Reba McEntire influenced countless female singers to make the move to Nashville and roll the dice on a chance at stardom. She's also one of country's top businesspeople. She helped build Starstruck Entertainment into a powerhouse, and she changed the rules for what a female vocalist could earn in Nashville. That business acumen is serving her well again, as she's partnered up with Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores for an exclusive line of merchandise -- including her new holiday album My Kind of Christmas. It's her third such album, following 1987's Merry Christmas To You and 1999's The Secret of Giving: A Christmas Collection. But she tells Billboard this one is a little different.
"This is my first acoustic record that I've ever recorded," McEntire says happily. "Catherine Marx, my piano player that goes with me on tour, and I went down to the studio about five years ago and decided to just put down some Christmas songs in case there was a Christmas party I was singing at, I would have the tracks. I never did anything with them, and then when we did this partnership deal with Cracker Barrel, they said they would love a Christmas album. I said 'Well, by golly, we do happen to have one.' I'm really excited because we're going to have a vinyl edition as well as the one on CD -- and we're even selling record players at Cracker Barrel."
What does the season mean to the Country Music Hall of Famer? "Of course, it's Jesus's birthday, and we're celebrating," she says. "I remember getting together with the kids, and my mother-in-law would always bake a cake, and we'd sing 'Happy Birthday' to Jesus. Then I got to thinking, 'How do you incorporate Santa Claus and Jesus?' I told the kids that because it's his birthday, he gets so many gifts that he shares them with all the good little boys and girls. Santa Claus is the one who distributes the gifts."
McEntire says that the partnership with the restaurant works well because of the similarities between her fans and the store's customers. "My fans range from 2 to 92, and so does Cracker Barrel's. It's a family location, one that makes you feel warm and fuzzy when you go in. You get to shop, and then get your belly full, go out front, and rock on the rocking chairs. It's just the perfect outing for the whole family." And she's not just paying lip service! When asked what her favorite menu item was, she didn't miss a beat. "For which meal? For breakfast, I love the eggs in a basket. For either lunch or dinner -- depending on my weight is -- either the meat loaf or the chicken and dumplings. I love their vegetable plates, and I love their fried okra. I also love their blackberry cobbler. It is to die for."
She is very excited about the products that are available in her line, saying, "We've got everything from jewelry and hats to handbags and purses. We've also got some kids' toys, rocking horses, and being Cracker Barrel, you've got to have a rocking chair. We've got clocks, picture frames, and Bible books. We've even got a lamp, and I asked them if they would make the shade like a tooled leather saddle. That way it would remind me of my daddy, and the championship saddles that he had. The Bible box reminds me of my Grandma Smith, whom I'm named after. I asked them if they would engrave on the trunk of the tree a cross. I'm a big fan of crosses, and some of the jewelry has crosses. We've also got a doll named 'Little Miss Fancy.' She's red-headed and wears a pink hat. We went back and forth on the pink hat, because we didn't know how that would go with the red hair, but we went with it anyway."
My Kind Of Christmas is collection of many of the time-honored Christmas classics that the singer recalls as a child, such as "Jingle Bells" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas." "Some of these songs I've recorded before with my whole band. The first album was very country, and the second one was very contemporary. Now, in doing these songs acoustic, I think that's changed things up drastically. I just sing them like when all of us kids would sing them at home or at a Christmas program at school."
One song she was particularly excited to include was the Bobby Helms standard "Jingle Bell Rock," which was also recorded by one of her personal heroes. "I love that song. It's just a fun toe-tapper. I love Brenda Lee. She is such a sweet person, and I love her to pieces. So I was thrilled to put this on the album."
In a career that continues to thrive with each and every move she makes, what's next for the Oklahoma native? She says that at this point, she leaves that to a higher power. "Every day is a new day for me. I have so much to look forward to, and I just go forward with an open faith that it's going to be good, and whatever the challenge is, I can get through it, love it, embrace it. If it's a challenge, I can do that okay too. I'm not worried about the future, and I'm very much looking forward to it, whatever it's going to be." One thing that will not include will be future drives in son Shelby's racecar, having rode with him during one of his Indy Lights races earlier this year. "That, I will not do. I'll leave the fast driving to him," she affirms.
The newest song on the album is a cover of Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas." Released from the soundtrack of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas in 1982, the song has since become a standard on country radio during the season. McEntire's performance of the song is quite moving. "I did a performance of it for Facebook Live, and I got choked up, and then a friend of mine told me that they started crying, and I gave them a headache. It's just that type of song. You think 'Hard Candy Christmas.' It's really a sad song, but some people need that during Christmas. I don't know why, but it just seems to work."