The jovial tone in Country Music Hall of Famer Reba McEntire's voice when describing how she hand-picked the women's bathroom mirrors and booth curtains of Reba's Place — her soon-to-open restaurant south of her hometown of McAlester in Atoka, Oklahoma — shows her still enjoying the labor of her illustrious, half-century-long career.
She's phoning in for an interview with The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network, on a recent Thursday evening from Los Angeles, prior to what could be yet another career-defining achievement.
On Sunday, McEntire will perform for the first time as an Academy Award-nominated singer-songwriter at the 94th Academy Awards. It's her first appearance at the Oscars since 1991 when she performed ″I’m Checkin’ Out″ from the film ″Postcards From the Edge" — famously, in her first appearance since seven members of her band and her road manager were killed in a plane crash only nine days prior.
This occasion is much less daunting.
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Her 2021-released ballad "Somehow You Do" (written by 13-time Academy Award-nominated songwriter Diane Warren) is nominated in the Best Original Song category from the movie "Four Good Days" starring Mila Kunis and Glenn Close.
The groundbreaking star of the stage, silver screen, television screen, music videos and retail shelves has also had 20-plus No. 1 singles. She's won seven Academy of Country Music top female vocalist awards,12 American Music Awards for Favorite Country Female Artist and was the first performer to win the Country Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year Award four times consecutively.
"It's exciting to perform," McEntire tells the Tennessean. She adds that working with Warren is "a dream come true for a singer," as she's the "cream of the crop" as a songwriter.
"She's so creative," she said, "It's mind-boggling how she comes up with so many hits."
Breaking ground for country music's future
McEntire's also just completed her first sizable arena tour in over a decade. "Shockingly" to her, a good percentage of the crowd — including many in her sextet of openers: Brandy Clark, Hannah Dasher, Reyna Roberts, Caitlyn Smith, Brittney Spencer and Tenille Townes — were seeing her live in person for the first time.
Her appreciation for her openers also shows her stardom is becoming timeless and creating a template for country music's future.
"I've been in this business for 50 years. They're young in their careers, so just as I did they performed a lot of cover songs. They all made intelligent choices in that aspect. I loved exposing them to country music fans of all ages. They were all so good."
While speaking to the quartet of Dasher, Roberts, Smith and Spencer about opening for McEntire, they all noted different favorite facets of her talents and personality.
Spencer spoke to the Tennessean early on a Friday morning amid her longest consecutive-date touring run away from Music City after arriving nearly 15 years ago. The dates as McEntire's opener for a trio of mid-February dates occurred while she is finally breaking out as a country star.
Watching a documentary about the "Whoever's In New England" vocalist was the final inspiration to get Spencer to move to Nashville. So naturally, being on the road with a musician "who has been on [her] psyche for a long time" was memorable for the Black woman known for earnest ballads like "Sober and Skinny."
From McEntire's current success, she's gleaned, "[Reba's] always pushed the boundaries in her career. So it's empowering to see how she breaks new ground and helps new artists to walk down the lanes she's opened."
Acts like Reyna Roberts and Caitlyn Smith are known for personalities as bombastic as their multi-octave vocal ranges. "Reba's the queen," stated Minnesota-born Smith excitedly. She added, "when [Reba] sings a ballad, her stage presence, her whole being, pulls you in. For the rest of my career, I'll always close my eyes, flash back, and think, 'what would Reba do?'"
"She's a freakin' legend," exclaims Roberts about the vocalist whose 1990 cover of Bobbie Gentry's "Fancy" was played on constant rotation during her childhood. Her shock of fire engine red hair and assured stage presence that belies her 24 years of age offer analogies to why McEntire chose the African-American female vocalist to tour with her.
"Reba's an angel. She's exactly what you'd expect her to...wait, no, she's even better than that. This was my second time going out on tour, after opening for Jamey Johnson [in 2021]," Roberts offers. "Reba took the time — running behind on her own preparation — to watch my entire set. She could've been doing anything else with her time, but she offered notes to me [about my performance] that boosted my confidence in the path that I'm on as a country music artist."
As for Hannah Dasher, she grew up — alongside her sister — singing McEntire's songs into plastic hairbrushes in their bedroom. The Georgia-born, 70s country throwback artist's hair is teased as high as her personality is engaging.
During COVID-19's first wave, Dasher's stardom exploded via TikTok. She has earned over one million followers and nearly 20 million likes for content, including regular cooking vlogs, amusingly entitled "Stand By Your Pan."
"I've opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams, Jr. at some big outdoor festivals, so opening for Reba was my first time playing indoor arenas. [Reba] had me play markets I'd never been to before, where — unexpectedly — 80 percent of the house was full each night when I was on stage."
Dasher also noted, "Just as with her, I feel like people connected with the fact that what I'm doing is genuine, honest and pure. Like I learned about her in person, I also try, even when under immense pressure, to be kind and grateful for everything."
McEntire was grateful for having so many rising female stars on the road with her.
"I never got to open for female artists on tour. I only opened for male acts. So it's cool to me that I can have female singers out on the road [as openers]. It's different and cool that I'm at a place in my career where I can support so many women. I'm 100 percent supportive of the women of country music."
What's next for Reba?
When asked about what is keeping her motivated on her professional horizons, she again mentions her previously noted new restaurant, Reba's Place, in Atoka, Oklahoma.
"[Me and my team] do a lot of concerts with the Choctaw Casino and Resort in (nearby) Durand, Oklahoma. So I decided to partner with the Choctaw Nation and the city of Atoka to do this restaurant. It's given me a great opportunity to get back home," she says, of the refurbished Masonic temple that is expected to house memorabilia, host live music, plus serve steak dinners, street tacos and what the icon has called her "favorite dish," pinto beans and corn bread.
She also has a gospel album (her 35th studio recording) currently available, "My Chains Are Gone." The desire to release the recording arose as she — like many of her fans — was watching an old concert of hers to pass the time during COVID's first wave. She's a GMA Dove Award (Christian and Gospel music) award-winner, so the album is dear to her heart.
"I watched my [her headlining debut] Ryman Auditorium concert in 2017, and I wanted to do something with those performances (many from her 2017 release “Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope”). So I combined it with some other gospel recordings (with artists she notes, including her mother, Jacqueline Smith, sisters Susie McEntire-Eaton and Alice Foran, Kelly Clarkson, Lauren Daigle, bluegrass gospel act The Isaacs, plus Trisha Yearwood). When we release it, we're going to release it on DVD, CD, and vinyl, too."
"Some of the songs will be new to you, but some will take you back to your childhood," she adds.
On what motivates her to achieve Oscar nominations, entrepreneurship and maintaining an active road presence after so many years, McEntire offers a brief reply that proves the adage true that it is always best to keep things simple:
"I've got a lot of curiosity and don't like being bored," she said. "If I'm bored, the fans know it and see it. Plus, I like having fun."
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Reba McEntire talks about Oscar-nominated song and tour life