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Getting the Lowdown on Reba McEntire : She was in the right spot when country fans tired of 'Urban Cowboy' pop

May 28, 1989|DENNIS HUNT

Oozing down-home charm, Reba McEntire--the reigning queen of country music--is perky, friendly and outgoing. Candor is one of her assets too.

"I'll talk about anything," said the quintessential good ol' girl, whose 16th album, appropriately titled "Sweet Sixteen," is already No. 11 on the country charts. "You name it."

Even K.T. Oslin?

"You bet," she replied without skipping a beat.

Oslin is the sophisticated, ultra-contemporary singer-songwriter who many country music insiders think is inching ahead of McEntire in the hearts of country fans. Recently, she's been winning many of the awards--notably, the Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music honors--that McEntire used to collect routinely. But listening to McEntire gush about Oslin, you wouldn't know they're rivals.

"K.T.'s a real spitfire--very unpredictable," said the 33-year-old McEntire. "Me and her are good friends. I love her singing. I love her albums. I nearly wore out her first album listening to it on my (tour) bus. My bus driver got sick of it because I played it so much. But I never got sick of it."

Is McEntire concerned about Oslin's apparent takeover?

"I don't look at myself as a queen of anything," McEntire said. "I'm just ol' Reba, singing and performing the best I can."

When it comes to aw-shucks humility, McEntire is hard to beat.

During a recent local visit, she did a guest spot on a morning talk show, then later headed for a TV studio to tape another.

"It's all part of making me more visible to folks," said McEntire. "A lot of people outside of country haven't heard of me. We're trying to fix that."

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McEntire is a pure country vocalist, appealing to the hard-core fans. Singing in an old-fashioned, Pasty Cline-influenced style, she displays a melodious, affecting, high-pitched wail, neatly applicable to those tear-jerking country tales.

On her last two MCA albums, McEntire has been trying to broaden her appeal, using songs like Etta James' bluesy "Sunday Kind of Love" and the Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown"--the first single off "Sweet Sixteen." Her previous LP, "Reba," has been near the top of the country charts for more than a year.

"Sunday Kind of Love" in particular revealed a new dimension of her vocal talent--a strong pop/bluesy style she rarely gets to use. But if it was up to her hard-core audience, she wouldn't use it again any time soon.

In a separate interview, Stan Campbell, program director of country station KLAC, noted: "That song didn't go over well with her audience. Bluesy songs never work well with country audiences. Anyway, Reba has that hard-core country audience that doesn't want her to go too far astray."

It seems that experimentation with other musical styles has coincided with the Oslin threat.

"K.T. didn't have anything to do with it," McEntire insisted. "I wanted to make a few changes. I was tired of singing the same old ballads. I just wanted to try something a little different--for my own satisfaction."

An Oklahoma native who was discovered in 1974 singing the national anthem at a rodeo, McEntire struggled through the '70s.

She emerged from the pack in the post-"Urban Cowboy" period when pop influences had flooded country and threatened to sink traditional country music. When the country world threw off some of those pop shackles, McEntire was one of the artists leading the way.

"It was my time," McEntire said of her emergence in the mid-1980s. "I had worked hard building an audience, refining my style."

But it was more than that.

KLAC's Campbell cited other factors, starting with her record producer: "When she started working with Jimmy Bowen, she really came into her own. He's God in Nashville. And, of course, she started getting better material. Also, things changed for her when she went to MCA, a major label. It's tough making it when you're recording for those independent labels. They just don't have the resources. When those things happened, that's when Reba really took off."

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"I'm very dull," McEntire said when asked about her private life. "There's no scandal, nothing that would interest the National Enquirer. If their readers had to read about what I did, they'd fall asleep."

The closest thing to a scandal in McEntire's life was her divorce a few years ago from rodeo champion Charlie Battles after an 11-year marriage. "There was no great story there," she said. "I was in love and then I fell out of love. Fans were upset about it. They don't like to see that stuff. They might have been more upset about it than I was."

To hear her talk, the life of a country music queen is one giant snore.

"What do I do? I play golf and I work. I'm on the road just about all the time. I play 150 dates a year. That bus is my second home--my real home actually.

"Work is really my hobby," emphasized the singer, whose next local appearance is July 14 at the Celebrity Theatre. "I can't wait to work. Work is exciting, but it's still work. If you're looking for excitement, don't follow me around."

The big change in her life, McEntire admitted, is that she's calmed down in the last few years. "I used to be so hyper," she said. "I'm more settled now."

Did that change have anything to do with her divorce?

"Could be," she said smugly.

McEntire offered a nifty capsule summary of herself:

"I'm a decent person who's nice most of the time--though not as much of the time as I'd like, actually. I'm just ol' Reba. I'm not very complicated. That's for other folks. I'm simple and I like it that way. What you see is what you get."

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