Her new album is called Sweet Sixteen because it’s her sweet 16th. And at 34, Reba McEntire, the current queen of country music, is showing enough rebellion to qualify for teendom all over again. In fact, McEntire, who has one platinum and five gold albums to her name, has felt obliged to write some of her old fans, reassuring them that everything is going to be all right.
Chief among their concerns is Reba’s divorce. After 11 years with Charlie Battles, 44, former national steer-wrestling champion, Reba pulled up stakes from their ranch near Stringtown, Okla., in the summer of 1987. “I was in and the next day I was out of love,” she says. Soon Reba was back in love, but with her manager and music business associate of nine years, Narvel Blackstock, 33, whom she married last June. The wedding took place on a catamaran on Lake Tahoe. Some fans found the divorce incongruous behavior for a woman who built her career on a home-sweet-home image. “I have talked so much about my private life [in the past] that when I got this divorce, I got lambasted,” says the singer. “My fans didn’t understand.”
When letters denouncing the split stacked up, Reba answered as many as she could. “I was sincere and they know sincerity when they see it,” she says. “I told them it was my business and they’d have to trust me.” When some wrote that they had idolized her, McEntire says, “I told them not to, to get their eyes off me and on a higher level, get them on God.” One fan told Reba that the singer’s paeans to domestic loyalty were the reason she stayed with her husband. “I told her, ‘Don’t stay because of me,’ ” she says.
Reba moved to Nashville, where she formed her own production company, so another of her fans’ gripes truly gets her where she lives: They accuse her of slighting country music by trying to leap into the more lucrative pop mainstream. The suspicion arose when she recorded Aretha Franklin’s signature song, “Respect,” and the 1962 hit ballad “Sunday Kind of Love” last year. “I got a lot of flak,” admits Reba. “They said I was leaving my roots. Lord knows, I’m country! Given who I am and where I come from, no matter what I do, it will be country. But country’s so broad. To say I’m leaving my audience is almost a slap in the face. I don’t sing country songs, I don’t sing pop, I sing Reba songs.”
Just plain Reba now, like just plain Cher. That was the title of her previous album and the way her name appears on Sweet Sixteen. That’s the way she now wants to be identified. “I asked Jimmy Bowen, my co-producer, ‘Do you think I’m well known enough to just put Reba on it?’ ” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I think you could pull that off.’ ” And, as she told some London reporters who questioned the change, “Can’t you remember Reba just as well? Saves on ink.”
London may not yet be on a first-name basis with the redheaded, green-eyed, freckled Reba, but to stateside fans she’s an old friend. The onetime barrel racer, who comes from three generations of Oklahoma rodeo professionals, has the remarkable distinction of being the only singer to win four Country Music Association female vocalist awards—more than Dolly, more than Loretta. Not only has she climbed Nashville’s Mount Olympus, she has helped forge the Brave New Country by mixing in with her love ballads songs about social injustice and, specifically, battered wives—though she insists that topic isn’t autobiographical. “I’m not saying women are weak and stupid to put up with abuse,” she says. “I’m giving them an alternative.”
In 1987 McEntire sold out Carnegie Hall, where she got a standing ovation before she sang her first song. “I took it in and almost started crying,” she recalls, “but then I thought, ‘Now I got a show to do.’ ” Another first for Reba came when she filled in for Joan Lunden on a Good Morning America show about the bicentennial of the Oklahoma land rush. She has also just completed her first movie, a sci-fi adventure co-starring Kevin Bacon. “The director said I take good direction,” she says. “I said I mind my mama.”
Now it appears Reba will be providing directions to a young’un of her own. She and Narvel recently announced that they are expecting their first child next March, shortly after the conclusion of her current seven-month-long tour. The good news isn’t bad news for fans, says Reba. She’ll continue to tour annually and bring the baby along, just as her mother toted an infant Reba around the rodeo circuit. In the meantime, she wants her faithful to know that Narvel is “a good daddy”—he has three kids from a previous marriage—and “a neat person. I respect him.”
Her fans, she hopes, will continue to respect her, no matter what. “I don’t want to stay the old Reba,” says McEntire, who has gained a sizable teenage following. “That was cute, that was sincere and innocent, but this is more mature sincere, not as naive. I’ve learned from my past and don’t regret anything. I’m not sufferin’ the miseries I sing about.”
—Tim Allis, Jane Sanderson in Nashville