If not for a spur-of-the-moment national anthem at a 1974 rodeo, Reba McEntire might have stuck with barrel racing and become a rodeo champion like her father and sister. Or she may have become a schoolteacher like her mother.
Instead, the girl from small-town Chockie, Okla., was discovered by singer Red Steagall that day, and went on to become Reba, the Queen of Country.
“It was Daddy’s idea for me to sing the national anthem at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. And then Red Steagall, he took me to Nashville. Mama drove me down there . . . and 11 months after meeting Red, I had a recording contract. So there’s no such thing as a coincidence — it’s God’s planning and I give him total credit,” says the 2018 Kennedy Center honoree, Country Music Hall of Famer, and three-time Grammy winner.
In an interview, McEntire, 64, is a ball of energy. She talks a-mile-a-minute, she’s friendly, laughs a lot. Listing McEntire’s awards here could take up the rest of this article. Suffice to say she’s sold some 56 million albums, had more than 30 No. 1 singles on the country charts, won fistfuls of American Music Awards and American Country Music Awards, and has a number of honors under her belt — from the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame’s inaugural Career Maker Award to the National Artistic Achievement Award from Congress.
We caught up with the first-ever female KFC Colonel Sanders as she readies to play Tanglewood Sunday.
Q. You have a lot going on right now. You’re in an animated movie with Will Smith coming out on Christmas Day.
A. I am, “Spies in Disguise.” I met Will years ago, and it’s so much fun to hang out with people you like to hang out with. To be affiliated with him is a huge thrill. I’ve been doing voice acting a long time. I did “Charlotte’s Web”; Kathy Bates and I were sisters; we were cows. It was a lot of fun.
Q. Is acting something you always wanted to do?
A. Absolutely always. And the first time I ever got to do it was on music videos [which] got me ready for movies. “Tremors” was my very first one, which was out in 1990.
Q. That’s with Kevin Bacon. That must’ve been awesome.
A. It was awesome to get to watch it — it wasn’t so awesome to get to film it though. I would fly, after my concerts were through on a Sunday night, I would take the red-eye to LA, take a puddle-jumper. I would get in a motel in Lone Pine, Calif., about 2 a.m., they’d get me at 5 a.m., I’d sit in a trailer forever before they got me. So it was a hard shoot. And then in the middle of it all, I got married. Did our show Friday night, got married Saturday afternoon, did our show Saturday night, went back to film the movie Monday. Yeah, it was an experience for sure.
Q. Your very first video mentioned Boston, with “Whoever’s in New England.” That song was kind of a shifter for you, drawing you into a new market. What drew you to that song?
A. That it was about New England, and at the time I had more fan club members in Pennsylvania than I did in Texas. There’s a huge fan following in the northeastern part of the United States. So I really wanted to do the song — I thought it was a monstrous hit the first time I heard it.
Q. Is it tough being a woman in the country music business in general?
A. It’s tough being a woman in any business. You have to work harder, you have to put in twice the time. You can’t bitch and moan about it, you can’t complain, you have to do your work and go forward.
I was raised on a working cattle ranch, and I learned that lesson really quick. Because we’d be down at the pens working cattle, and Daddy would say, “All right, you girls go to the house and cook us some lunch.” Well, we’d go to the house and cook lunch, everybody would eat, we’d clean up, we’d go in the living room where all the men were resting, taking a little nap, we’d say, “All right, we’re through.” Daddy would say, “All right, let’s go back to the pens.” We didn’t get a break. We didn’t get a rest. So I learned that really early on — you work hard to get ahead, you do your part, and show ’em what you got.
Q. Your dad was a champion steer roper.
A. Daddy was a world champion steer-roper in the [Real Cowboy Association]. He won it in ’57, ’58, and ’61. Grandpap was a world champion steer roper in 1934. All of us kids except Susie rodeoed, and she married a rodeo cowboy.
Q. You tried it for a little while.
A. Ten years. I loved it. I wanted to be a world champion barrel racer. I never was, but I sure did enjoy it. The best thing about rodeo are the people. It’s a family. I went from the rodeo family to the music family.
Q. You were the Singing McEntires. So your family loved singing.
A. Always. Mama was a great singer, still is. She taught us kids how to sing harmony.
Q. Both your school and town were small.
A. Yeah, I had 18 people in my graduating class.
Q. Do you miss the small-town feel, or did you want to escape it?
A. No, no, no, I didn’t want to escape anything. I loved my raising, very proud of my heritage, where I grew up, how I grew up. I love Oklahoma. I love Tennessee. I live out in the country now. I love small towns.
Q. I know you said it took you a long time to get a hit record.
A. It was slow; I didn’t know anything about the business. And every step I took was a baby step, but it was a step forward. I was learning and growing. And I had a strong foundation by the time I had success. If it had happened today, I wouldn’t have made it. They’re not giving everybody a chance like they did back in those days.
Q. When did you feel that you made it?
A. Oh, I’m still working on it. [Laughs]
Q. At a certain point, you took creative control over what songs you wanted to do.
A. I was not happy with the producers’ choice of songs and the production of my music. I went to the head of the record label and told him my unhappiness, and he said, “I think you need to go look for your own songs,” and I said, “Well, how do I do that?” We went from publishing company to publishing company, and I would listen to songs, and pick my own to record, and that’s when my career really kicked into high gear. That’s when we found “Whoever’s in New England.”
Q. We were talking about how it’s tough being a woman in any business. You really took a stand there.
A. Yeah, I did take a stand, but I also had a man in the music business that understood what I was going through and encouraged me. I’ve had a lot of male friends in the music business who have helped me. Then also I watched Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, to see what they were doing and how I could improve. And Barbara Mandrell. [I was] inspired by those women.
Q. You’ve said you got your “vocal gymnastics” technique from Dolly.
A. Well, some things I would get from Dolly, but Mama told me one time, she said, “Reba, you can’t sound like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. You’ve got to have your own unique voice.” That’s when I really learned to be my own vocalist.
Q. I know you said your first acting role was tough. What do you think of acting now?
A. I love it. When we did the “Reba” show for 6½ seasons, I loved it. I loved the creativity; I loved that the script was different every week. It’s so much fun. Doing “Annie Get Your Gun” [on Broadway] was totally different. You do the same story every night, eight shows a week for six months. Hardest work I ever did in my life, but I loved it.
Q. You were the first female KFC Colonel. How did that come about?
A. They asked me if I wanted to do it. We talked about it for a long time, my management and myself, and I thought about it and thought about it, and I said: “It’s totally different; it’s a stretch — why not?”
Q. You’re in Vegas for a stretch.
A. It’s the longest country music residency in Vegas. Brooks & Dunn and myself, we started in ’15. Our next run is in December. We’ll do eight shows while the National Finals Rodeo is going on. So it’s funny that I’m back in Vegas — well, the first time I sang the national anthem at the National Finals Rodeo was in Oklahoma City — but being in Vegas while the National Finals is there is pretty funny.
With Jamie Kent. At Tanglewood, Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. Tickets $33-$159, 617-266-1200, www.bso.org