October 01, 2007 12:00 PM

Just a smidge more skill in the saddle and Reba McEntire could have ended up a rodeo queen rather than country royalty. “I wanted to be a world champion barrel racer,” says McEntire, who comes from two generations of rodeo riders. “But the dust in the arena made me lose my voice. It was God’s way of telling me to sing.” Well, Amen! With 33 No. 1 hits to her name, the flame-haired, down-home diva has had one heck of a ride since earning her first Country Music Association award in 1984. Bouncing back from losing her band and road manager in a 1991 plane crash, she has won two Grammys, wowed Broadway as Annie Oakley in 2001 and earned a 2004 Golden Globe nod for her WB sitcom—not to mention launching a successful bedding collection and clothing line. This month the 52-year-old singer—who was recently named Billboard magazine’s first woman of the year—released her 31st CD, Duets, which includes collaborations with Vince Gill, Justin Timberlake (“as sweet as he can be”) and new gal pal Kelly Clarkson. She took a walk down memory lane with PEOPLE’s Eileen Finan.

1957

“We were ranchers, and Daddy said the only thing he didn’t like about music is that he lost three of his best hired hands to it,” says McEntire (on her father’s lap, at age 2). Younger sister Susie (left) and brother Pake are also singers.

1986

“That CMA award [for entertainer of the year] was special: They love me! That gave me such confidence. [And it] was my Miss America era with all the pageant dresses. Boy, did you have to lay off the biscuits and gravy that week. It killed me!”

1976

1987

1989

TRESS DISTRESS “Oh my hair!” McEntire says of the 1976 publicity shot. “I did it myself, unfortunately.” In 1987, “I had a perm even though I had curly hair! I don’t know why I did that.” And the end of the ’80s (and an appearance on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Dick Clark) brought “the jacked up to Jesus hair—if you had hair, use it! It took about a whole hour to do my hair.”

1961

“That was my first time behind the microphone in the first grade [in Kiowa, Okla.] ” at my Christmas program. I sang ‘Away in a Manger.'”

2006

“We watch Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation every year,” says McEntire (at home in Nashville with husband Narvel Blackstock, 51, and son Shelby, 17). “That’s our only tradition!”

2001

When she decided to perform the title role in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway, “people said, ‘What a gutsy move! You’ve never done it before. Aren’t you scared?'” recalls McEntire (during her six-month run). “I said, ‘Oh my gosh. Well, I haven’t thought about that!’ Ignorance is bliss. I wanted to do it so bad and everything else was invisible to me.”

2003

During Reba’s six-year run, “we’d put our scripts down and talk and it was therapy sometimes,” says McEntire (with TV daughter Scarlett Pomers).

2007

McEntire and Clarkson hit a Nashville karaoke bar after recording “Because of You” for Duets. “We also got up and sang with other people, and every time we got back to our table, there was a round of drinks for us. So we had a real good time.”

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