Reba McEntire was the most successful female recording artist in country music in the 1980s and 1990s, during which time she scored 22 number one hits and released five gold albums, six platinum albums, two double-platinum albums, four triple-platinum albums, a quadruple-platinum album, and a quintuple-platinum album, for certified album sales of 33.5 million over the 20-year period. While she continued to sell records in healthy numbers into the 21st century, she expanded her activities as an actress in film and on the legitimate stage, and particularly on television, where she starred in a long-running situation comedy. Such diversification made her the greatest crossover star to emerge from country music since Dolly Parton.
By 1994, while continuing to reign as country’s most successful female singer, McEntire was increasingly turning her attention to other concerns. Her 18th regular studio album, Read My Mind, appeared in April. Another instant million-seller that went on to go triple platinum, it threw off five country chart singles, among them the chart-topping “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and, controversially, “She Thinks His Name Was John,” a song about a woman who contracts AIDS from a one-night stand. Even McEntire’s star power could propel such an atypical country subject only as high as number 15 in the charts. Meanwhile, she had parts in two feature films released during the summer, a speaking role in the drama North and a cameo in the children’s comedy The Little Rascals. (She also made an uncredited appearance in the Western film Maverick and was heard on the soundtrack album.) She executive produced and starred in the TV movie Is There Life Out There? (based on her song), and she published her autobiography, Reba: My Story, which became a best-seller.
McEntire’s 19th album was called Starting Over, released in October 1995. Intended to mark the 20th anniversary of her recording career, it was a collection of covers of well-known songs. It not only topped the country charts but hit number five in the pop charts, selling a million copies out of the box. But, boasting only one Top Ten hit, a revival of Lee Greenwood’s “Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands,” among three chart singles, and not achieving a multi-platinum certification, it suggested that McEntire finally had peaked commercially as far as country music was concerned. (In a considerable departure for a country singer, MCA released a dance remix of McEntire’s revival of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” from the album that reached number two on Billboard’s dance chart.) That didn’t keep her from starring in another TV mini-series, Buffalo Gals, playing famed Western sharpshooter Annie Oakley, a part her rodeo background suited her to perfectly. She bounced back on the country charts somewhat with her 20th album, What If It’s You, released in November 1996. The album spawned four Top 20 hits, with “How Was I to Know” reaching number one and “The Fear of Being Alone” and “I’d Rather Ride Around with You” each getting to number two. Simultaneously certified gold and platinum, the album eventually topped two million copies.
The singles drawn from What If It’s You kept McEntire’s name in the country charts throughout 1997, as did the holiday benefit record “What If,” the proceeds from which were donated to the Salvation Army. But for the first time since 1978, she did not release a new album, even a compilation, during the calendar year. Aiming for a splash, she teamed up with the popular country duo Brooks & Dunn in the spring of 1998 for a single called “If You See Him/If You See Her.” It hit number one in June, helping to set up the release of her 21st album, If You See Him, which also brought her three additional Top Ten hits on its way to selling a million copies. She appeared in the TV movie Forever Love (the title of one of those Top Ten hits) during the year and made several guest-star appearances on TV series.
After publishing her second book of memoirs, Comfort from a Country Quilt, in May 1999, McEntire had two new albums ready for the fall. Secret of Giving: A Christmas Collection, a September release, was her second holiday CD, which she accompanied with a TV movie, Secret of Giving. The disc eventually went gold. So Good Together, issued in November, was her 22nd regular studio album, prefaced by the Top Five single “What Do You Say.” Although none of the songs from the album topped the country charts, it did feature a second Top Five hit, “I’ll Be,” and a Top 20 hit in “We’re So Good Together,” and it went platinum before the end of 2000.
As in 1997, McEntire went without an album release in 2000, and in this case, it turned out that she definitely was positioning herself for a career beyond country music, as events in 2001 showed. In February of that year, she stepped in as a replacement star in the Broadway revival of Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun that had begun performances in 1999 with Bernadette Peters in the title role of Annie Oakley. Barry and Fran Weissler, the producers of the revival, were known on Broadway for making money by keeping production costs down and by the extensive use of what was derisively called “stunt casting”: bringing in a well-known personality, often one without much of a theater background, as a replacement to extend the run of a show, as a means of exciting the tourist crowd who would recognize the name of a prominent TV star, for example. McEntire had been preceded as a replacement in Annie Get Your Gun by soap opera star Susan Lucci and TV actress Cheryl Ladd, both of whom kept the show going while being largely ignored or derided by theater insiders.
McEntire turned out to be an entirely different proposition. First, although she lacked legitimate theater experience, she had by now done plenty of acting on television and even a little in film. Second, she had long since brought unusually high production values to her concerts that included choreography and costume changes, good preparation for similar demands in the theater. Third, she could, of course, sing. And fourth, with her rodeo background and Oklahoma accent, she was an ideal Annie Oakley, just as she had been in her previous TV portrayal. (Never mind that the real Annie Oakley was from Ohio; in everybody’s mind, this female sharpshooter and star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, the precursor to the modern rodeo, was a Westerner.) The result was a triumph for McEntire. Reviews were ecstatic, and tickets sold out. The Tony Awards did not have a category for replacements (one has since been added), but she was given special awards for her performance by the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World. She stayed in the show until June 22, 2001. Unfortunately, there was no new cast album recorded to immortalize her appearance.
During the run of Annie Get Your Gun, McEntire was seen in a small part in the film One Night a McCool’s, released in April 2001. Her most extensive filmed acting role began on October 5, 2001, however, when the half-hour situation comedy Reba premiered on the WB TV network (later renamed the CW network). The show became the primary focus of McEntire’s activities, and she moved to Los Angeles to accommodate it. She had not, however, given up country music entirely. In the summer of 2001, she released a single, “I’m a Survivor,” that peaked in the country Top Five and prefaced a new compilation, Greatest Hits, Vol. 3: I’m a Survivor, released in October. It topped the country charts and went gold.
McEntire was occupied primarily with her TV series during 2002 and 2003. After two years, she finally returned to record-making in the summer of 2003 with a new single, “I’m Gonna Take That Mountain,” which peaked in the country Top 20. Room to Breathe, her 23rd regular studio album and first in three years, followed in November and went platinum over the next nine months. The disc’s second single, “Somebody,” hit number one, and it was followed by another Top Ten hit, “He Gets That from Me,” and the Top 20 “My Sister.” Reba continued on into 2004 and 2005. McEntire found time in the spring of 2005 to return to the musical theater, if only for one night. In another piece of inspired casting, she portrayed the “cock-eyed optimist” from Arkansas, Ensign Nellie Forbush, in a special concert version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific performed at Carnegie Hall. The all-star production, also featuring Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell and actor Alec Baldwin, was filmed for a PBS special on the network’s Great Performances series and recorded for an album, both of which appeared in 2006.
By 2005, the catalogs of Mercury and MCA had been combined in the major label Universal, and in November MCA released McEntire’s first combined hits collection, the double-CD set Reba: #1’s, with two newly recorded tracks. It went gold and platinum simultaneously. In 2006, as she began the sixth season of Reba, McEntire also voiced a character in the holiday film release Charlotte’s Web. The sixth season of Reba proved to be the last, as the show signed off the air on February 18, 2007. Not one to sit idle, McEntire toured the U.S. from May 25 through August. On September 18, 2007, she released a new album, Reba Duets, featuring such guests as Justin Timberlake, Don Henley, Kelly Clarkson, Kenny Chesney, Carole King, Faith Hill, Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, Vince Gill, Rascal Flatts, LeAnn Rimes, and Trisha Yearwood. It was prefaced by the single “Because of You,” a duet with Clarkson. For the week ending October 6, 2007, Reba Duets became McEntire’s first album ever to enter the pop charts at number one.
The October 28, 2008 release of the three-disc set 50 Greatest Hits marked the conclusion of her contract with MCA Nashville, and McEntire signed to Valory Music. Through the singer’s Starstruck imprint, Valory released her next album, Keep on Loving You, on August 18, 2009. For the week ending September 5, 2009, it became her second album to enter the Billboard pop chart at number one. Not content to rest on her laurels, McEntire issued the single “Turn on the Radio” in the late summer of 2010, which made the Top 30 on Billboard’s country chart. The Dann Huff-produced album All the Women I Am was released in the late fall.
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