Reba McEntire on hosting the ACM Awards and being the first female Col. Sanders

Country music has grown youth-obsessed over the years, and stars don’t stick around for decades-long careers quite like they used to.

Reba McEntire, though, still claims her place in the spotlight. The 63-year-old Oklahoman released her self-titled debut in 1977. This year, she won a Grammy for Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope, her first gospel album.

McEntire’s not a staple on the charts like she was in the 1980s and 1990s. But she maintained a mainstream presence with her sitcom Reba in the aughts and has a didn’t-see-that-coming new role in KFC’s TV ad campaign.

On Sunday, she’ll return to a familiar gig as host of the Academy of Country Music awards, the second-most important awards show on the country music calendar. It will be broadcast from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas at 8 p.m. on CBS. She’s up for female vocalist of the year in a field of much younger competitors that includes Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris, Carrie Underwood, and Miranda Lambert.

McEntire plays the Xcite Center at the Parx Casino in Bensalem on April 27 and 28. She spoke on the phone last month about hosting the ACMs, why she doesn’t change costumes 15 times anymore in her concerts, and what it’s like to be the first female Colonel Sanders.

How are you, Reba McEntire? Where are you?

Really well, thank you. Las Vegas. We’ve been doing this residency at Caesar’s with Brooks & Dunn since about 2015, and absolutely love it.

What’s good about it?

Parking in one place is wonderful. We’re in the same hotel room for two weeks. It’s just consistency, which is not what we’re used to.

This is the first time the ACMs have been held in Vegas since 58 people were killed at the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival last year. Is that going to make the awards show a more serious affair?

No. Absolutely not. This is a celebration. We will remember the folks who were called in that tragedy. But we are going to celebrate that we are all still together. We will remember, but we will move forward. It’s going to be a positive night.

You just won your third Grammy. Is this one special?

Sure it is. I’ve never had a gospel album out before. My little sister Susie is the gospel singer of the family… I was thrilled that they recognized the work, the heart and soul we put into it.

You’re the first female Colonel Sanders. How’d that happen?

It was so much fun. I had a blast doing it. When my manager, Clarence Spalding, came to me about it, I looked at him like, ‘Is this a joke?’ I was very surprised. But every time I would bring it up to somebody, they would say, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great idea!’ I’d be like, ‘You don’t think it’s corny? I’m going to be a male impersonator.’ They’d say, ‘No, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.’

Has there been any blowback?

Oh, yeah. I’ve read some of the comments. They thought it was disrespectful to the Colonel. I have eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken all my life. I would never do anything disrespectful to that brand.

And now people are talking about Reba again, right?

For sure. It’s a win-win situation, the way I look at it.

I want to ask you about two songs that are part of your repertoire. The first is “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” the Southern Gothic murder song that was a hit for Vicki Lawrence in 1973.

I love story songs. I love anything you can paint a picture in your mind when you’re singing it. I was in the studio with [Nashville producer] Tony Brown and he asked is there a remake I wanted to do. I said I love ‘That’s the Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.’

The second song is “Fancy,” Bobbie Gentry’s song about a poor Louisiana mother who sends her daughter out to be a prostitute to make money for the family.

That’s my favorite song. I fell in love with it when Bobbie Gentry had it out in the ’60s. It’s rag to riches. It’s got a great chorus. The video just runs through my mind every time I sing it. That wasn’t even a number-one record for me. It went to number seven. And it’s my most popular song.

Do you still encore with it?

Every night.

You tell moralizers to buzz off in that song. Is that appealing?

It’s appealing to me because what it’s saying is, ‘It is not our job to judge.’ We’re supposed to love. And we’re supposed to be kind. That’s not that hard, but a lot of people seem to find that to be a real big struggle. ‘In this world there’s a lot of hypocrites that would call me bad / And criticize my Mama for turning me out, no matter how little we had.’ It’s basically saying: Don’t judge me. You don’t know what I’ve been through. You haven’t walked it, so don’t judge it.

Camera icon Robert Melone.
Reba McEntire.
Dolly Parton recently paid tribute to you on your 40th anniversary on the Grand Ole Opry. You’ve endured as a singer, an actress, and comedian. Were there women who were models for that kind of multifaceted career?

Yes. Dolly was one of those people. Loretta Lynn, my hero. Patsy Cline. On the comedian side, I would say Lily Tomlin. Carol Burnett. Lucille Ball. I love watching those people. Those ladies were so witty and funny, and I love that.

But why am I still doing it? I like it. I love to travel. I love to do new things. It interests me. And I’ve got the attention span of a 2-year-old. So I have not been bored since I don’t know when.

It’s something different all the time. When my music wasn’t as popular as it had been 10 years before, that’s when I went and did Annie Get Your Gun [a Broadway hit in 2001].

Then I did the TV show for six and half seasons. Then I came back to music.

Your father and grandfather were world-champion steer ropers. Did you rodeo?

I did barrel racing. That was the event for the women. I did that for 10 years.

And you were discovered by Red Stegall at the rodeo in 1974, right?

In Oklahoma City. It’s kind of like the World Series for rodeo, and I got to sing the national anthem. It was by chance. I was coming back from the bathroom, and a friend of mine introduced me to him, and I said, ‘Good to meet you, I got to go sing the national anthem.’ … Eleven months later, I signed a contract with Polygram Records.

What is barrel racing? Were you good at it?

I was not very good. It’s three barrels in a triangle. You’re on a horse, and you go around the barrels in a clover-leaf pattern.

I’d sing at school all the time, and then in summer I’d rodeo. And when I wasn’t rodeoing, I was going to basketball camp. So I was always busy.

Were you a point guard? I picture you running things out on the floor.

[Laughs] No. But I jumped in there and tried hard. I take direction very well.

Camera icon Carmeon Powell.
Reba McEntire.
Where’s your drive come from?

Well, Daddy being a champion roper. He had a 20,000-acre ranch in southeast Oklahoma, and they started with absolutely nothing. It’s that determination and competition that keeps me going.

What are your shows like now?

I like to tell the stories. Where I found the song, how I relate to it. I used to change costumes 15 times a show, and I quit doing that after I got through Reba the TV show. People asked me why, and I say: ‘Cause I want to stay out here with y’all.’ The fans are what got me to where I am today, through the grace of God. I want to stay out there with them.

MUSIC

Reba McEntire

  • 8 p.m. April 27 & 28, Parx Casino, 2999 Street Road, Bensalem, Sold Out, 888-LUV-PARX, parxcasino.com

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