June 04, 2001 12:00 PM

From her perch in a posh Trump hotel high over Manhattan, country music’s long-reigning diva Reba McEntire takes in Central Park—all 843 acres of it—far below. “It’s the nearest to the woods we could get,” says McEntire, 46, who grew up on an Oklahoma ranch nearly 10 times as big and now lives on an 80-acre spread outside Nashville. “Sure,” she says as she gazes out, betraying a bit of homesickness, “just like home.”

Not that New York City hasn’t done its best to make McEntire feel welcome. Country’s all-time top-selling female (46 million CDs), McEntire has scored a direct hit on Broadway as sharpshootin’ Annie Oakley in a revival of the smash 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun. The fourth Annie in the current production (Bernadette Peters won a ’99 Tony in the role created more than half a century ago by Ethel Merman), McEntire—who had never acted onstage before her opening night, Jan. 26—has given the show a shot in the arm. Weekly box office tallies have been as much as triple those of her immediate predecessors, Cheryl Ladd and Susan Lucci, and critics have been hunting superlatives. “Reba,” says New York Times chief drama critic Ben Brantley, “inhabits the part as completely as anyone I’ve seen in a musical in recent years.” Not surprised is friend Kenny Rogers, who costarred with her in his 1991 TV sequel to The Gambler. “I bought Reba a gun and holster and taught her a fast draw with a spin,” he recalls. “She loved that.” Though ineligible for a Tony because she didn’t originate the Annie role in the revival, “she would win it—no question,” says Brantley.

Fans who have visited backstage include Tony Bennett, Carole King and a slew of swooning Nashville pals. “Our buttons have all popped off our shirts,” says fellow Oklahoman and close friend Vince Gill. “There’s a ton of pride, heck yeah.” Faith Hill saw her teen idol twice. “I couldn’t keep my eyes dry,” she says. “It was one of those moments where you witness someone having an experience they’re meant to have.” Even George and Barbara Bush, who first met Reba during their White House years, got in the act when the ex-Prez knocked on Reba’s dressing-room door at intermission last month. “I did playfully say something like, ‘Get your clothes on, we’re coming in,’ ” recalls Bush, who says he owns “almost all” of Reba’s 26 CDs. “It was an enchanted evening.”

McEntire, a natural comedian with some forgettable film roles behind her (her first was as a survivalist in the campy 1990 sci-fi flick Tremors), says she “stole a little bit” from influences ranging from Lucille Ball to Loretta Lynn. Though doing Annie was a high-risk departure, critics’ raves left her “ecstatic” and a fish out of water she ain’t. “A fish finding the water—finally,” she declares. “I’m more comfortable on that stage than I’ve ever been on any stage.”

Annie’s yarn, involving a plucky, dirt-poor cowgirl looking for a little equal opportunity, does cut close to home. Reba Nell McEntire was born on March 28, 1955, in McAlester, Okla. , the third of four kids of Clark and Jacqueline McEntire, both now 73. The family lived on an 8,000-acre cattle ranch in Chockie—”rocky, brushy hill country,” says Reba. Clark was a steer-roping rodeo champ who also sold cattle. Jackie was a school secretary in Kiowa, where Reba was educated. Books were a breeze next to predawn chores like “whistlin’ up the horses and gatherin’ cattle,” says Reba. “Us kids worked hard.”

And learned discipline too. “There was no talkin’ back,” says McEntire. “Momma once slapped me for saying, ‘Don’t ask me.’ She said, ‘Young lady, I’ll ask you anything I want.’ ” Reba boasted precocious pipes and as a teen teamed with brother Pake (now a rancher, 47) and sister Susie (43, who performs Christian country as Susie Luchsinger) to work dances and rodeos as the Singing McEntires. (Alice, 49, runs Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services.) Reba also barrel-raced in rodeos: “I’ve been dragged off, bucked off, fallen off,” she says. “You get up, you finish your run.”

As an education major at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 1974, she belted the national anthem at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. Songwriter Red Steagall heard her, got a demo to Nashville, and by 1975 Reba had a record deal. In 1976, at 21, she married Charlie Battles, then 31, a divorced three-time International Rodeo Association steer-wrestling champ whom she’d met on the circuit a few years earlier. Their humble first home cost just $10 a month, but, says Reba, “it was great. We rodeoed and ranched together.”

McEntire didn’t hit her vocal stride until the mid-’80s, when she took charge of her career—stripping her sound down to its country roots and deciding for herself what songs she would cut. Until then creative decisions had been left to managers, producers, label execs. The result: her ’84 breakthrough album My Kind of Country and an unmatched four consecutive (’84-’87) female vocalist of the year awards from the Country Music Association.”She quit being a puppet artist,” says Tony Brown, MCA Nashville president and McEntire’s coproducer. Trisha Yearwood says Reba’s significance goes beyond music: “She led the way for women like myself, Shania and Faith, who control every aspect of our business.” Her success, says label chairman Bruce Hinton, “said to every female artist in country, ‘Forget the glass ceiling, anything is achievable.’ ”

By the late ’80s Texas-bred Narvel Blackstock, who had joined McEntire’s road band on pedal steel guitar in 1980, had become her tour manager and her marriage was crumbling. “Charlie wanted me home. When I won entertainer and vocalist in ’86, he said, ‘You’ve done it. Now let’s park it,’ ” McEntire recalls. “I’m like, ‘I don’t think so.’ ” In her ’94 book Reba: My Story, McEntire hinted that Battles, who had two kids, felt “demeaned” by her soaring popularity and that he didn’t want a family with her. On their 11th anniversary, in 1987, she filed for divorce in Atoka County, Okla., near their String-town ranch—and “went on to my next show.”

Blackstock, a father of three whose marriage to wife Lisa had also been shaky, was himself in divorce court by fall that year. Despite sharing one impulsive kiss on the road, Reba insists friendship didn’t turn to romance until both were free: “No way.” Then they wasted little time. By May 1988 Blackstock was her new manager and they were sharing a Nashville condo; in June 1989 they wed in Lake Tahoe. “Narvel protects me,” says McEntire. “He knows when I’m tired, knows my boiling point. He can tell a producer or director, ‘You’ve got 15 minutes before she explodes or drops.’ ”

Passion and humor make it work. Says Tony Brown: “They have amazing chemistry. If you’re around them, you laugh until you hurt.” “They have a lot of fun,” says Faith Hill. And, adds husband Tim McGraw, “Reba keeps Narvel dressed nice.”

Hill has known the couple for more than a decade. She filled orders for Reba’s fan club and in 1990 tried out as one of Reba’s backup singers. Reba and Narvel felt she wasn’t right because she was unused to singing harmony. Then, in 1991, eight members of McEntire’s band were killed when their chartered plane crashed after a show in San Diego. (McEntire, as planned, flew the next day.) The singer hired in lieu of Hill was among them. “That could’ve been Faith,” says Reba, who adds, “it still hurts.” She’s not alone. Some victims’ relatives, she says, “still can’t come to my shows.”

In trying times her down-to-earth openness has endeared McEntire to a legion of friends. “Reba’d come off the road and put together margarita nights,” says Hill, who worked in McEntire’s Starstruck Entertainment headquarters. “The office girls would hang out. No boys allowed.” Vince Gill says Reba “was the first to call” when he and ex-wife Janis split in 1997 (he wed Amy Grant last year), and Yearwood recalls McEntire’s generosity at her own debut CMA performance in 1991. “There was a vase full of roses in my dressing room and a note—’Welcome to your first CMA, love, Reba.’ I was the new kid. For her to do that was phenomenal.” Such down-home ways play well in Manhattan too. For matinees, says Annie coproducer Fran Weissler, Reba orders in coffee and pastries for cast members, and she celebrates their birthdays. “She’s lovely that way.”

Reba and Narvel have embraced the city’s manic pace, its shopping and dining—from sushi-chic Nobu to Sylvia’s soul food in Harlem. And Narvel, who runs Starstruck as CEO, has shuttled between Nashville and New York City to be with son Shelby, 11—a hockey star and budding actor who, boasts Mom, “can do the Gettysburg Address as Jim Carrey or Austin Powers.”

But even cowgirls get the blues. As winter dragged on, Narvel had just the ticket: a private jet to Cancun after a Sunday 3 p.m. matinee—and back again for Tuesday’s 8 p.m. curtain. Says Reba: “I said, ‘You’re crazy!’ He said it would boost my spirits. It gave me a new wind.”

Jet stream seems more like it. After Annie, McEntire kicks off a 24-city Girls’ Night Out tour (with Martina McBride and Jamie O’Neal). A third hits collection is in the works, and by fall she’ll be in L.A. starring in her own WB sitcom, Reba, as a Texas mom whose husband is cheating and whose teen daughter is expecting. Reba shot the pilot during a withering 10-day hiatus from Annie. The script, revised almost hourly, “was a moving target,” says Narvel. Series creator Allison Gibson, who had Reba in mind early on, says she was a quick study. “The more we threw at her, the more fantastic she was with it.”

Unlike her TV alter ego, McEntire’s own life is rock solid, even with the move west. But forget her going Hollywood. “Reba is a modern country woman,” says Narvel. “We’ve traveled the world. But at the core, she’ll always be a country girl.”

Though one whose horizon is limitless. “This has been my debut year,” McEntire says. “It shows that my competitiveness and drive can be shifted into other fields.” And that her taste for risk is stronger than ever. “I like taking gambles,” she says. “I walk into each situation knowing it could flop. I won’t like it, but I’m not gonna roll over and die.”

Additional reporting by Gabrielle Cosgriff in Houston

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