Reba McEntire Explains Why She Waited Until Now to Record Her First Gospel Album

Justin McIntosh
Reba McEntire

In her four-decades plus of recording, Reba McEntire has heard a little bit of everything from record companies. But when the Country Music Hall of Fame member turned in her latest project, she was told something that she had never heard before.

“When we went in to record, we were just going to do a regular album,” she said of her first-ever gospel album. “I wanted to do a mix of some old and some new. But, when we presented it to the labels -- Nash Icon and Capitol Christian -- they both said ‘We can’t pitch any of these out. There’s none that we don’t like.’ I asked them what they wanted to do, and they said ‘Let’s make it a double album. Have one CD be all the old songs, and the other one be all new songs.’ So, they had me go back in and record five more songs. That’s how we ended up at two discs, and the two bonus tracks.” Getting to record more songs was a career first for the singer, though one she readily welcomed. “That was a good problem to have. I’ve never had a situation like that before, so I was delighted.”

The singer will release Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope on Feb. 3. Making such an album has always been on her radar, but with the success that her sister Susie has enjoyed in the Christian format, she avoided doing so over the years. Still, cuts such as “Suddenly, There’s A Valley” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me” have shown her spiritual side.

“That’s always been a part of who I am,” she says. “I didn’t get into that genre because of Susie, but she was fine with it and really encouraged me. I think that timing is everything. I was pleased that everybody was on board and enthusiastic about me doing a gospel album.”

The new release is the second straight project from the singer to feature classic material -- following up her recent My Kind of Christmas disc. She tells Billboard she tried to approach the standards the same way.

“A lot of the classics are like Christmas songs. They have so many verses. I sang the ones I was familiar with, and the versions I was familiar with. I had the hymnal out from the church I went to growing up in Chockie, Oklahoma. I just started going through there to pick the songs, and I just sang them the way I remembered them.”

Disc one features her take on classic fare as “I’ll Fly Away” and “Softly and Tenderly” (featuring Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood), as well as the first song she was ever paid for singing -- “Jesus Loves Me.” She recalls the moment, which took place when she was about four years old.

“I was in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the Cheyenne Frontier Hotel. The cowboys there paid [her brother] Pake a quarter to sing ‘Hound Dog.’ I got up, and they paid me a nickel to do ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ In a lot of cases, there are great stories that go with the songs that make for great memories.”

One song that the singer recorded by the request of former Reba co-star Melissa Peterman served as the basis for some education for the singer -- "Oh Happy Day.” She thought the song was much newer than it is. “I didn’t know until I started looking in my hymnal and I saw it. I was really surprised. I had just heard the modern-day version. I don’t even remember doing that when we were in church.”

One cut that has a special spot in her heart is “I’ll Fly Away,” which features her mother and both of her sisters. “That was definitely a hoot. We got into the studio, and all of us behind one mic. Mama and Alice started backing up, and of course, Susie and I were just hogging the mic. I told them ‘You guys gotta get up here.’ We’d get tickled, and I’d start trying to direct them. We just had a blast, and we’ve got it all on video."

Also of note for the singer is “I Got The Lord On My Side,” on which she shares a co-write credit with her mother. “We were in the studio, and were singing it and listening back to it. Mama says ‘Can I suggest something? I said, ‘Sure.’ She said, ‘Instead of saying ‘I’m so happy’ on the last verse, why don’t you say ‘If you’re happy’?” I said, 'Great! Does that mean I’m going to have to give you a writer’s credit?' That was very special to me.”

Disc two kicks off with the beautiful title cut from the project, which serves as the perfect segue between discs. “That’s why I put it first on the second CD,” she admits. “If I can sing those songs when I was growing up, I sure can sing them now. [I'm] older. You have life experiences, and that comes into play. They mean even more to me now.”

Reba worked with Doug Sisemore and Rascal FlattsJay DeMarcus as producers on the album. Of the latter, she says, “He’s one of the best producers I’ve ever gotten to work with. He’s very knowledgeable as a musician, a singer, and an arranger. He’s also so easy to get along.” McEntire says that she was intrigued with DeMarcus after hearing what he did behind the glass on Ronnie Dunn’s latest disc, Tattooed Heart. “That was the of the reasons I wanted to work with him. Ronnie was singing his praises at how great he was to work with, and just how full of ideas he is.”

McEntire will likely perform several of the cuts from Sing It Now on Feb. 15 at her sold-out performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Music City. She says she can’t wait to perform her first full-length concert at “The Mother Church of Country Music.”

“That’s the only vacation we ever took on the McEntire side. We went to Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry. I remember going there as a little girl. It will be the first time I’ve ever done a complete show at the Ryman. I’ve done songs there before, but never a complete concert. My team and I thought it would be a great experience and something new to do. It’s definitely going to be another milestone.”