She has been one of country music’s most revered artists for over four decades, but for Reba McEntire, her best days are still ahead.
“I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had,” she says. At 64, she’s busier than ever, too, with projects in the pipeline spanning the worlds of TV, film, Broadway and fashion in addition to music. In 2018, McEntire became the third female country artist to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, following in the footsteps of fellow icons Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. (KFC also named her its first and only female Colonel Sanders.) In April, she hosted the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards for the 16th time and released Stronger Than the Truth, an album paying tribute to her Oklahoma roots that became her 25th top five entry on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. At a time when an increasing number of Nashville stars are embracing pop and hip-hop, McEntire is standing her ground and releasing the music that she wants to make — and that plenty of country fans clearly want to hear.
Because of her boundless creative spirit, overwhelming success and outspoken support for other women in the genre, McEntire is this year’s recipient of Billboard’s Trailblazer Award. Calling from her Nashville office, the superstar talked about the values that have shaped her career.
What does being a trailblazer mean to you?
Hopefully I have done some things that have strengthened the country music business. I love country music: what it stands for, how it relates to people of every walk of life — male, female, all ages.
Earlier this year, you expressed dismay that no women were nominated for entertainer of the year at the ACM Awards. Why was it important to speak out?
Because I am a woman, I know how important it was for me to get encouragement and an occasional pat on the back and [hear], “You can do it.” That goes a long way. My mama was always saying, “Reba, you can do this.” And I said, “Oh, but it’s going to be so hard. I’m dreading this.” She said, “Reba, it’ll be over in 24 hours. You can do anything for 24 hours.” That’s a good way to look at it. So I quit worrying.
You recently saw The Cher Show on Broadway and recorded a video message for Cher, saying that you learned “a lot of things I can do to improve my life and my career.” What did you take away from her story?
I learned that people who are so driven in this industry sacrifice a lot. We forget to include the fun times. I think I took things way too seriously, as Cher did. Sometimes we get into that survival mode where we do things that we might not have done if we weren’t having to survive. I will be telling more of the younger generation, “Have fun while you’re doing this. Remember every detail. Stop and smell the roses today. Don’t be so concerned about what [you’re] going to do tomorrow.”
Your songs often feature powerful female characters. Was there ever a time when you passed on a song because it lacked that perspective?
Oh, lots of times. It doesn’t have to be a strong female voice necessarily, but it has to have a message. If a song has touched my heart, hopefully it’ll touch your heart when I sing it. I’m the conduit. I’m the one that delivers the message. When I go looking for songs, I ask God, “Please send me the songs that will help people, that will touch their hearts.” It might solve a problem for them, it might entertain them, it might get them away from what they’re going through. That’s my job on earth. I feel very strongly about that.
You seem to have a strong sense of what rings true for you artistically. When was the last time you made a misstep?
There was a time that I [covered Beyoncé’s] “If I Were a Boy.” We had done that for [Unplugged on CMT in 2010], and the record label really wanted me to record it and put it out as a single. I didn’t feel real good about it. It wasn’t that successful. The people in the music industry, they’re professionals, and sometimes you have to go with the team. It just didn’t work out.
What does the Reba brand stand for?
The Reba brand stands for quality, integrity, honesty, entertainment, comfort. Everything I do, it has to be honest. The fans know when it goes a little left or right or not the way I would want it. We try new things, we experiment, and we keep going back to what is true.
In late April, three of the top four entries on the Top Country Albums chart were by Brooks & Dunn, George Strait and you. Is radio missing the boat by not playing more traditional country music?
Absolutely. I totally understand why they don’t: There are so many young, up-and-coming artists that need that three-and-a-half minutes on the radio. We had our time. But the country music fans of the 1980s and ’90s are really hungry for the type of music that we can give them. I’m just thrilled with the talent that the songwriters here in Nashville are showing. I’m finding songs as good as any I’ve ever found in my 43 years, and it’s not stopping. It’s just so sad that not everybody’s getting paid what they should be getting paid, because technology has changed everything about how we get our music out to our fans. It’s hard to find a CD nowadays that you can buy, and that’s a shame.
What do you still hope to accomplish at this point in your career?
I love [performing], whether it’s for movies, television, concerts, recording — whatever it is. Kix [Brooks], Ronnie [Dunn] and I are having a wonderful time in Las Vegas doing a residency at Caesars Palace, where people from all over the world can come see us. I’d love to get back into television, maybe some more movies. I love to travel, so I’m trying to check off some time to see more of this beautiful world that God has made.