So here sits Reba McEntire, the wiry, 5-foot-6, freckle-faced, third-generation rodeo rider who is Nashville's current leading lady and the newest Queen of Country Music.
Over her head, above the chair in which she is demurely sitting as she speaks about how oh-so-very kind the music business has been to her these past few years, all the fun she had at this year's Grammies, and the pros and cons of airplane food ("I like it -- except for the little sandwiches!") is a splashy piece of album art from the Rolling Stones' "Still Life" LP.
The scene is the well-appointed Nashville office/condo of McEntire's manager/attorney, former Secret Service agent Bill Carter, whose other clients include, from time to time, everyone from country crooner Keith Whitley, to psychic Ruth Montgomery and members of the Rolling Stones.
With characteristically perky, yet modest, girl-next-door matter-of-factness, the 31-year-old Oklahoma-born McEntire (who, dressed in the usual blue jeans and tennis shoes, has the uncanny ability to maintain an air of quiet unobtrusiveness, even when she's at the center of attention) is politely retracing the course of her rise in the country business for yet another reporter.
There have been a lot of reporters around lately, paying close attention to McEntire and her music -- writers far afield from the usual array of inquiring music fan publications. There has been particular interest in this new "back-to-the-basics" movement in country music, on whose front lines this former rodeo barrel-racer and present part-time cattle rancher now stands.
After all, it does seem that after a decade of semi-obscurity, McEntire has been nearly everywhere lately, singing her robust, East-Oklahoma-twangy brand of rural-flavored music. It's a brand of music with ties to western swing and other vestiges of a "Pre-Muzak City" era, when Nashville producers still believed they could sell a good country song without wrapping it up in all manner of pop instrumentations and colorations.
For the past two years, McEntire's been on the Country Music Association's nationally broadcast awards ceremony, picking up consecutive annual "Best Female Vocalist" awards. ("This is for me and Mama!" she tearfully proclaimed to the audience the first time around.)
Ditto for the West Coast-based Academy of Country Music, whose annual "Hat" award for best female vocalist she's also walked off with for the past two years running, and whose televised ceremonies she also cohosted a few weeks ago, along with actor/singers Mac Davis and John Schneider. "They chose me with two biggies like that!" she gushes in semidisbelief. "Well, goh-lee! I must be doin' somethin' right!"
And look: Flip the TV channel, and there's Reba again, sporting her big silver National Finals rodeo belt buckle, doing ads for Chevy Trucks and spots for Goodie's Headache Powder. There she is again, on Johnny Carson, or presenting a Grammy, or singing the National Anthem at the opening game of last year's World Series, or being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry (its 61st member) on the network special celebrating that organization's 60th anniversary. "I've been wanting to be a member since I was 6 years old," she murmurs reverentially.
"I knew all this was gonna happen one of these days, even though it still hasn't happened yet," she says a bit elliptically of her present high public profile. As she speaks, her husband/manager Charlie Battles, a barrel-chested former world-champion steer wrestler, glides through the room with samurai-like silence and settles with his arms crossed into an easy chair, wordless and stoic-looking.
"What I mean," she adds, "is that I don't feel like I'm on top yet, just because I've won a couple of awards. We've still got a lot of work ahead of us, and me and Charlie realize it."
What has always set McEntire apart from a cookie-cutter's dozen of other pretty-faced country up-and-comers in their Pierre Cardin blue jeans and matching Nashville-to-L.A. imitation leather luggage is that robust, powerful voice. It is bright, soulful and dexterous; filtered through her bold Oklahoma inflections and dipthong-twisting midwestern drawl, even the most urbane-sounding piece of pop fluff comes out as rural as a two-pump gas station.
"Yeh, it's very identifiable, very different, and I don't try to correct it," she says with a laugh. "I've still got that Oklahoma twang, and I'm very comfortable with it. And thank goodness nobody's ever tried to convince me to change it."
What this rural authenticity has done for McEntire, among other things, is place her alongside a handful of other (mostly male) artists, like Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, on the leading edge of the subtle but influential neotraditionalist movement that is now afoot in the mainstream of country music. If these artists are not actually swinging country back toward a more roots-oriented sense of purism, they are at least reminding Nashville's glitz-prone music industry where it came from.
"Western swing, Johnny Bush, the old Merle Haggard songs like 'Okie (From Muskogee)': That's my roots," McEntire says with pride. "And the old Ray Price songs -- I can remember when I was a little girl, and Ray Price came to play at the WH Corrall in Sulphur [Oklahoma]. I'll never forget how excited my mama was about seein' Ray Price. It was a big event -- it was kind of like what it would be today to my stepsons [from Battles' previous marriage] if Bruce Springsteen was comin' to town."
McEntire came by her superb country licks quite naturally. Her family, of Scotch-Irish stock, had been for several generations in the flat, dusty Oklahoma heartland. The McEntire clan was known not only for the singers it had produced over the decades, but for its rodeo champions.
Her father and grandfather were both, aside from being cattle ranchers, world-champion steer-ropers. The third of four children, she herself spent much of her youth traveling the rodeo circuit with her parents. Often, on the dusty all-day and all-night rides in the back seat of the McEntire family's old green Ford, she and her two sisters and brother would amuse themselves -- at their mother's encouragement -- with tight, four-part harmonies on such favorites of the day as "Please Mr. Custer, I Don't Want to Go" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (on the Bedpost Overnight)." (McEntire's brother Pake, a national rodeo finalist himself, is now a recording artist on the RCA label; her sister Suzie is a successful gospel singer; both have furnished harmonies on her recent records.)
"People have told me that my mama [Jacqueline McEntire] was as good a singer as Patsy Cline," McEntire recalls. "She wanted to go to California and pursue it, but that wasn't the thing for a woman to do in her generation. She never had the kind of encouragement that she later gave us."
By the time McEntire reached her teens, she and her siblings (under their parent's strict supervision) were already singing professionally (although for no more than a few dollars a night) at rodeos and local dance halls. While her friends at school were infatuated with Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night, McEntire found her own tastes running toward the music of Dolly Parton, Anne Murray, Connie Smith and Loretta Lynn.
She recalls that Cline, the Winchester, Va.-born singer who was killed in a plane crash in 1963, when McEntire was 9 years old (and whose legend was recently revived in the motion picture "Sweet Dreams"), was a strong influence.
"I about wore her 'Greatest Hits' album out when I was a kid," she remembers. "Years later, when I was recording my second album for Mercury ("Out of a Dream" -- 1979), I did a version of 'Sweet Dreams.' I remember when we all went into the control room to listen to the playback, everybody got real quiet. It was eerie. Finally, somebody said, 'It feels like Patsy's ghost is in here!' It wasn't so much that I sounded like her, but the emotion was there. How to put that emotion in a song -- that's what I learned from Patsy. As far as I'm concerned, there's never been anybody who's sung better than her."
After high school, McEntire still wavered between music and a more predictable career. She earned a degree in education from Southeastern Oklahoma State University and helped pay her tuition by managing 200 head of cattle on the side.
It was on the rodeo circuit, in Lubbock, Tex., in 1975, that she met Battles, the three-time (1970, '71, and '72) world-champion steer wrestler. She says that there were earlier marriage proposals but, "My singing was always taken very lightly until Charlie came along." She recalls that they spent their honeymoon in Houston a year or so later, promoting her first Mercury single, "I Don't Want to Be a One Night Stand." Today, she and Battles share a 250-acre homestead near Stringtown, Okla., and have another 13,000 acres under lease as pasture land for their large herd of Brahman and Hereford cattle.
It was at another rodeo -- the National Finals, at Oklahoma City, where she was called upon to sing the National Anthem -- that she came to the attention of songwriter Red Steagall. It was Steagall's intervention in her career that led to her signing with the Mercury label in late 1975.
"I remember on my first trip to Nashville, with my mama and daddy, I kept foolin' around," she says. "I kept sayin', 'Aw, c'mon, let's stop and get some ice cream! Let's go through Natchez Trace State Park!' Finally Mama said to me, 'Now listen, if you don't wanna do this, then we'll go back home if you want, but if we go on, I'll be livin' my dreams through you.' Well, when I heard that," she smiles, "I perked up. I said, 'Awwright! Now I got a reason to do this!' "
It took McEntire about 11 years and 10 albums to begin to taste the sort of status she now enjoys in country music circles. It was five years before she got her first Top 10 record ("You Lift Me Up to Heaven" -- 1981), and another year before she landed her first No. 1 ("I Can't Even Get the Blues" -- 1982).
Her stylistic and commercial breakthrough came with her 1984 record, "My Kind of Country." The album, produced by Harold Shedd (of Alabama fame), took McEntire "back to my roots" and went consciously against the grain of the pop-influenced, "adult contemporary" trends that then dominated Nashville music. On "My Kind of Country," McEntire turned to spirited revivals of country oldies originally popularized by Ray Price, Faron Young, Carl Smith and Connie Smith.
"Around the time I did that LP, it seemed like nobody was doing that kind [of music] anymore," says McEntire. "It kind of felt like real country music was slipping away."
Interestingly, "Whoever's in New England," McEntire's latest album, is, in some ways, a bit of a step back toward the middle-of-the-road, "adult contemporary" direction. There is, of course, the usual modicum of tear-jerking ballads ("I've Seen Better Days"), and a token tip of the hat to western swing ("One Thin Dime"). But there are also a number of cuts that seem targeted more for a sort of easy-listening territory. One of these is the LP title tune, which a pundit from The Wall Street Journal referred to half in jest as "Yuppie Country," pointing out that it may well be the first country song to pay homage to the state of Massachusetts in the first line.
Then, too, there is the flashy new video (filmed, of all places, in Boston's Logan Airport) that accompanies the single, and which premiered on "Entertainment Tonight." Its producer/director was Jon Small, who's best known for his slick videos on Billy Joel, Hall & Oates, John Cougar Mellencamp and the like.
"That song ['New England'] was a real step out," she concedes. "The demo of it that first came to us was real pop, but when we cut it, I think it came out more 'Reba McEntire.' But yeh -- it was a little further along than anything on my last couple of albums. But it was such a good song, I just couldn't pass it up."
Comparisons with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette are being made more frequently, but listening to McEntire discuss her career, it becomes clear that she is very much of a new generation.
She is particularly proud that on her last two albums, she has expanded her involvement to include the role of coproducer (along with Jimmy Bowen, head of MCA, Nashville). As such, she is active in every phase of her own record-making, from helping select (or occasionally write) the songs to approving the final mix. She has little interest in the traditional "woman as victim" role, which has too often typified the music and tumultuous lives of the older woman singers as they survived in a male-dominated business.
"Loretta [Lynn] and I are alike in that we both sing for the woman, sing the things for them that they couldn't always say to their husbands, but wanted to," she says. "The difference, though, is that back then, Loretta would sing like, 'Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' With Lovin' on Your Mind.' But nowdays, I'll sing a song that says, 'Don't even consider coming home, because we're not gonna put up with it any longer.' That's the difference with the '80s and '90s woman."