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Sunday, 29 July, 2007 11:34 AM

Country Ambassador Reba McEntire Returns to Her Roots


Reba McEntire & Kelly Clarkson perform at the Nightly Concert at LP Field during the 2007 CMA Music Festival. McEntire & Clarkson's duet will appear in the ABC special, "CMA Music Festival: Country's Night To Rock" on July 23.

By Deborah Evans Price
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

Country Music superstar Reba McEntire is excited about returning to the stage and the studio this year. She's working on a duets album and is hitting the road this summer on her "Key to the Heart" tour, sponsored by Whirlpool on behalf of Habitat for Humanity.

One of the performances she anticipated the most was during CMA Music Festival on June 7 in Nashville. Kelly Clarkson joined McEntire on stage at CMA Music Festival to perform two songs - "Does He Love You" and their recent duet single, "Because of You," which will be featured on the Reba Duets album. Fans can catch their performance on summer's hottest TV special "CMA Music Festival: Country's Night to Rock," which airs Monday, July 23 (9-11PM/ET) on the ABC Television Network. The special will feature heart-warming stories and riveting musical performances. Artists appearing include Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Big & Rich, Brooks & Dunn, Sara Evans, Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Brad Paisley, Kellie Pickler, Rascal Flatts, LeAnn Rimes, Sugarland, Taylor Swift, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood and more.

McEntire has fond memories of her early appearances at CMA Music Festival, when she was an unknown redhead from Oklahoma.

"What I remember best is sitting there at the PolyGram/Mercury booth for about two hours, signing autographs," she recalled with a laugh. "One time Mama was there with me, and I had my little Sharpies in front of me and my little stack of pictures. Nobody was coming over, and finally this man and woman looked up at my name over my head and looked at me. Mama said, 'Get ready! Get ready!' They walked over to me and I said, 'Can I help you?' And they said, 'Do you know where the bathroom is?' That was my introduction to the CMA Music Festival."

Of course, since that auspicious debut McEntire has become one of Country Music's most accomplished entertainers. She's sold more than 49 million albums and scored 33 No. 1 hits, among them such signature tunes as "Whoever's in New England," "Somebody Should Leave" and "For My Broken Heart." Her trophy case includes seven CMA Awards, two GRAMMYs and a slew of other awards.

McEntire made her Broadway debut in 2001's "Annie Get Your Gun" and impressed the New York theater crowd, winning both the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards. Her acting chops and comedic timing also served her well during six seasons of "Reba," which she credits with bolstering her skills in many areas.

"I loved working with all the cast and crew of the 'Reba' show," she said. "We became a tight-knit, well-oiled machine! I loved the experience. It was one of the best six years of my life. We're all still friends and stay in touch with each other."

McEntire returns to the stage as Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific" at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Aug. 3, 4 and 5. Still, her focus has shifted back to the studio, where she has been working on Reba Duets for MCA Nashville, set for release in the fall. In addition to the Clarkson duet, the album will include performances with Kenny Chesney, Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, Vince Gill, Don Henley, Faith Hill, Carole King, Rascal Flatts, LeAnn Rimes, Justin Timberlake and Trisha Yearwood.

Some of the guests on the new duets album will surprise McEntire fans, including Timberlake, with whom she recorded what she described as "a Celtic ballad, a beautiful love song" that Timberlake wrote with Matt Morris, son of veteran Country artist Gary Morris. She is particularly excited about the song she found to perform with Henley. "It's brand new," she said. "It was a song that I fell in love with and he said 'yes' to it, which was a thrill because I've always been a huge fan of Don Henley."

"Working with Reba and her team was a real pleasure," Henley said. "The session was very professional and yet very casual and low-key. Reba is from small-town Oklahoma and I'm from small-town Texas, so we share a cultural heritage that creates a comfort and a mutual understanding.

"Singing with her, of course, is the icing on the cake," he continued. "We were actually singing with the musicians playing live in the studio rather than with a prerecorded track, which always adds a little bit of extra emotion. There was also a pleasant surprise because two of the musicians happened to be my old friends, [bassist] Lee Sklar and [drummer] Russ Kunkel, neither of whom I had seen in some time. There was even some barbecue. It was a good day."

For Tony Brown, who co-produced the album with McEntire, watching every artist's reaction to working with her was a special treat. "All of them just loved to hear Reba sing," he said. "She just blows them away. It was fun watching the respect on their faces, and I loved seeing Reba sort of bask in that."

The project also reunited McEntire with Dunn, with whom she penned a new tune for the album. "A bunch of us had dinner together in Vegas a few months ago," Dunn explained. "Reba told me that she was thinking about recording a duets record and asked if I would write a song and sing it with her. I told her that I would, under the condition that she would write it with me and wear Wrangler jeans and a rodeo buckle when we recorded it. She has a great sense of humor, but I'm not sure she thinks I'm as funny as I do."

The song they created, "Does the Wind Still Blow in Oklahoma," was as much fun for Dunn to record as to write with his longtime friend. "She's a stylist," he insisted. "No one else on Earth sounds like her. I have a great deal of respect for what she's accomplished. She gave me and Kix [Brooks] the opening spot on our first major tour. She was on fire and she sold out every place she played. Years later we toured again, as co-headliners. I will always be grateful to her and Narvel [Blackstock, McEntire's husband and manager]."

In addition to all these facets of her career, McEntire has been involved since 2005 with creating a line of women's clothing available at Dillard's stores and online at Last year she expanded the endeavor to include bedding and home products. "We have comforters, shams, pillows and bedspreads, valances and curtains, sheets and now everything for the bath: towels, shower curtains, soap dishes, toothbrush holders and that kind of thing," she said enthusiastically. "Narvel and I love the creative side of the clothes, bed and bath. It's a lot of fun - one more thing we get to do together."

Her goal is to create clothes for women's busy lifestyles and changing bodies. "I want them to wear well and have great quality material and stretch in them," she said. "You can grow with them and they will grow on you. I fluctuate on my weight five pounds here and there. Sometimes they're tight on me and sometimes a little bit looser, but I want them to go with me when I fluctuate in weight. A little bit of Spandex in everything is important."

One impact of this diversity in her interests has been to draw new listeners to Country Music. She admitted that people have told her, "I don't like Country Music but I like yours," to which she responded, "Well, you ought to listen to more Country Music. I think you'd like it."

Still, she downplays the role she continues to play in growing the genre. "A lot of people in Country Music today are reaching out to other people," she said. "If I've helped, I sure am tickled to do it. I said from the beginning that I'll carry the banner of Country Music forever and be proud to do it. I said it then and I love doing it now."

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