The country queen says she's not interested in competing with the genre-bending sounds of younger artists: “It’s not exactly where country music is right now, but that’s okay with me"

By Nancy Kruh
April 05, 2019 11:30 AM
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At this point in her celebrated career, Reba McEntire has more than earned the right to follow her heart, and with her new album, it has led the country queen back to her first love: the fiddles, steel and twang of what she calls “stone-cold country.”

“I just really wanted to record what I grew up with,” she says of the 12 brand-new “old time” songs on the album, Stronger Than the Truth, which debuts Friday.

When she brought the idea to her label, she tells PEOPLE, she warned management that “it’s not exactly where country music is right now, but that’s okay with me.”

Be sure to check out PEOPLE’s full ACM Awards coverage to get the latest news on music’s biggest night.

Reba McEntire

And who was going to argue with country royalty? The resulting album actually is far more neo-traditional than retro. McEntire has relied on a roster of seasoned songwriters to serve a potluck of flavors, whether it’s heartache (“Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain”) or pathos (“Cactus in a Coffee Can”) or stirring inspiration (“You Never Gave Up On Me”). McEntire has co-written two of the songs herself, including the country-clever “No U in Oklahoma”; pal Ronnie Dunn, of Brooks & Dunn, also shares that writing credit.

To McEntire, all are reminiscent of the songs that she, older brother, Pake, and younger sister, Susie, sang as teens in dance halls and at rodeos in their native Oklahoma.

“They’re relatable,” McEntire says, “but it’s what I grew up with, singing the Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell songs, talking about heartache and heartbreak, cheating and falling in love again. You could pretty well do a movie to this album.”

Reba McEntire photographed in her Nashville office on March 5, 2019

Uppermost in her mind, she says, was picking “songs that you could dance to.” Attracting radio play, she acknowledges, was far less important in her decision-making. Though she released a single from the new album, the stirring “Freedom, a couple of weeks ago, she says she is at peace with the fact that her dominance on the airwaves has passed.

“I have had a wonderful 43 years in this business,” says McEntire, who will be hosting the ACM Awards for the 16th time on Sunday. “There’re so many new artists that are vying for that three-and-a-half-minute time slot on the radio. I’ve had my time and I’m not competing for that. If they play my music, that’s wonderful. But there are young kids that I don’t need to be taking up their time.”

McEntire has especially been a champion of other female artists — offering support and inspiration to such future superstars as Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill and Kelly Clarkson — and she says she is intent on continuing that role.

“I don’t know that many of the young kids coming up,” she admits, “so I have to educate myself and be on the bandwagon to help and promote them.”

For more from Reba McEntire, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

Reba McEntire on the cover of PEOPLE
| Credit: Paul Costello

Of course, that doesn’t mean she’s asking radio programmers to ignore her. “Oh, you’ll always chase radio when you have new music out and very appreciative when radio plays you,” she says. “I love being on the radio.”

To catch country’s biggest stars hitting the red carpet, tune in to Red Carpet Live: 54th Academy of Country Music Awards, kicking off at 6:30 p.m. EST and streaming live on PEOPLE.com, Facebook, Twitter, PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.