Reba McEntire has always relished playing Fancy, the dirt-poor, rural kid-turned-prostitute-made-good whom roots-pop songwriter Bobbie Gentry dreamed up in the late '60s. McEntire was barely into her teens when she started covering Gentry's story-song in Oklahoma beer joints. Two decades later, she fought for its inclusion on her 1990 album Rumor Has It and further fleshed out the character in a Southern Gothic soap-opera music video, acting the part of Fancy Rae Baker, a woman who'd worked her way from a backwoods shack to showbiz stardom using her wits, her will and what her mama gave her.
Boy, did McEntire make a show-stopping scene of the song in her concerts back then, setting up the climactic moment, several verses in, when she'd toss aside Fancy Rae's pillbox hat, unpin her fiery mane — somehow managing not to disturb a headset microphone — and shed her movie-star furs to reveal a dramatic red gown, bringing the performance home with a robust, flashy delivery that landed somewhere between gospel and Broadway. Even though the fur-coat move long ago went the way of McEntire's jacked-to-heaven hairdos, that signature number will forever have a place in her set list.
McEntire hasn't worked as a female escort a day in her life, but there's clearly something she connects with in this tale of a self-made woman entertainer. What better place to ask her what that something is than a conference room on the third floor of Starstruck Entertainment, aka the House That Reba Built?
"I love that rags-to-riches story," she answers, her blue eyes blazing beneath green eye shadow.
The superstar singer-actor has lived her own ranch-to-riches story for the ages. It's told — with her cache of colorful mementos — in a fascinating new Reba exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, open now through next June.
"They were tellin' me that they had gotten more stuff from me than any other artist," she says, in her brisk, bright Southwestern drawl. "From first grade to now, they said they've never gotten that [range of artifacts] before."
The name of the exhibit is All the Women I Am. You can take it as a nod to the McEntire album of that title, which, notably, yielded a No. 1 hit the very same year she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. It works equally well as a reference to the be-all and do-all nature of her life as multi-format entertainer, businesswoman, wife and mother; or to the variety of strong female roles she's inhabited as song interpreter, big-screen character actor, and sitcom and Broadway lead; or to the notion that she reached her rarified pop culture perch without shedding her down-home identity.
If the prospect of getting acquainted with all the women McEntire is sounds like a close encounter with schizophrenia, fear not. After some recent time in her company, the Scene's suspicions were confirmed: She's as fully integrated and expansive a personality as country music has ever claimed — not to mention a frank, hearty and lightning-quick interview subject.
The genre's audience asks a lot of its performers, not least that they publicly work out the tension between staying true to where they came from and striving for upward mobility. Flatt & Scruggs, and later Ricky Skaggs, stressed roots faithfulness in "Don't Get Above Your Raisin'," while Trisha Yearwood cheered a modern woman's pursuit of economic independence in "XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl)" — and a country star worth her salt needs to find ways to relate to both. That's one of the bigger challenges facing any performer who hopes to stick around, and McEntire has damn well aced it — just like she did the 10th grade, according to the report card now on display in the museum.
Weeks before the artifacts were arranged in the Hall of Fame's East Gallery — which last held Patsy Cline's personal effects — curatorial director Mick Buck and curator Kayla Wiechmann stood in the Frist Library and Archive showing off the spoils of McEntire's recent campaign to declutter her garage, home and office. Thumbing through garments on a clothes rack, they alighted on a sparkly blue cropped vest, fit for a small-town majorette.
"We have what Reba says is her first real stage costume," says Buck, "which was this shirt and vest that the wife of her school-bus driver made for her. How down-home is that?"
From a second rack, they produced a lacy peasant blouse and brown quilted skirt, the unassuming ensemble McEntire wore when she accepted her first CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Award in 1984. It's followed by a series of increasingly glitzy outfits, the most spectacularly bejeweled, befringed and beglammed among them — including several gowns McEntire has donned to sing "Fancy" — the work of her longtime designer, Sandi Spika.
A neighboring table was strewn with a half-century's worth of McEntire mile-markers: ribbons from grade school track meets, basketball camps and 4-H events; that A-average report card; kiddie-sized cowboy boots that took a beating barrel racing; spurs won in a rodeo; a $25 check stub from gigging with her brother Pake and sister Susie as the Singing McEntires; a pass from the 1974 National Finals Rodeo, where she delivered the national anthem and was discovered by cowboy singer Red Steagall; more familiar sights, like CMA, ACM, Grammy and People's Choice Award trophies.
McEntire's golden gramophone statuettes are the sort of treasures only the most cash-strapped recipient would part with. But the fact that she also accumulated and held onto so many humbler tokens — and did so decades before scrapbooking supply shops started popping up in strip malls — suggests she was driven and grounded from the get-go.
Then there's the matter of her marketability. Alongside velvety studded booties from her Dillard's line and an unopened bag of Fritos with her smiling mug on it — her shock of red hair a perfect complement to the chips' logo — lies proof that the seeds of her business savvy were planted way back: the hand-written application that won her the title "Miss Atoka County Ford" when she was all of 16, and with it the use of a brand, spanking new Ford Torino for six months.
"It was my first sponsorship!" she jokes later. "I drove it all the way to Cheyenne for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, and took it to Colorado on a vacation."
Family vacation time wasn't the defining characteristic of McEntire's Oklahoma childhood so much as long, hard days on her parents' cattle ranch — a set of memories that doesn't as readily lend itself to museum display, but receives lengthy treatment in her autobiography, Reba: My Story. By 7 years old, she recounts in Chapter 2, she was up and at it before dawn with her three siblings, shouldering adult-size responsibilities. McEntire scoffs good-naturedly at her interviewer's naive notion that it would be kinda, sorta understandable if kids were to, um, run screaming at the prospect of helping their dad castrate a bull.
"We would either hold the tail or hold the bucket," she says. "You'd have to hold the tail to get it out of the way while [daddy's] doing the job. And then you're holding the bucket to take the testicles and put 'em in there."
The bottom line was this: "Whenever anybody called you to come help, come work, you did it. You didn't ask questions and you didn't beg off."
Cowboys have long been among country music's most romantic figures, from Hollywood fixtures and happy-trails wishers Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to the Urban Cowboy image and the hordes of city-dwellers it inspired to live the mechanical bull-furnished fantasy by night. That McEntire's cowgirl bona fides are as authentic as they come has made a world of difference, both to her sense of herself as the no-job-too-daunting type and to her fans' recognition that she puts real work-up-a-sweat effort into entertaining them.
"I think it's really important for people to realize my background was a lot of hard work, and a lot of fun," McEntire says. "But the hard work, I brought it right along with me in everything I've done."
Since almost everything McEntire's done for the past quarter-century has paid sizable popularity dividends, it's easy to forget that her mid-'70s signing by Mercury was a total toss-up between another female hopeful and her — one "girl singer" was plenty, the thinking went. And that she and her first husband, rodeo champ Charlie Battles, were still living in a $10-a-month Okie shack, without running water, when she first cracked the Top 10.
In reality, she faced a seven-year slog between the start of her recording career and her first No. 1 single. Things finally began to click when she assumed a much more active role in determining the direction of her recordings, beginning with her insistence upon ditching uptown orchestral accompaniment in favor of fiddle and steel guitar.
"I went to Jimmy Bowen, [then] head of [MCA, her second label], went to his house, and I said, 'I'm just really not happy with this,' " she says. "And he said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'Well, I want my kind of country.' "
That became the title of her breakthrough 1984 album, a spunkily traditional set well-stocked with Western swing frolics, sawdust-floor honky-tonk shuffles and sumptuous singing, plus a few plush period flourishes. It put her on the frontline of an '80s neo-traditional movement that's since become a magnet for nostalgia.
"When that wave first hit, she was right there part of it," says museum writer-editor Michael McCall, who penned the introduction to the exhibit's companion book. "It was Ricky Skaggs, George Strait and Reba, and John Anderson to some degree. Then a couple years later, you had Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. ... And we have a letter in the book from George Jones, thanking her for bringing country music back to tradition when she won a CMA Award."
Not only was McEntire fighting for a foothold in what was very much a boys' club at the time, she dared nurture grander aspirations than most of her peers of either gender.
"Success builds confidence," she offers. "And when one thing would go right, I would go, 'Mmm, I had that feeling that that would go right.' So when the songs started becoming successful, that gave me confidence."
Once the gruff, burly Battles decided his wife had advanced far enough in her career, he lived up to his last name, proving more of a stumbling block than a source of support. After that, McEntire married Narvel Blackstock, who dreamed big right along with her — enough so that she'd already promoted him from steel guitarist to road manager, and from road manager to all-around manager. The couple brought her booking, promotion and publishing in-house, setting up shop in a converted carpet warehouse near the fairgrounds, and later moving into Starstruck's formidable Music Row digs, built by what was, at the time, their very own construction company.