If her mom had her way, Reba wouldn’t have been the only McEntire child to land a recording contract in 1975. As the story goes, a year earlier, Reba had secured a job singing the national anthem at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City, the top contest for rodeo riders in the United States. That week, she and some of her family got an invite to a party thrown by the Justin Boot Company at the Hilton. Also in attendance was Red Steagall, a beloved country artist who, at the time, was becoming nationally known because of his appearances on Hee Haw.
Steagall sang and played guitar most of the night. Periodically, he handed the instrument to people in the crowd and asked them to contribute a song or two. Among those who obliged were Reba’s siblings Pake and Susie, the other two members of the Singing McEntires. At a certain point in the evening, Everett Shaw, a cowboy known for his steer roping prowess, chimed in, suggesting Reba sing “Joshua,” Dolly Parton’s first No. 1 country single. No one in the suite knew the chords well enough to play it on guitar, so Reba was left to sing a cappella. That was more than enough. “As Red put it later,” Reba recalled in her memoir Reba: My Story, “’This little redheaded girl started singing, and it just blew me away.’”
Some time later, Reba’s mom, Jacqueline, took Steagall aside to ask if he could help the Singing McEntires score a record contract. He demurred, but a month later, he called her up to tell her that while he loved all three of her talented children, Reba had that little something extra that might just connect with country fans. Two months later, the two women were taking the 700-mile journey to Nashville, Tennessee, to record a demo.
Breaking Out in Nashville
Strong as this four-song recording was, it took some time to win over the gatekeepers in Music City. Steagall played it for numerous executives and publishing houses, all of whom brushed it aside, saying, in one form or another, “We don’t need another girl singer.” They finally broke through when Steagall’s publishing partner, Joe Light, played one track from the demo to Glenn Keener, a producer at Phonogram-Mercury, in hopes of selling him on the song. While he didn’t take to the tune, Keener fell hard for the young woman singing it. Soon, on November 11, 1975, Reba McEntire signed her first recording contract with Mercury Records.
For the next two years, Reba made the first steps in what has now become a 45-year career. It was a slow process. Her first recording sessions went down at Nashville’s Woodland Sound Studios, backed by some of the preeminent session musicians of the day, like pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, drummer Buddy Harman, steel guitarist Lloyd Green, and backing vocalists The Jordanaires, and overseen by Keener.
The sound was pure Countrypolitan, coated in strings and midtempo swing, and it yielded Reba’s debut single, “I Don’t Want to Be a One Night Stand.” That song came out in the summer of 1976 and the day it hit the airwaves in Oklahoma was a moment Reba remembers well. “Mama, Susie and I…had the old static-filled AM radio tuned to KVOO, the 50,000-watt powerhouse in Tulsa,” she wrote in her book. “The disc jockey announced a new record by a new singer, and then I heard ‘I Don’t Want to Be a One Night Stand’ on the radio. The three of us sat there and cried.”
A Tough Start
Soon after, Keener was fired by the record label and the work of developing Reba into a potential star fell to Jerry Kennedy, a producer and session musician who had worked with the likes of Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins, and Bob Dylan. Kennedy helped steer Reba toward what they hoped would connect with audiences, choosing familiar tunes like Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues” and “Why Can’t He Be You,” a song associated closely with Patsy Cline.
Their combined efforts resulted in a strong album with fine singles. Unfortunately, none of it wound up catching fire with country fans. The first three tracks that hit radio in 1977 and 1978 scraped the bottom part of the Billboard Country Singles chart. The fourth didn’t even register. “I was a flop,” Reba said. “In the middle 1970s, [an artist] can sell as few as 25,000 and have a No. 1 song. So, at the rate I was going, I wasn’t making any money for Mercury.”
But, as Reba pointed out, in spite of her singles fizzling out on the charts, her label stuck with her, releasing Reba McEntire, her debut album, on August 15, 1977. It, too, quickly sank without a trace.
Her Music Grows With Her
In the years since its release, Reba’s first full-length effort has gotten the respect it deserved at the time. Like much of her early work, Reba McEntire feels like an outlier when compared to the sleeker, more contemporary sound of her future recordings. Yet, there’s a charm and a warmth to these first efforts that is undeniable, even when heard 45 years later.
Looking back, Reba recognized that she had an uphill battle as an unknown, and a female artist at that. It could have spelled doom for her hopes of becoming a star, but she persevered. “Fact is,” she wrote in her book, “Jerry never gave up on me, and I never gave up on myself. And that’s a piece of hard-won wisdom I’d pass on to anyone wanting to chase a dream.”
The Slow Rise to Stardom
After the release of her self-titled debut album, Reba McEntire’s prospects weren’t looking particularly good, but somehow she never lost faith. Backstage after a less-than-stellar gig in Fort Worth, Texas, that found her serving as the opening act for a cavalcade of established country stars, a reporter from the town’s daily newspaper caught up with her to ask, “Well, are you going to quit the music business?”
“Quit? Absolutely not,” the singer shot back, as she recalled in her book Reba: My Story. Even with that defiant attitude, it was still an uphill battle to get to the top for Reba. Though she started to make some headway commercially, her albums still stalled on the charts — the recipe for career disaster in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
A Dynamic Duo
What helped keep her going was continuing to work with Jerry Kennedy, the musician and producer who had stepped in to finish her debut album following Glenn Keener’s firing. With his sharp ear for great tunes and his instincts on how to best arrange a song to support its singer, Kennedy eased Reba in a more pop-country direction closer to the sound of successful hitmakers like Dolly Parton and Barbara Mandrell.
That was clear on her second studio album, 1979’s Out of a Dream. Using many of the same session musicians who played on Reba’s debut, Kennedy settled the singer into a landscape of lush strings and soft arrangements. They played it a little safe in the song selection, plucking some familiar tunes that had already been established as hits for Reba to record, like “Sweet Dreams,” the crossover smash for the late Patsy Cline, and “I’m a Woman,” a Leiber/Stoller composition that Maria Muldaur took to No. 12 on the pop charts.
But they also dared to give Reba a chance to record one of her own compositions: “Daddy,” a bouncy ode to her father’s work as a rancher and a rodeo competitor. In spite of it all and in spite of the radio airplay Reba garnered around that time (her recording of “Sweet Dreams” got as high as No. 19 on Billboard’s Country Singles chart), the album simply didn’t sell.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
Things started to look much better when Reba took a call from Kennedy one day while she was making a blackberry cobbler in her Oklahoma home. “Jerry told me he had a ‘monster song,’ music business slang for a giant hit record,” the singer wrote in her memoir. “[Through] the scratch of rural long distance, I first heard ‘(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven.’”
Released in the summer of 1980, “(You Lift Me) Up To Heaven,” a simple yet powerful love song written, in part, by Nashville legends Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison, soared to No. 8 on Billboard’s country charts. And it opened the doors for Reba to reach some of her largest audiences yet through appearances on the syndicated variety show Pop! Goes the Country and at the Academy of Country Music Awards, which aired on NBC.
The success of that song helped nudge Reba’s next two singles farther up the charts, but didn’t do much for Feel the Fire, her fine 1980 album that was, once again, shored up by some tried-and-true material (“Poor Man’s Roses,” another song connected to Cline’s career, and the doo-wop classic “Tears on My Pillow”). The record failed to chart. It wasn’t until 1981 that Reba’s fortunes truly started to turn. That year, she would appear on Johnny Cash and the Country Girls, a TV special that included performances by, among others, Skeeter Davis, Melba Montgomery, and Cristy Lane.
Additionally, Reba released “Today All Over Again,” an earnest ballad of heartbreak that hit No. 5 on the Billboard Country Songs chart. Along with her constant touring and promotional work, Reba was poised to strike gold at last with her fourth studio album, Heart to Heart. With Kennedy once again helping to steer the ship, the record smoldered with torch songs, another doo-wop standard, “Only You (And You Alone),” and the heart-tugging “Small Two-Bedroom Starter,” about an ill-fated love. The result was her first charting album, which hit No. 42 on the Top Country Albums chart. While it wasn’t a major success, it offered a taste of the glories to come.
Influenced by Legends
Born in Oklahoma to a mother who harbored dreams of musical success, Reba McEntire was steeped in the sounds of country music from a young age. As she recalls, her mom would keep Reba and her siblings occupied by teaching them how to harmonize on Hank Williams and Larry Verne tunes. As for the female singers who made an impact on her, Reba told Woman’s Day, “Lots of great women inspired me, starting with my mother. Then there’s Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Barbara Mandrell, Anne Murray, Tammy Wynette — all ladies I looked up to and highly respected and watched.”
As she grew up, Reba’s tastes started to grow with her. An early boyfriend introduced her to the pop sounds of Three Dog Night and Chicago, and her first real band, the Kiowa High School Cowboy Band, tapped into a deep repertoire of material that spanned from Conway Twitty to Otis Redding to Glen Campbell.
Reba also brought in personal favorites like Bobbie Gentry, whose song “Fancy” would become a huge hit for Reba in the early ’90s. “I’d want to play it in bars and clubs and dance halls,” Reba said about “Fancy” to CMT. “Oklahoma people would say, ‘You can’t dance to that!’ I said, ‘I don’t care. Sit down. I’m going to sing it.’” By the time she reached Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Reba was deconstructing symphonies and singing classical and choral music as a member of the Chorvettes, a performing group that is still going strong today.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Reba McEntire: Tribute to the Queen of Country, in 2022.