A few years ago, Reba McEntire, one of the most successful artists in country music history, feared her days of making new music were over. After selling more than 56 million albums and notching 35 chart-topping country singles, she found herself facing a radio landscape catering to younger artists releasing tunes very different from her classic storytelling hits, such as "Is There Life Out There" and "Fancy." She deliberately quit making albums after 2010's All The Women I Am, choosing instead to focus on her other ventures, including a short-lived sitcom and a new cosmetics line, Reba Beauty.
Then, the Broadway and TV star got thrown a lifeline in the form of Nash Icon Records, a new label started by Big Machine Label Group and the Cumulus radio chain geared toward vital veteran artists. Concurrently, Cumulus rolled out the Nash Icon radio format, which numbers more than 25 stations nationwide. McEntire was the first artist signed to Nash Icon, wooed by her longtime friend and Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta (subsequent signings include Martina McBride and Ronnie Dunn).
Her current single, the sassy "Going Out Like That," from the April 14th release, Love Somebody, debuted at a career-high Number 28 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart and at Number One on the iTunes Country Songs chart. The album, which features tunes penned by such top Nashville songwriters as Shane McAnally, Ashley Gorley, Brandy Clark and Sam Hunt, is McEntire's 27th studio effort.
In a wide-ranging interview at a Los Angeles hotel, McEntire couldn't hide her delight about being back on the charts, nor her disappointment in the failure of her latest TV show, Malibu Country. She also opened up to Rolling Stone Country about her advice for stepdaughter-in-law and new mom Kelly Clarkson, and the very fortuitous dinner that led to Brooks & Dunn's reconciliation and their Las Vegas residency together this summer.
On April 19th, McEntire will receive a Milestone Award at the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards for most wins in its Female Vocalist of the year category, but it's clear that she is far from done.
Love Somebody's debut single, "Going Out Like That," earned incredible first-week sales. What did that say to you in terms of people having missed you?
It means that my fans are still wanting to hear me sing new material.
Did you have a doubt?
I'm a regular person — of course I've got doubts and insecurities. I had no idea. I certainly wasn't like, "Well, I bet they can't wait until my stuff comes out. Good Lord, I bet they've been losing sleep."
Did you think your record-making days were over?
I really did. Radio [is] so competitive, and they are looking at the younger generations for music, so I'm thrilled to death radio is playing "Going Out Like That." Ben Hayslip, Jason Sellers and Rhett Akins wrote it. Jason was singing the demo and when I heard it the first time, I said, "Killer song, but boy, it's going to be even more powerful sung by a woman." I thought it was just a kick-ass power anthem for women.
What ran through your mind when Scott Borchetta told you he and Cumulus were starting Nash Icon Records and you were the first person he wanted to sign?
Well, I was flattered to death. [Borchetta's wife] Sandi and Scott took Narvel [Blackstock, McEntire's husband and manager] and me out to dinner at Kayne Prime in Nashville and I was about to jump out of my skin. Ordered drinks, got a little appetizer. . . I said, "Scott, spill the beans. What's going on?" and he told me about it, and he said, "Would you want to record another album?" I sat there for a little bit, and I said, "Well, you've got all my old stuff." He said, "We want to play new stuff." I said, "I'm in," and on the way home, I emailed [Big Machine Label Group senior VP of A&R] Allison Jones. I said, "Girl, get busy, we're going back in the studio."
What was your strategy when hunting for new songs?
Just try to find the best songs possible. It's the same formula that I've always had. When I got the whole group and recorded everything, somebody said, "The underlying thing to this whole deal is love — good or bad. Going into or coming out of it, it's all about love." That's why Love Somebody was the perfect title.
There's also a lot about loneliness on here.
Well, in a way, that's loss of love. . . or looking for it. Trying to keep it, trying to hang on to it.
One of the saddest on here, even though it ultimately has a happy ending, is "Loveland." A girl feels like she has to get married because she's pregnant.
When I first heard it, I had a lot of sympathy for her. I took it as a very Southern song where Momma says, "Aren't you supposed to get married, girl?" That's all that needed to be said. There wasn't any long lecture. There [weren't] any grudges to be held. It was just that one sentence, and she says, "Yes, ma'am."
Then she loses the baby and thinks God is punishing her for having premarital sex, which is pretty harsh.
Everything had gone bad in her life. Yeah, that was sad, but then for her to have the little boy, and now they're so happy. I always love a happy ending. Tom Douglas is such an incredible songwriter.
"Just Like Them Horses" is one of the more emotional songs on the album and was played at your father's funeral. How did you get through recording it?
Daddy had been sick three or four years, really bad. [After a stroke], he was in a coma for a long time. He woke up and came home, and then he was in rehab and back in the hospital and the nursing home. Mama just couldn't take care of him. He was so ready to go, and I was ready for him to go because he's a very proud man, and for him to be there laying and suffering and hurting so bad in pain, it was a blessing when he did go. So I kept thinking about that, and "Just Like Them Horses," let them run.
"Enough" is the 2015 version of "Does He Love You," but much sadder.
It is, isn't it? Because [both women] know they're out. What more could they have given?
What made you pick Jennifer Nettles as your duet partner for that song? The timing was just perfect. She was going into rehearsals [for] Chicago [on Broadway] and there wasn't any competition of her having a single out. . . Her voice, her range, she's such a powerful singer, and I just love her to pieces.
When you go up against another powerful singer like that, how does it make you raise your game?
Oh my God, I go right to the edge of the stage. I'm on the edge of the surfboard with my toes curled around it, and it makes me work harder.
What advice did you give her about Broadway?
We talked a little bit about it, but that's something you got to go into and just jump in on the deep end of the swimming pool.
Would you ever go back to Broadway yourself?
I'd love to. I think if I ever do Broadway again, I'd like to either develop [a project] or have someone develop one, and pick the people I want to go work with and do an ensemble. ["Reba" co-star] Melissa Peterman, I'd love to be working on a play with her. Just to get to work with her every night… so much fun.
You could hand-pick your favorite collaborators.
One of my most favorite tours we ever got to do was when Kelly [Clarkson] and I went out on tour together. We went onstage together, we left the stage together. We were out there the whole time together, and the crew was through loading up before we ever left the arena, because we were back in the dressing room and we'd have food brought in and we'd be playing cards or dominos or games of some sort. Melissa Peterman was out on the road with us. I feel like the female Adam Sandler. I want to have the same crowd around me all the time. I know why he does it. It's your job, you get paid, but you have fun.
What is your best mom advice that you've given to Kelly now that she's a mom?
The only thing I said is, "Try to remember every second, because it flies by." She sends me pictures all the time and videos and so just that: write it down — their first words and how they said it, videotape it. Shelby [McEntire's son, who is now 25] used to call me "Weeba," and I kept [saying], "If you're going to say Weeba, at least call me Reba." He's say, "R-r-r- weeba." Just cute as a button.
You start a Vegas residency in June with Brooks & Dunn, whom you toured with in 1997. What will it be like to be with them again?
So much fun because we all love to eat and we all love to gamble. All the gals and I love to shop, and we love to go see other shows. We're playing Wednesday, Friday [and] Saturday, and we're doing that three weeks in a row, coming back [in the fall] and in December. I was talking to Sharon Osborne when I was doing The Talk a while ago, and she said, "You're going to have so much fun." Consistency is something you're not getting to have very much of when you're on tour so this is neat. It's kind of like doing a sitcom. You're in the same dressing room, the same set with the same people, different script every week, but it's a lot like that consistency that we don't get to have.
What is something about Ronnie and Kix that none of the rest of us know?
What you see is what you get. Ronnie's the quiet one. Kix is the loud one. They are both so witty, so funny, and they both tell great stories. Ronnie's really deep and Kix is balls to the wall. He's just right there, wide open. I love them to pieces. They're like my brothers. We go on vacations together.
Were you surprised that they were willing to do dates again after splitting in 2010?
How did it come about?
When we were sitting at dinner [in Nashville], somebody said, "Alright, where are we going on our next vacation? Let's start planning." [It was] Kix and Ronnie, and their wives and me and Narvel and four or five other couples that we all hang with, and somebody said, "Well, why don't we pick a place where y'all can do a show to pay for the vacation?" Somebody said, "How about Vegas?" I looked at Kix like, "Maybe we ought to talk about this in private?" I said, "Kix?" He says, "You know, I think I'd love to do that," and I went, "Ronnie?" He said, "I'm in."
That was it?
Just that easy, and we hadn't been drinking that much either! So Narvel called the booking agents the next morning, and they said, "Well, let me put some feelers out in Vegas," and Caesars was the one that wanted to do it.
What happened with Malibu Country, your ABC sitcom? It debuted strong but then was canceled after four months.
We have never [been given] a reason, an explanation, anything of why we were dropped. We're still waiting. If somebody could just give me a reason, I would like to say, "OK, I get it," but we were the Number One freshman sitcom, and we were replaced with Number 22, so I just was like, "What happened?"
That must be frustrating.
I think we were doing a hell of a job. I thought it was a funny premise, and we had Lily Tomlin, for Pete's sake! So I would just like to know was there a little politics? Was there something that happened at the office that led to getting rid of us? What was it? I was on the plane in South Africa, landing in Johannesburg and [McEntire's stepson] Brandon walks over to me and says, "It's Dad." He said, "You didn't get picked up. I just got the call yesterday when you left." You couldn't have slapped me in the face and shocked me more.
Would you do TV again?
I'd love to go to Netflix or something like that. Showtime, HBO. Do the whole run of them and then release them like they did "House of Cards." That was such a genius idea.
You turned 60 on March 28th. What's been the best part so far?
It's really been, "50s, comfortable in your skin"; 60s is just like, I don't have to please anybody. I don't have to make sure everybody's happy with what I say, what I do. You kind of get the green card, and you don't have any inhibitions. As Kix Brooks always says, "My give-a-shitter's kind of gave out." So just go have fun. I won't do anything I don't want to do. I just want to love life, have fun, hang with the people I want to and the Negative Nancys, stay away. No use for you.