Reba McEntire Prepares for Return to Grand Ole Opry Stage, Recalls Nearly Getting Bumped for Dolly Parton 40 Years Earlier

Reba McEntire
John Shearer/Getty Images Portrait

Reba McEntire poses for a portrait at Music City Convention Center on June 7, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.

Country Music Hall of Fame member Reba McEntire can pretty much gain entrance anywhere she wants to nowadays, but in 1977, things were a lot different. She recalls to Billboard her first time on the Grand Ole Opry, where she was greeted like a newcomer.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” says McEntire. “I had just come to town and signed with Mercury, and everything was going fine. They said, "You need to get an agent," so I signed with Lavender and Blake, who got me a performance on the Grand Ole Opry for my very first time. It was going to be the weekend of September 17th, 1977. I called Mama, so Mama and Daddy and Alice, my older sister, drove from southeastern Oklahoma to see me on the Grand Ole Opry.” So far, so good. But, the night would have a twist when she arrived at the backstage gate.

“We pulled up to the back gate, and Daddy says, ‘I got Reba McEntire here to sing at the Grand Ole Oprytonight.’ The guard looks at his clipboard, next page, next page, he says, ‘Nope, she's not on the roster here, so she's not singing tonight.’ Daddy says, "Oh sure she is, she's right back here in the backseat.’ He says, ‘Well sir, I don't have her on the list, so she's not singing.’ I said, ‘Daddy, let's go back over across the interstate to that Get-n-Go and I'll call my booking agent. They'll work it out.’ I got on the payphone, I called Shorty Lavender, he said, "Okay, you just go right back over there. It'll be a little bit different." Sure enough. we drove over there, Daddy rolled down his window. He said, "Mr. McEntire, just take that [parking spot] right there."

But, even as she was admitted backstage, she was in for another surprise. “We went in and they came to me and said, ‘Reba, sorry, but we're going to have take one of your two songs.’ I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Dolly Parton just pulled in the parking lot and she's going to take one of your songs.’ I said, 'Shoot, she can take both of them. Can I meet her?' They said, 'No, we just need one of them.'

Dolly walked by and she was in this beautiful black pantsuit," McEntire continues. "Black chiffon with butterfly rhinestones on it, and her hair was just beautiful. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I ever saw in my life.” As it turned out, she did finally get her moment on stage. “I got my little outfit on, and I sang ‘Invitation to the Blues’ -- the Four Guys walked me out to the center of the stage and Charlie Walker introduced me.”

The singer will be returning to the Opry stage next Monday (November 27) to host the CMA Country Christmas special on ABC, something she's greatly excited by. “I'm going to get to be singing with some of my buddies, singing some of my songs, and MC’ing, playing the hostess on the TV show. I am really looking forward to it.”

She says that she loves the challenge of moving the show along. “When I go to the award shows, when you’re sitting in the audience, you know all the things that go behind the scenes, [about] when the producer and the director are telling you, 'We're running short, get out there. We're running long, get out there and do this.' I love the adrenaline of live television. It's fun, it's exciting.”

McEntire will likely be performing some of the music that’s included on her updated Yuletide disc, My Kind of Christmas. Originally released last year as a Cracker Barrel-exclusive disc, she has re-released the disc this season with a few new cuts. “We added ‘Silent Night,’ the song that Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood, and I got to do in '13 on her Christmas special. Then I added a song with Darius Rucker, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’ We put ‘Back to God’ on it too with just a piano. I thought it's a message we need right now, give it back to God.

"Then I added Lauren Daigle on to it, and it's a totally different sound and feel, but it's the same message," she continues. "The fourth song that we added is ‘Mary Did You Know,’ and I asked Amy Grant and Vince Gill to sing on it with me, and that was a blast.”

McEntire says that Christmas music does have a calming effect on her, as she reasons it should. “It lightens my heart. It makes me feel very grateful that Jesus was born to one day die for our sins, and that we've got an opportunity to live, and what I choose is to pray for his will constantly, and that one day I'll be in heaven to see all my family that went before, and get to sit on the right-hand side of God.”

McEntire is mindful that the lyrical content of Sing It Now and My Kind Of Christmas is something that the world is in need of right now, especially considering the events of recent weeks. “It's very crucial to listen and search your heart and see how to improve it," she offers. It's a situation where we have no control over, and for us to think that we can fix things is pretty silly. I have a child who is in the race car business, and people say, "Don't you worry?" I say, "Oh no, I gave him up to God a long time ago. That's God's child. Whatever happens to Shelby and his racing, I'm confident God will take care of him. God will take care of (all of it).