As Nashville’s preeminent charity gala, the Swan Ball has a history of welcoming world-class entertainers. From Johnny Cash to Aretha Franklin, the roster of past performers reads like a who’s who of musical legends. This year, a certain sassy, redheaded hometown hero joins the list. Since signing with Mercury Records in 1975, Reba McEntire has released 30 studio albums, garnered 35 No. 1 singles, sold over 56 million albums, graced the stages of Broadway, starred in her own hit television show, written two books and released a home goods and clothing line at Dillard’s. She can currently be seen starring in a Vegas residency at Caesar’s Palace with Brooks & Dunn, but Swan Ball guests will have the opportunity to see her perform live at the white-tie gala at Cheekwood on June 4. We chatted with the iconic performer about the event, her four-decade career and what it’s like being a woman in a man’s world.
Let’s start by talking about the Swan Ball because we’re so thrilled that you’re performing. What was your first reaction when that offer came to you?
Well, you know, I’ve heard about the Swan Ball forever, and I’ve thought it’s always been a fun event. I’ve never been a participant of it before, and so when they asked me to perform, I was very thrilled and honored.
What are you looking forward to most about it?
Meeting all my friends again at a very fun function. That’s the best part about the entertainment business — getting to be reacquainted with your friends but getting to meet new people too and to make new friends. So that’s the best part about any event is having a great time for a wonderful cause.
Do you know yet what you’re going to wear?
Hmm. No, haven’t quite figured that out. I didn’t know whether to go real Las Vegas-y or more casual, but I think that my philosophy has always been if you’re comfortable, you can have a better time, so it’s going to be a kind of a great balance of comfort but also sassiness.
Surely you get a lot of requests from charitable organizations, and I know you’ve participated in a lot of benefits over the years. How do you decide what causes to donate your time and resources to?
Usually when it touches my heart. And this one came through [agent] Rob Beckham. Rob said it was really a great thing to do, and he told me that he would be very appreciative if I would do this benefit. And since it meant so much to him, that really made me look at it more because when things touch people’s hearts, it touches my heart. When it was so important [to] him for me to do this, I really did consider it more than I would a normal request.
And Cheekwood is such a wonderful place. It’s a great facility here in our city, and it attracts a lot of visitors. So it’s a great cause, and it’s a great event. I think you’re going to have fun, and we’re all going to have fun watching you perform.
It’s always a wonderful thing to give back to your hometown. And that’s another reason why I really wanted to do it. Because, as you said, Cheekwood does a lot of great things for the community, and I wanted to be a part of that also.
What other causes are near and dear to your heart?
[When] I started out, my first big project was the Reba Ranch House in Denison, Texas. All my family goes to Denison, Texas, for their medical needs, and Darius Maggi was my gynecologist, and he and I started talking about doing a place like a Ronald McDonald House by the hospital. And the folks in Denison, Texas, at the Texoma Medical Center, we all got together and started doing benefits. I did concerts; we would do a parade. And so we’ve been doing that since 1983 — and not the parades and the concerts anymore but the Reba Ranch House [and] the Reba Rehab Center. We even had a Reba mobile mammography unit that traveled [to] northeast Texas and southeastern Oklahoma. So that was very near and dear to my heart. Another one that I go to every year is Muhammad Ali’s Fight Night in Phoenix, Arizona, which has expanded to the Andrea Bocelli’s Celebrity Fight Night in Italy. ... [For] the Nashville Rescue Mission, we do the [Hearts of Hope] luncheon on Valentine’s Day because Valentine’s Day is the second saddest day for a woman who has been abused or deserted, right behind Christmas. So those are the things that touch my heart that I really want to give my time to.
What can Swan Ball guests expect from your performance?
They’re going to be getting a little of old Reba [and] new Reba — in terms of songs, I’m talkin’ about [laughs], and some stories to go along with those songs. And my band is incredible. I’m so proud of ‘em. I’ve got great singers, great musicians, and we have fun up onstage. That good feeling and that fun, it just drifts right into the audience, and I know everybody’s gonna have a great time.
I’m sure we will. With such a massive catalog of music to choose from — four decades of songs and albums — how in the world do you even pull together an hour-long set?
That’s hard to do, it really is. That’s what [we have] to do when we go to Vegas, Brooks & Dunn and myself. When we were selecting the songs, it was so hard. [But] we really have to go right back to “What do the fans want to hear?” So that’s the way we pick them, which songs we think the fans would like to hear the most.
Do you have a favorite song to perform?
Really? It’s still your favorite after all these years?
Always has been. When Bobbie Gentry released it in 1969, that was my favorite song then, and it’s still my favorite song.
Is there a song that you wish you never had to perform again?
[laughs] Oh gosh, yeah. There are a few, especially on a night when your voice is a little hoarse or something because I’ve selected some songs that are pretty hairy to sing because of the range of it all. But that’s why I think it’s so important when I’m looking for songs to record to really be in love with these songs because if they do become a monstrous hit — fingers crossed — then it’s a song you’re going to be singing for the rest of your life.
You’ve had a long and impressive career. You’ve done everything! Obviously you’ve had such a successful music career, but you’ve done film and TV, starred on Broadway, written books, and you’ve got this clothing and home line at Dillard’s. Is there anything left that you still want to do that you haven’t done yet?
Oh sure, there’s lots of things I’d like to do that I haven’t done before. And then there [are] things that I want to do again, like Broadway, movies, television, travel more. There’s places in the world I haven’t been that I’m dying to go see, like Austria, never been there. But I’d also like to go back to New Zealand and Australia. So, there’s just so much to do [and] so little time. And then I want to hang out with my family and my friends as much as possible. Sometimes I think there’s not enough hours in the day, but I have to take every day one day at a time, and I’m just so grateful that I am able to do what I get to do and take every opportunity as it comes to me and weigh it out.
When you think back over the last 40 years, what are you most proud of in your career?
I think what I’m most proud of are the opportunities where I have been able to give advice and stories and inspiration [from] the things that I’ve learned in my life — whether it’s spiritual, educational or just everyday life moments — where I can help somebody avoid a bad spot in the road [and] kind of pave the road for the ones coming up.
You’ve definitely paved the road for a lot of female artists. When you think back on your time starting out in the country music industry in the ’70s, what do you think were the biggest challenges and obstacles facing you as a woman in that industry?
Well the biggest obstacle in being a woman is that, um, [laughs] — you’re a woman. [laughs] You know, we are livin’ in a man’s world, and I’ve known that all my life. I grew up in a ranch and rodeo family, and I was outside working with the men, and then [I’d] come in and do the women’s work also. So that was something I was used to, and in the world of entertainment, I realized that I was going to have to work harder to get ahead, and so I just accepted that and continued to work hard.
How different do you think your career would look, or the trajectory of it would be, if you were a young artist that was just now getting her start in the music industry?
I have no idea because it took me so long to get started. I had no idea about the music business when I got into it in ’76. I had great teachers, managers, people at the record label helping me, guiding me, directing me and my friends, my family — great support. It was six years before I got a No. 1 record, and I don’t think that would happen [now]. I don’t think they would give me the time; I don’t think they would be that patient nowadays. So, thank God I came along at the right time.
What is your best piece of advice that you would share with a young artist trying to make it in the industry now?
I think what my mama always told me was be on time, be prepared and treat people like you want to be treated. When we were doing the [Reba] TV show, I saw somebody be a little short with one of the P.A.s and the people who were getting coffee and doing something for them. Well, in short, I said, “You better be nice to them. They may be running a company one of these days, and you’ll be looking for a job.” You never know. Treat people like you want to be treated, and it makes everybody a lot nicer. President Bush 41, he is the sweetest guy. I’ve seen him treat dignitaries the same as he would the person that’s working in the kitchen. He is just the same all the way around, and that’s a great person to learn from and watch and copy.
That’s great. Who were some of your biggest mentors or role models coming up in the industry?
Oh, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Tammy Wynette, Anne Murray, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, Glen Campbell — you know folks like that — Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, watching them at the Grand Ole Opry. I’m a huge fan of country music, and I enjoy seeing the changes. Some I like, some I don’t. ... But you know, everybody’s gotta be their own individual person or we’d just be cookie cutters.
What current artists do you love?
Jason Aldean. I love Eric Church. I love Rascal Flatts — well, Rascal Flatts have been around a long time. But I love Little Big Town. They are sweet as they can be. I love listening to their harmony. Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan just crack me up; I love them. Dierks Bentley’s got a great sense of humor. I love watching him. You know, Carrie, Martina, and Trisha’s always been my buddy. And Faith, of course, and the new girls that are coming on … like Kelsea Ballerini and Cam. I’m just excited to see what they’re going to do next.
We’ve talked about how the music landscape has changed throughout your career, but the landscape of Nashville has changed quite a bit in that time too. Your company, Starstruck Entertainment, used to own a big chunk of land near the Music Row roundabout that was sold about a decade ago. What do you think about the development in that area and the development and growth in Nashville in general?
It’s growing. I don’t understand why it’s growing so much, … but everybody who I’m talking to [will] say, “Everybody’s moving to Nashville and Austin, Texas. What is it that’s so great about it?” And I [say], “Well, I’ve been living there since 1988. It’s like a city dropped in the country, and it’s widespread, and it’s beautiful.” I mean, when you’re driving through those rolling hills and you see all the beauty there, it is just spectacular. It takes my breath away. But it’s like a boom town. It’s growing so fast. It’s kind of hard to juggle transportation when you’re trying to get around after 3 o’clock in the afternoon. … That’s city life. I grew up in a town of 18 people, so it’s all different for me, and I had to drive 32 miles to go get the dry cleaning when I was growing up and 3 1/2 hours to even get to an airport. So you have your things, your obstacles, but Nashville’s a wonderful place to live, to raise your children. I just dearly love it with all my heart.
What are your favorite things to do in Nashville?
I love to hike. I love to eat. I love to shop. I love to hang with my friends. And there’s great places to do all of that. We’re getting a lot more restaurants. I’ve got a lot of my favorites that I’ve been going to for years, and new ones are popping up.
Does the growth change the appeal of Nashville for you? Is it more appealing for you that there are more options of things to do here or less appealing in that it’s getting too crowded?
You gotta go with the pros and cons. You gotta take the good with the bad. The traffic is bad, [but that’s] because there’s more people, more industry and more restaurants and other activities are coming in. From the Country Music Hall of Fame to the great restaurants to the — uh, is it Shermerhorn? I never can say that word …
Schermerhorn. I mean that’s got great people coming in to do shows there, [and] with the new amphitheater downtown … Everything’s growing, and with the new buildings, with the arena, with the stadiums and everything like that, [they] wouldn’t be there if we didn’t have more people coming in, so I think it’s really a good thing.
I think it’s a really great thing that the artists that live here are willing to invest in the community, so thank you for what you’re doing for Nashville. Thank you for what you’re doing for Cheekwood on behalf of Nfocus and our readers and the folks at Cheekwood.
Well, it’s my pleasure. And again, I am honored to be asked to entertain, and I hope everybody enjoys our portion of the show.
Photo by Jeremy Cowart