Like the man said: You can take the girl out of the country . . .
But you can’t plop Reba McEntire down smack-dab on Broadway and expect a citified “chantoosie.” The country clings to her like a calico dress—and that’s a good thing, since she happens to be starring as Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin’s grab bag of great show tunes, Annie Get Your Gun, at the Marquis Theatre.
Even McEntire is amazed at what a comfortable fit it is. The two stars grew up in parallel universes—fiercely competitive, in the world of men. Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses fired her first shot at age 7 and, by 12, was sole support of her large, hungry family. The man she got with a gun—sharpshooter Frank Butler—she actually married; he gracefully retired to manage her career and, a gentleman of deference to the end, died 18 days after her.
By the same token, McEntire was raised on an 8,000-acre cattle spread in Chockie, Oklahoma, the third of four children. She and her sisters helped her father, grandfather and brother ranch, then helped their mom cook and clean while the menfolk stretched out on the couch. Politically incorrect times, yes—but, she says, “a responsible way of life for us.”
She was hellbent to be a teacher in 1974 when, in her sophomore year at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, her recording career kicked in. Today she is a corporation (Starstruck Entertainment) on Nashville’s Music Row, and six of her 11 albums have topped Billboard’s country charts. She married the steel guitarist in her band, Narvel Blackstock, who stowed the instrument to run her career. Son Shelby is ten. McEntire had some earlier target practice at Annie Oakley—via the CBS-TV movie, “Buffalo Girls”—playing the character in the second act of her life on tour in Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. “It’s so ironic that here I am a few years later, playing Annie Oakley again”—or maybe she just doesn’t know how to read her tea leaves: She turned down the Molly Brown role in Titanic, but Lord knows, should she ever care to second that Broadway motion, she couldn’t find a better vehicle than The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
McEntire is Country Music’s Renaissance Woman. A four-time Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year and one of only five women to win the CMA’s coveted Entertainer of the Year, she turns out to be a great “natural actress,” something she never knew till she film-bowed in "Tremors," a 1990 sci-fi feature. She also authored a best-selling autobiography and the homespun "Comfort From a Country Quilt."
Her final frontier—Broadway—is where no female C&W star has gone before. She tiptoed into the big leap by getting her life together and taking it on the road for a year. “The Singer’s Diary,” she says, “was a two-act play that spanned from 1974 to the present. The first act was me telling my life story through dialogue and songs. Act two was a full-blown concert. Doing that helped me decide to do Annie Get Your Gun.”
The only thing Reba McEntire doesn’t do is write her own songs. “I go to professionals for that,” she admits, and they don’t come any more professional than Irving Berlin. Her favorite AGYG song—“I Got Lost in His Arms”—was predecessor Bernadette Peters’s favorite. “I recorded it the other day, and I coulda died and gone to heaven right then.”