Reba McEntire may be a country queen, but she’s no diva. She has a heart as big as her larger-than-life career. Her new album, Love Somebody, out April 14, is one of the best of her nearly four-decades-long career — certainly her strongest from the past two — and a triumphant return to form after a five-year gap since her last record.
“The overall theme is about love,” the singer said of the new album to a small lunch group at Soho House on Monday. “Falling in, falling out, getting cheated on, cheated…I find songs that touch my heart because when I sing them, hopefully they’ll touch your heart the way they’ve touched mine, if I did my job right.”
In this age of digital sleight-of-hand, when musicians can record parts individually or, in some cases, without even entering the studio, Reba keeps it real by rehearsing and recording with her entire band present. “I’m in the studio with the musicians, like I’ve always been, and we start,” she says, describing the process. “They learn it. I’m singing it, getting comfortable with it, and we keep running it until everybody’s happy.” While there’s always room for post-take tinkering, she says, “We’re all together in the studio at the same time [during the sessions]. It’s the way I’ve recorded for years and years, so it keeps the heart and soul in it.”
Heart and soul are the hallmark of her most famous tunes, but so are heartbreak and sadness — or, finding strength in sadness. The theme can be found on each of her studio albums (the total sum of them now approaching 30), including on almost every track of the newest one. What draws someone with such a peppy personality to sad songs?
“You know, I really don’t know,” Reba answers. “It’s a misery-loves-company type of thing. When you hear a sad song, I feel for that person, and if I can sing about it, and somebody hears it that’s in that same situation, maybe it helps them. Maybe it helps them heal.” Her latest single, “Going Out Like That,” is an anthem for picking oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps after a breakup. It’s easy to imagine listeners relating to it in the way Reba describes. “Maybe [someone] says, ‘Yeah, that’s my situation, and I’m going to get over it. If that’s the way that person’s getting out of that situation, then I am, too,’ ” she offers. “Music is a very healing thing. It helps.”
This year, Reba’s also the face of the Outnumber Hunger campaign, a partnership between General Mills, Big Machine Record Label Group, and Feeding America food banks. Outnumber Hunger fights hunger in the U.S. (You might notice her face on your next box of Cheerios or granola bars.) Like many Americans, she was unaware of how many people in the country struggle for food. “This was shocking to me when they started giving me the statistics of how many people are going hungry in the land of plenty,” she says. (In 2013, a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 14.3 percent of American households were “food insecure.”) McEntire didn’t hesitate to jump on board when she was approached to be part of the awareness effort. She credits the late Bob Hope, with whom she once performed for veterans’ widows, with inspiring her to lend her celebrity to charitable causes. “ ’You can receive all day long,’ ” she recalls Hope telling her, “ ’but the most important thing for you to do in your life’ — he didn’t say ‘career’ — ‘is to give back.’ ”
On Sunday, April 19, when Reba performs live at the Academy of Country Music Awards, she’ll receive a unique, if somewhat recursive, honor: an award for winning the most awards (a meta-award, if you will) among female vocalists during the 50 years of the ACM Awards’ existence. The recognition is proof of the star’s enduring influence.
Reflecting on how the industry has evolved since she started in 1976, Reba observes, “As long as I’ve been in the music business, I can see that it’s cyclical. Like, traditional [music] is very popular, and then it comes around to very contemporary. And then all the guys are on the radio, and then all the women are on the radio…The country music business has been in a kind of a good-ol’-boy mode, so I’m hoping that the girls are going to come back really soon and strong.” She cites New York Global Welcome Ambassador Taylor Swift as having “done great things for the country music industry” and says she’d encourage young girls to look up to her.
Reba’s advice to young women in country offers insight into what gives her staying power: “Find that great song that touches your heart that people can relate to. It has to do with the songs. I know timing is everything, being in the right place at the right time, having lots of good luck, stars in alignment. It takes everything!” she laughs. “But that song is where it starts.”