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Besides establishing her independence in the biz, McEntire was quite consciously spiffing up her self-presentation. The first of many choreography lessons — this one courtesy of the guy who mapped out Tina Turner's leggy moves — was how to make eye contact with the audience. On top of that, McEntire became one of Nashville's earliest adopters of that hot, new, supposedly radio star-killing visual medium, the music video. She even bugged Dolly Parton — one of her formative influences in style, sound and substance alike — for tips on who to call for spangly stage couture.
"I thought the costumes were very important too," says McEntire, "because you can see the sparkle from way back in the back or up in the crow's nest."
Eventually, she inaugurated her most flashily, fabulously attired era by hiring Spika — now Sandi Spika Borchetta, and a senior VP at Big Machine — to be her traveling designer, stylist and hairdresser.
"Every time I got into a Sandi Spika outfit, I felt pretty," she reflects. "And when you feel pretty and you go out onstage, you can give even more."
To McEntire, giving more meant thoroughly spending herself in the act of singing and letting the audience feel her physical and emotional exertion — her brilliantly flaring timbre when she leapt into her head voice, her bending of note and lyric into lavish whorls and ringlets. "It's hard work to do the trills and the little curlicues and things," she admits.
Not only had she not shed her regional twang, she was accentuating it, flaunting it, celebrating it. The ampleness of her vocals was just the thing for arena crowds, and she had the massive live setup to match. By way of 22 tractor trailers, 15 costume changes, 10 backing dancers, three stages, and at one point, even a Reba impersonator in drag, she brought her warm-hearted, high-camp blockbuster country show to the people.
By the time McEntire and now legendary record man Tony Brown co-produced Rumor Has It and 1991's For My Broken Heart — the latter an emotionally laden commercial juggernaut following a plane crash that killed many members of her band and crew — she'd gone all in on country-pop power balladry of the highest order, complete with grand crescendos and misty harmonies.
It's worth recalling that those sounds were not music to every critic's ears. "Remember Reba McEntire?" wrote one in a 1990 Country Music magazine feature. "The Reba who, for a while there, was one of the heroes of the country neo-traditionalist movement and a spokesperson for it? These days, one can't help wondering where that Reba has gone."
"The show is glitzy, hip, hi-tech and flashily new age," he went on. "And — like Reba's new record — it's conspicuously free of fiddles and steel. ... It's as if, sad to say, Reba has gone corporate with her music."
Funny. Her fans heard and interpreted those same qualities very differently. Sandra Bonomo — who became a Reba fan in the '80s and even met her husband backstage at a show — writes in an email, "I must confess that my favorite Reba era was in the '90s, the age of big hair and big concert productions. She owned that stage, that venue, that audience on every tour stop. She was the first country artist to take cues from pop-rock peers and add in her own special elements to create a concert extravaganza."
Vincent Buzzeo, onetime president of the New York state chapter of McEntire's fan club, says in another email, "I loved Reba standing at the mic singing, and I felt the thrill of the elaborate production shows. Intimate theaters of a few hundred to gigantic arenas, I can't say that I enjoy one better than another. ... She excels at it all."
Having dissected the elite-to-popular spectrum of artistic taste in the process of writing his influential entry in the 33 1/3 book series, Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson can be of assistance here.
"Nashville has always seemed suspect," he writes in an email to the Scene, "as it's always aimed at something more spectacular, more showbizzy and of course radio-friendly. It's not untrue that Nashville's goal is to make the music bigger and shinier, but a lot of critics misunderstand that change of form as a change of content. We assume that a shift in sound means a loss of soul.
"The audience, however, has invested its faith in Reba as a person (a person they've in many ways imagined or had sold to them, sure, but a person) rather than to some musical set of values she's supposed to represent, so they're more willing to let her change as long as she doesn't fundamentally break with that faith."
And what did McEntire herself make of such disparities of opinion between ink-stained skeptics and her devoted fan base?
"Honestly, I don't remember," she says. "All I know is that we kept our noses to the grindstone, workin' so hard and tryin' to do bigger, better things, find better songs, songs that touched my heart. But we were going so fast, I don't remember gettin' much feedback from anybody. I just knew that it was workin' and the fans seemed to be very responsive. I would take U.S. Mail crates with me when I'd fly to shows [and respond to fan mail]. So I was very thick in the communication with my fans, knew what they wanted, knew what they liked. And I thought we was doin' fine."
McEntire's record sales, concert attendance and fan club membership throughout her most supersized decade indicated that she and her team were doing a whole lot better than fine. And little wonder; she was bringing those who mattered to her most along for the gravity-defying ride.
Of course, McEntire also wanted to expand into Hollywood. After shooting several mini-movie-style music videos on location — not to mention living the hardscrabble Southwestern ranch life — it wasn't that much of a stretch for her to make her first feature film, the horror spoof Tremors, in the desert, sans makeup. She did, however, have to learn how to handle a gun in order to be convincing in the scene where she unloads a stockpile of semiautomatics on one of the giant mutant worms that are terrorizing an isolated town.
Some of those spent shell casings are currently on display at the museum, along with a couple of movie stills. "When the subject of the exhibit has something like this sent over," Buck says with a chuckle, "you know that she really wants it in the exhibit, and you definitely do what you can to accommodate her."
McEntire also hooked the curators up with a buckskin getup she wore as Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley in a Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, another occasion where marksmanship came in handy. From there, she'd gone on to anchor not one, but two prime-time sitcoms in the role of a strong-willed, smart-mouthed single mom who'd divorced her cheating ex. In Reba, which lasted seven seasons, she took a pregnant teenage daughter in stride but didn't take guff off anyone, and in Malibu Country, which ran for just one season but featured some great banter between her and co-star Lily Tomlin, she struggled gamely, and wryly, to restart her life and music career in California. Witness one of her choice lines: "If there's one thing the entertainment industry loves, it's a woman past her prime."
Far from feeling sold out by the singer they love — or, for that matter, striking the indignant posture of vinylphiles whose favorite under-the-radar indie rock band suddenly blows up — longtime McEntire fans like Billy Muth, Bonomo and Buzzeo have been gratified by McEntire's acting success, and the way it's broadened her audience. Muth made pilgrimages to attend a pair of her Broadway performances and a sitcom taping in L.A.
"I have been so happy to see Reba excel in other areas of entertainment," he says in an email. "She really can do anything. I think a big part of it is the fact that she is so down-to-earth."
"Down-to-earth" would also be a pretty fair descriptor of the quality McEntire looks for in the roles she takes on. "Just like in my songs," she says of her criteria, "things that people can relate to, that they know is honest, that's funny. Down-home humor. Things that people wanna say and haven't been able to say, you know, to [their] kids: 'Get your butt upstairs! You're not goin' out!' ... I like that no-nonsense type of stuff."
Naturally, her repertoire of high-quality songs is lighter on parenting themes, and one-liners, than her sitcoms. She's more often mined the visceral Southern storytelling tradition, or sung about navigating the emotional labyrinth of adult love, from women's perspectives, by the light of deeply felt desire or sense of duty. And as impossible as it may seem when country radio is cycling through hook-up-in-the-holler summer jams, McEntire not only hit home, but charted hits by addressing the anguish of adultery from nearly every imaginable angle, capturing the sense of defeat brought on by a disintegrated marriage and the wariness, exhilaration and empowerment that can come with starting over, and acknowledging the complex shame and grief of a woman who's contracted AIDS from a one-night stand.
As one of country music's standard-bearers for song interpretation, McEntire has never limited herself to autobiographical material. But as her star rose — and the cushiness of her lifestyle with it — she stayed in touch with her audience's less exalted realities, and her own not-so-distant roots. She was up front about the luxuries that made it possible for her to juggle motherhood and performing, nannies and a private plane among them. More importantly, she's cut songs like "Is There Life Out There." The deceptively sunny tune, and the music video and made-for-TV movie it spawned, depicted just how hard it is for a working woman who started a family right out of high school to have it all.
McEntire has said all along that trying to be an empathetic friend to her female fans guides even her onstage wardrobe choices: nothing too vampy or revealing, for fear that she'll alienate women by appearing to make a play for their partners' attention. That's why it was such a headline-grabbing deal the one time she sported a see-through sequined gown on the CMA Awards.
"Well, it was totally out of character for me!" she laughs heartily. "I'll tell you the funny story about it. I was in the dressing room and the lighting wasn't that good. I tried it on and it was low, but I thought, 'Well, that's just the lighting. I'm covered. I don't see anything.' So I walk down the hall to go sing, and Kris Kristofferson was walking down the hall. He said, 'Whoa!' I thought, 'Yes! Man, I look good!' "
Minutes later, she took the audience's gasps the same way. "And then when I saw the playbacks and everything, I thought, 'Crap! That's low!' Narvel almost had a heart attack, because when he saw it during the fitting, Sandi said, 'Oh, no, no, no. It's gonna be all filled in here. Because it was just netting."
"Well, she didn't fill it as much as we thought she was gonna fill it in. But I got a lot of attention off that dress."
There's a mannequin modeling that hot little number in the museum exhibit, and another dressed in the calf-high slouch boots, jeans and distressed leather tank top that McEntire wore during her most recent tour. The latter is definitely a look befitting a cowgirl who's arrived.
If you had to pick just one artifact that conveys her iconic standing in popular culture, you could do worse than the Reba Barbie doll, modeled on McEntire in all her "Fancy"-singing, country-pop arena queen glory. The mere mention of it, though, brings out her deep-down tomboy side.
"I never owned a doll," she says, "except for the one that [a friend] gave me in the first grade. And it was for Christmas. She drew my name. I still have it. It was in a little dome plastic case, and I hid my money in it when we would sell deer huntin' tickets [on the ranch] during deer huntin' season. I'd hide my money up in her dress.
"But no, I never owned a doll in my life."