A few months before Reba McEntire turned 28, she was idling in a “bus barn” in DeSoto, Texas, waiting for a wheel on her tour bus to be replaced, when she got a call from her manager. She’d just earned her first No. 1 hit.
It was 1983, and the Oklahoma native beelined for an old rotary phone. “The first person I called was Mama,” McEntire, 68, tells Bustle.
She’d spent the previous five-plus years traveling around the United States, trying to break into the country world. She had five albums and dozens of singles to her name, all before “Can’t Even Get the Blues” reached the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. And that was just the beginning.
Now, 41 years later, McEntire has racked up 25 No. 1s and has no plans of slowing down. Last year, she played Madison Square Garden for the first time, released a New York Times bestselling book, and joined The Voice as a coach. And in January, NBC announced that she’ll front a new comedy series.
“I still don’t think I’ve made it. I’m still working hard. I think it’s harder to maintain [success] than it is to get it.”
On Sunday, Feb. 11, she’s scheduled to perform the national anthem at Super Bowl LVIII, marking the 50th anniversary of when she was discovered. Fittingly, it was while singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1974 National Finals Rodeo.
Below, McEntire reflects on her ’80s fashion sense, life on tour, and her regrets. —Bustle Editors
Take me back to 1983 and 1984, when you were 28. What were you doing? Where were you living?
I was living in Stringtown, Oklahoma, and had just had my first No. 1 record. Life was good going into ’84. I won my first Female Vocalist of the Year award, so I had finally gotten my foot in the door. It was the beginning.
Around that time, you left PolyGram/Mercury Records and signed on to MCA Records. Why’d you do that?
I thought it was time for a move, and I talked it over with my producer, Jerry Kennedy. He said, “We’re going to miss you and hate for you to leave, but I’m 100% behind you.”
Jimmy Bowen was coming in to take over MCA. It was one of the reasons why I went, but then he was cleaning house. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to be dropped. What have I done?” I heard that Irving Azoff said, “You’re not going to drop her. She’s an up-and-coming entertainer and singer.” So I stayed on with MCA, and been under that umbrella with Universal Music ever since.
Who was your support system around you during that transition?
My band and crew. I mean, we stayed on tour all the time, so they were my family. They supported, encouraged, and taught me. The learning is never over in the music business. Technology has changed so much since I started. There are new ways of recording, new ways of getting music out to fans. Everything’s changed except that love for music.
I just look for songs that touch my heart, and hopefully when I sing them, they’ll touch your heart, too.
What’s a song from that time that really touched people's hearts?
“Can’t Even Get the Blues No More” evidently did. “Somebody Should Leave,” a very sad song that I absolutely love. “How Blue” was another.
What did a typical Friday night look like for you?
Well, come Friday night, we’d be performing. We were working Thursday, Friday, Saturday — that's why I never knew anything about Saturday Night Live.
And what was your go-to outfit at the time? Did you participate in fashion trends?
It was trial and error: see what worked, see what didn’t. I went through a few stylists, and I finally got to the point where I had to put my foot down and say, “I don’t care how it looks. If it’s not comfortable, I’m not wearing it.” That started in the ’80s, when I had to be comfortable.
Comfy couture. I like that. Aside from your own music, what were you listening to back then?
I was continually listening to song demos. I needed to listen and pay attention, because I needed to know if I was going to record that song or not.
Is there any advice you’d give your 28-year-old self, looking back?
Have fun. I took everything so seriously. I came from a ranch and rodeo family. You show up, you come prepared, you know your stuff. So when I went to record, I had everything ready to go.
Was there a moment when you felt like you’d made it?
I still don’t think I’ve made it. I’m still working hard. I think it’s harder to maintain [success] than it is to get it. I’m competitive with myself. I think it’s very healthy — I love to do new things so that I’m challenged.
Is there any award you still want to win, or an award from the past that you're particularly proud of?
Oh, I’m proud of all the awards that I’ve won, but it’s not only me. It was a whole team of us winning awards: my team, the fans who supported me, and the people in the industry who taught me.
Nowadays, it's not so much about the awards. It's about putting out quality material, whether it's acting or music. I want ‘em to walk out saying, “Man, that was good.” Because people work hard. I don’t want to waste their time or money.
A lot of our readers are in their 20s and 30s. How did you think about money during that time of your life?
I was hands-on. I approved every one of my bills. I wasn’t always that way, and I regret that. If you have a question about your financial situation, ask. Be interested, pay attention. The more you pay attention, the more the people who are handling your finances will pay attention.
I like that advice. There’s a lot of stigma about discussing finances with other people. What would you describe as your best memory from that time period?
Being in that bus barn in DeSoto, Texas, when I got the call from my manager, Don Williams. I remember looking around in the old greasy garage. Some of the band was on the bus watching TV. I walked up and said, “We got our first No. 1 record!”
I love that. How did you celebrate later in the day?
I cried tears of joy.
Jumping forward to today: How’d you react to the TikToks of people using your “I’m a Survivor” song from Reba?
I love it. I was very flattered and entertained. It was very creative.
And you posted your own as well, with your horses, I believe.
Yeah, the donkeys. We had a blast with it. And it shows a different side of my personality. Who would’ve thought I’d be out there feeding the donkeys?
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.