Reba McEntire Physically 'Can't Be a Mean Judge' on NBC's 'The Voice'

CUL PS Reba McEntire
Reba McEntire Tony Matula

"I try to sing songs that will help other people while they're listening to the music. It's miraculous what music can do."

For Reba McEntire, joining NBC's The Voice as a judge after Blake Shelton's departure adds a layer of "pressure" to the gig. "Nobody can replace Blake Shelton. He's a huge personality and a wonderful person.... I'm just getting in there trying to have fun and represent country music as best I can." If anybody can do that, it's Reba McEntire, who hasn't stopped making hits since she began nearly 50 years ago. Her next album, Not That Fancy (which will also feature a book of stories and recipes), will feature her classic songs scaled back, more acoustic—or rather, not that fancy. "It brought out something in each song that you didn't hear before. You really hone in on the words and the emotion of the song." And that's something McEntire has always been able to do. "I try to sing songs that will help other people while they're listening to the music. It's miraculous what music can do." She says she appreciates performing more now. "To be able to do the music as long as I have, at the level that I've gotten to, I'm very grateful, very thankful and I have learned to enjoy it more."


It's so exciting that you're on The Voice.

I'm really having a wonderful time.

How does it feel?

It's a well-oiled machine, so getting in at this time is marvelous. Everybody knows the game plan, from the crew, the producers. Everybody on the show is so nice, so sweet and have been so helpful. I'm loving it.

How does it feel to be holding up the country music side of the judges' panel after Blake Shelton's departure?

It's a lot of pressure, because nobody can replace Blake Shelton. He's a huge personality and a wonderful person. So I'm just getting in there trying to have fun and represent country music as best I can.

What's your judging style? I can't imagine you as a mean judge.

I can't be a mean judge. I mean, when I turned it down 15 years ago, when they wanted me to do The Voice, I said, "I can't tell anybody that they're horrible. I can't say to somebody, 'Well is your mama gonna meet you at the bus station? Because you're going home.' I can't do that." So I learned from John [Legend], Gwen [Stefani] and Niall [Horan]. Every day that we're working on The Voice, I'm learning more from them how to let 'em down easy if they don't get picked up, coach 'em, and if you can give them any advice whatsoever. Like if none of the coaches turn around, they're going home immediately. And so it's good just to say, "If you want to come back again, try it again next season, maybe a song that suits you, one that you're really comfortable with and that really shows your talent," give them advice and encourage them to come back.

If you weren't the Reba we know and love and you were auditioning for The Voice now, how do you think you'd do?

I don't think anybody would turn around for me. Honestly, I don't. If they would, I'd be thrilled to pieces. But what an opportunity these kids are having, and some of [them] aren't kids. Some are 16, 17 years old, and some people that come on The Voice are in their 30s and want to give it a go and are having fun with it. But what an opportunity to be seen by that many people all over the world for just a few minutes, whereas it would have taken me years at my concert levels to get in front of that many people.

You and Dolly Parton are really in a lane of your own in terms of your crossover appeal, like your base is not just country music fans. Why do you think that is?

Well, the TV show [Reba] helped a lot. A lot of people didn't even know I sang when they watched the Reba television show. Their parents would bring their children in and say, this is Reba, then they're kind of looking at me like, "What are you doing here at the concert?" They didn't understand that I sing and act the same. So it's getting that audience that has really helped me along the way of getting a broader audience, whether it's Broadway, movies, and then along with my singing, that's quite a few genres to be a part of. So that's really helped me a lot.

Your new album and book is called Not That Fancy, which, when I think of Reba, I think fancy, especially because of your classic song "Fancy." So what inspired the book and album?

Well, I guess COVID brought about this album, the idea of everybody trying to find things to do during COVID when we couldn't do anything, and ideas were just materializing left and right. The book started first, and it's a lifestyle book. It's talking about how to throw a dinner party that's not that fancy, how to entertain not that fancy. And then we've got recipes that we also use in my restaurant in Atoka, Oklahoma. It's called Reba's Place. So [the book] is covering a lot of bases, little tidbits about where to go when you're in New York, my favorite restaurants to go to, recipes, stories about my life, my friends, really cool pictures that I don't think some of my fans have seen before. And then the album goes along with it. It's an album of my past songs that we did not that fancy, not with a whole band, more acoustic, pared down. So it's good little theme, and we're having a great time with it.

I think of songs like "I'm a Survivor" and "Fancy," and them pared down sounds so interesting.

It really worked out well. When I worked with Dave Cobb in Nashville, to pare it down, I did a song or two with him, and I said, "Oh man, Dave has got to produce this album." And it was a lot of fun. It brought out something in each song that you didn't hear before. It's not so much instrumentation, you really hone in on the words and the emotion of the song, which was something that I really liked.

That's something that I've always thought about performers like you, or even Dolly. Your vocal abilities are amazing, but you're also storytellers more than anything.

Thank you for that. That is a huge compliment. Because I grew up listening to Dolly Parton, when she had her very first album, My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy. I love that album because she wrote songs and told a story. I like a song that tells a story. And then when they pitch me songs for me to record, sometimes it'll be in a story form, and then they won't end it. And I say, "What? Tell me what happened." And they'll say, "Oh, you can just use your imagination." And I say, "You're not getting out of that quick. Go back, finish it and bring it back to me." I want to know your idea about what happened in the story. I mean, I've got my own, but I want to let the fans know. I don't want to sing a song that's a story song without an ending.

Well, your most epic story song is "Fancy," about a woman working any way she can to survive. Where do you think Fancy is today?

I think she's enjoying life. I think she's very grateful where she is right now and she is helping other people that were in her situation go through life and trying to pull 'em up, help them and give them encouragement.

Do you ever feel like when you're performing a song, and it's so personal, that it gets too personal for you?

Maybe sometimes. Things happen in your life. If you're happy, you pick happy songs. If you're sad, you pick sad songs. For instance, in 1991, after the plane crash [which killed 7 of her band members and her tour manager], For My Broken Heart was the album we went in to record and they would ask me, "So Reba, any of the songs gonna be up-tempo and happy?" And I said, "Not for this album." I couldn't. So you usually sing about the attitude and where you are in your life. That's why you sing the songs so well. So when I'm happy and singing the songs that are fun, they can't be any better. But that's the old thing about a sad song. You gravitate. I guess misery loves company. So that's the kind of songs you want to sing.

And For My Broken Heart is your bestselling album, which just shows how people will be with you because of the emotion you're putting into the work. It's matching where you're at.

I totally agree. Well, everybody needs songs. Everybody needs music because music is very healing. It sure was for me during that time, and other rough times in my life. So I try to sing songs that will help other people while they're listening to the music. It's miraculous what music can do.

Do you still feel the same excitement to perform live as you may have when you first started out?

It's better. It's a lot better. I absolutely love it. I think I appreciate it more now. I'm coming up on my 50th anniversary in the music business, so to be able to do the music as long as I have, at the level that I've gotten to, I'm very grateful, very thankful, and I have learned to enjoy it more.

Do you plan to act more?

I hope so. I love to act. I get the biggest kick out of it.

I saw you as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. You were a perfect Annie Oakley.

Thank you so much. I was a huge fan of the Annie Oakley TV show. Before I ever went to grade school, my older brother and sister would come home, they would get off the bus and I'd go down and walk them back up to the house and fill them in on what happened on the Annie Oakley show that day. So to get to be Annie Oakley years later was a dream come true. For me, I thought I was Annie Oakley. When I stepped on that stage, I wasn't nervous. I just wanted to be on stage. I had a great time. It was only six months. I know a lot of people do a full year. But that's the hardest work I've ever done in my life. Eight shows [a week]. It's kind of like Groundhog Day, so you have to play a little game with yourself. [You think,] "What's your favorite song for this show?" The songs were so good. The music was so good in that show that I had a different favorite song every night.

So I'll admit to you that I first became aware of your work when I would watch drag queens perform your music and perform as you. How do you feel about queens performing your songs and as you?

[The songs] are perfect for drag. I don't blame them. They are perfect. They're fun. I'm very flattered that they love the songs. I didn't write them, so I can't take credit for 'em. I guess I can take credit for the way I did 'em on stage and in the way we dress. The thing that really ticks me off and makes me mad, and I don't know that I've ever told anybody this, but I'll tell you: they do their makeup better than I do. That really ticks me off. [laughs]

Not true! But again, that's really the gift of performers like you and even Dolly, your ability to connect with a wide range of people.

Thank you very much. I do agree with you. Dolly and I, we just love, we're not here to judge or to preach. We love what we get to do. And one other thing about the drag queens, when people do my songs in drag, I always look and say,"Why in the world would you want to wear those high heels?" [laughs]

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