After four decades of experience in the music business, Reba McEntire is ready to share the secrets of her success.

The country superstar's brand-new MasterClass -- which includes 20-plus video lessons with the "Fancy" singer -- went live Friday (Nov. 18) for aspiring Nashville stars and McEntire completists alike. Over the course of the class, McEntire addresses the ins and outs of the industry and also leads vocal, songwriting and stage exercises. "People had always said to me after doing interviews, 'Man, you need to teach a class.' And I said, 'That's cute,'" she told Billboard this week. "Then they came up with this idea saying, 'We're doing a MasterClass, and would you like to be a part of it?'" After hearing that her fellow teachers would include Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman and acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz, she was quick to respond: "I'm in."

Country hopefuls would be smart to take her lead: McEntire holds the record for the most top 10 hits among women on the Hot Country Songs chart with 59. Plus, with 12 No. 1s, she has the most chart-toppers among women on Top Country Albums.

Below, we talk with Reba all about her MasterClass lesson plan, her third Christmas album, paying tribute to Dolly Parton at the 50th CMA Awards and the loss of her country contemporary Holly Dunn earlier this week.

The making of a MasterClass:
We sat down in three days in three different locations, and I did everything from answering questions on how I do things, recording, my concerts, how do I find songs, then we went into the studio and I showed them how we recorded, then we went to the Grand Ole Opry and I critiqued four artists, young artists -- mostly they're songwriters trying to get in the business. I kind of critiqued them and told them what I thought might improve what they're doing, and it was really fun.

What it takes to break through in country:
Man, it's a song. If you find a song that you can sing and deliver it well and you touched somebody's heart, you don't have to be a great singer. So many [vocal] stylists are the ones who have made it very successful in the music business, so I think if you connect with the song that is really, really good and fits you and the audience likes it, it connects with the audience, you're in.

What she would tell her younger self:
I just moved into a new house, and I'm downsizing. Next time somebody asks me what advice would you give people getting into the music business, starting a career, I would say: Don't collect anything. You always think, "Oh, I'm going to collect that and invest and then I'm going to sell it." Well, you'll never get back what you put into it, so don't collect anything. You just accumulate a bunch of stuff. But I guess the best advice is to work hard, be on time and be prepared. Don't waste other people's time.

What teachers inspired her MasterClass?
My mom and daddy. When they told me to do something, I did it, and that's what's really important to me: When I tell people I'm going to do something, I do it, because that's what Mom and Daddy said. Your word is what's so important. If you tell people you're going to do something, do it or you become a wishy-washy person and nobody trusts you. It's very important in all walks of life -- not just the music business.

Her best teachers in Nashville:
Mel Tillis told me to really watch your money. Statler Brothers say, "This is a business. Have fun, but it's a business. Treat it like a business." Red Steagall, he said, "Write something every day. Write a song every day." I didn't do that -- I wish I had've because even if you don't write a good song, you know how to look for a good song, because you've been in there trying, and you know what makes a good song. That's what you're looking for. If you can't do it, you're going to go look for somebody else to write that song. So you know what to look for.

How growing up on a cattle ranch inspired her business sensibility:
After my first tour, I came to Nashville and I gave all my receipts to my accountant and he said, "Wow." I said, "What do you mean, wow?" He said, "Well, I've never had anybody bring back this much money what they've made on tour." I said, "Well, that's what I went on tour for: to make money. That's my living." He said, "Well, I know, but it's kinda different with other artists." And I said, "I had no idea." You know, I was raised that you'd go out and you'd run cattle all year long to make a profit, so you can buy more cattle the next year and make a profit and build your herd up. So that's what I was doing in the music business, I was making money so I can improve the next year's staging and lighting and costuming and bigger band, whatever. I was investing in my career.

Her first big (regrettable) splurge:
I'll never forget when I started making money and I went out and bought me a new outfit. It was a maroon, kind-of cranberry suede outfit with matching purse and matching high heels. It was the most uncomfortable outfit I ever made a purchase on, and I gave it away. I kept it for two years, and finally I said, "I'm never gonna wear it," so I gave it away. It wasn't me. That was an early lesson for me.

What she wants people to take away from her MasterClass:
I think the number one thing is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. You can learn from people. Hang out with good people. Willie Nelson always said, "A rotten apple in the bucket will turn the rest of the good apples rotten." I'm paraphrasing, but it makes total sense. Hang out with people who make you work harder, who you enjoy being around. I don't work with assholes. I mean, I refuse to be around negative people. It is such a downer. It drains the life out of me. I like to stay around positive, fun people who are smarter than me. Life's too short to be around negative people -- I mean, they've got their problems, and you can't fix people. I have to work on me all the time, and so if that's my job, to work on me, I'm not out there to change people and fix people.

On her third Christmas album, My Kind of Christmas, available exclusively at the Cracker Barrel:
It's just Catherine Marx and myself on the album. No harmony, no other musicians besides Catherine who played the piano. … I did [Dolly Parton's] "Hard Candy Christmas." It came at the worst time in the world, you know, right after a divorce [from music exec Narvel Blackstock in 2015], and here I am singing this "Hard Candy Christmas," which is such a sad song, but that's what good songs are: They're relatable. People can relate to them. I'm not the only person in the world whose been through a divorce, so it's a song that will touch a lot of people's hearts.

Why Christmas isn't always the most wonderful time of the year:
Valentine's Day and Christmas are the two worst in the world for people who are alone. It's very depressing and it's very lonely. Everybody else is having a big time celebrating with all their family, and if you're alone, if you don't have friends, you don't have family, it's miserable. It's one of the worst days in the world. My faith in God, and knowing that's why we celebrate it, is 'cause it's Jesus' birthday, is what gets me through -- knowing, who died for me, Jesus did. And I'm celebrating his birthday. I'm so glad he came to Earth to live and die for us, so whatever mood I'm in, that's going to pull me out of it. I sing songs for people in all moods. There's a song on this album for everybody.

On her ongoing Las Vegas residency with Brooks & Dunn:
The crowd comes to us from all over the world. They are having a great time. We're on the same stage and same dressing rooms -- well, we're not sharing the same dressing room. They'd drive me crazy! it's the same venue, it's a great routine that we get into. We have a great time together. We know all the restaurants at Caesar's, the folks at Caesar's, in the mall, in the casino, in the restaurants, in the shops, the maids, everybody. Everybody Is just so nice to us. They just treat us like family. In July, we were there for three weeks. So you get to know the town, you get to know the hotel, and we get out and go try other hotels and restaurants and we go see shows. We saw Lionel Richie's show the last time we were in. It's just so much fun to go do things in Vegas.

Paying tribute to Dolly Parton at the 50th-anniversary CMA Awards:
It was very special when [CMA Awards executive producer] Robert Deaton said, "I want you to be a part of the 50th anniversary, I said, "Robert, I'd love to." I've been in the business for 40 years. I would love to be a part of that celebration -- it's history in the making. So he said, "Opening and then Dolly tribute." I said, "I'm in." I love Dolly. She's been a huge influence on me and I've learned from her. Great, smart businesswoman. So I was just very proud to be a part of that tribute to her. She deserved it.

Remembering country contemporary Holly Dunn:
Holly and I were starting out at kind of the same time, and she was just a sweet gal and I loved her voice. I loved the songs she sang, and then she kind of disappeared out of the music business. And [Warner Music Nashville exec] Shane Tartleton, my friend and I, were talking about her the other day, and then I said, "Can you get me her address? I'd like to send her a note." And then this morning, I found out she passed away.