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Reba McEntire Has Always Been a Star — But Do You Know How She Got Her Big Break?

The country music icon's early days.

Reba Nell McEntire was born in March 28, 1955, in Oklahoma. She did not grow up rich, but she would be the first person to tell you she’s not looking for pity about her humble upbringing. Her father was Clark Vincent McEntire, a steer roper, and her mother was Jacqueline Smith, a schoolteacher. Reba was the third of four children, including her older sister, Alice Lynn, older brother, Del Stanley (nickname “Pake”), and younger sister, Martha Susan.

Clark didn’t finish high school, but Jacqueline attended Southeastern Oklahoma State University and taught grades one through eight at a one-room schoolhouse. Her father was highly successful at steer roping, a rodeo event where a cowboy on a horse lassos a steer by the horns.

Her True Calling

When she was a child, Reba’s parents owned a small house and cattle ranch in Chockie, Oklahoma. In her 1994 book, Reba: My Story, she described how she was gathering cattle on her parents’ ranch by the time she was 6 years old and “doing it from before daylight until after dark by the time I was 7.” Despite growing up around rodeos, cattle, and horses, she was actually so nervous about her own venture into calf roping that she would throw up before performances. In her book, she explained how she never felt that way about singing, so that was the career she ended up pursuing.

Though her family encouraged her calf roping, they were equally supportive of her vocal endeavors. Music was always a big part of the McEntires’ lives. In My Story, she recalled family gatherings as a child where they would “play music, sing and dance until daylight.”

Reba’s first official performance was in first grade. It was the first time she ever held a real microphone that wasn’t just her hairbrush. She sang “Away in a Manger” during a Christmas program held in the high school gymnasium. But it was in fifth grade when she really decided she wanted to be an entertainer. She was in the 4-H club where they did skits, public speaking, and showed calves and pigs. Reba sang “My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown” for the 4-H talent show and won the Junior Individual Act division. It was her first accolade for singing. In her memoir, Reba explained, “That victory made me like a hunting dog. I had tasted blood and now knew deep within my very soul that I was to be an entertainer.”

A Family Affair

According to James Hoag’s Legends of Country Music: Reba McEntire, during high school, Reba’s mother wanted her to take music classes, but since none were offered, Jacqueline helped to create the Kiowa High School Cowboy Band herself. This gave rise to the Singing McEntires, where three of the family’s four children would get together every chance they got and sing. “Pake played acoustic rhythm guitar and sang melody,” Reba recalled. “I sang high harmony, and Susie sang the low. Bloodline harmony…is the closest harmony in the world, I think.”

Clark Rhyne, a history and art teacher at the high school, played guitar for the group. They recorded a song at a local recording studio in Oklahoma City called “The Ballad of John McEntire” about Reba’s grandfather, who was also a steer roper like her father.

They even scraped together enough money to press 500 copies of the record and sold them to whoever would buy one. However, the Singing McEntires began to dissolve when her brother graduated from high school in 1971. By the time Reba graduated two years later in 1973, the group had pretty much disbanded. After high school, Reba enrolled at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and majored in elementary education, just like her mother did, but she also minored in music. While Reba enjoyed her time in the Singing McEntires, her chance to perform the national anthem solo at the National Finals Rodeo in 1974 was a moment that put her music career on a more individual path. Though she did finish her bachelor’s degree, by 1975, she was already heading to Nashville, Tennessee, for her first shot at success.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Reba McEntire: Tribute to the Queen of Country, in 2022.

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