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Reba reinforced

Hoping to broaden her fan base, the country star enlists some of music's biggest names for a duets CD.

September 12, 2007|Mikael Wood | Special to The Times

EVERY few weeks, Reba McEntire meets up with a group of girlfriends -- all displaced Southerners living in Los Angeles -- in order to catch up, trade gossip and gawk at celebs.

"It's so gosh-darn expensive, but we like to go to Koi," McEntire says, referring to the hip West Hollywood sushi spot. "We'll sit there and tap each other on the shoulder and say, 'There's Justin!' "

On Tuesday, McEntire, 52, will release an album that sports a similarly chummy vibe -- and it even comes with Justin. Straightforwardly titled "Duets," the collection pairs McEntire with 11 singers from the pop and country worlds, the latter of which McEntire has all but ruled over since 1982, when she scored her first No. 1 single, "Can't Even Get the Blues."

Guests on "Duets" include some of the biggest names in music: Kelly Clarkson, Vince Gill, Don Henley, Carole King, Kenny Chesney and Justin Timberlake, the former boy-band star whom McEntire calls "one of the most talented people I've ever met in my life."

McEntire says her husband and manager, Narvel Blackstock, came up with the idea for "Duets" when they realized that the album would fulfill McEntire's contract with MCA Nashville.

"Narvel said, 'Let's make it really special,' " McEntire explains, sipping iced tea at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, a day before flying to Chicago to tape an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with Clarkson and Timberlake. "So I started calling and e-mailing and asking my friends to be a part of the album. And they said yeah."

McEntire earned her place in the country-music firmament singing slickly neotraditionalist songs about women navigating life's rough patches. In the process, she built a bridge between the Tammy Wynettes and Loretta Lynns of yesterday and the Faith Hills and Shania Twains of today.

McEntire played the embattled-woman role with uncommon conviction, and that paved the way toward her recently ended WB (and briefly CW) sitcom "Reba," on which she portrayed a suburban single mother of three.

"Duets" contains its fair share of tunes in that tradition. In Connie Harrington and Skip Ewing's "Every Other Weekend," McEntire and Chesney describe in excruciating detail the parental back-and-forth experienced by children of divorce, while "Sleeping With the Telephone," by Don Rollins and Lorrie and Tommy Harden, finds her and Hill channeling the fear and anxiety of a wife whose husband is in Iraq.

McEntire says she wanted to stay away from remakes on "Duets." "I've done a lot of classic songs," she says. "I did 'Fancy,' which Bobbie Gentry wrote in 1968. I did 'The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.' I did 'Sunday Kind of Love.' And radio really got aggravated at me for a while and said, 'Reba, quit doing remakes -- let's have some new stuff.' So that's one small reason. But also there's just so many great new songs out there that I wanted to do."

One exception is McEntire and Clarkson's remake of "Because of You," Clarkson's hit from 2005. The two singers originally recorded a different tune for "Duets." "But then we did [the CMT concert series] 'Crossroads' together and we sang 'Because of You.' I was just stunned by the enormous effect that song had on me. Narvel said, 'We gotta get back in the studio and record that.' "

"I still can't believe I got to record a song with Reba," says Clarkson, who in a high-profile shake-up recently hired Blackstock as her manager. "The 10-year-old in me is in heaven while the 25-year-old is trying to keep up with her. She's the hardest-working person I've ever met."

"Because of You" serves as the emotional apex on "Duets," but it also represents most clearly McEntire's crossover aspirations. Though no one in country music will deny McEntire's importance in the genre, the singer will be the first to tell you that there are kids buying Carrie Underwood CDs today who hadn't been born when McEntire was enjoying her initial run on the charts.

In August, McEntire sang in a concert performance of "South Pacific" at the Hollywood Bowl, and she remembers a conversation she had with Sebastian Gonzalez, the young actor who played Emile's son.

"He said, 'Reba, you need to come to my school. I don't think anybody there knows who you are.' " McEntire says with a laugh. "So the next day I came back and said, 'Sebastian, have you seen 'The Little Rascals'? I'm A.J. Ferguson! And I'm one of the cows in 'Charlotte's Web'! Here I was trying to convince this 8-year-old kid that people do know who I am."

McEntire is open about her desire to connect with younger listeners. "You've got to keep your work current," she says. "You've got to change with the times and know what's going on." In her view, "Duets" is a way of "bringing the old with the new and mixing it up."

Is it also a bid for turning pop fans into country supporters?

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