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The country music superstar shares the life secrets she learned from her role model and namesake.
Sometimes people ask me for advice. “Reba, which song should I record?” “How do I get started in the music business?” “Do you think my teenager is ever going to lose that attitude?” (The answer to that last one, by the way, is yes, so hang in there.) If I could summarize my best advice in one word it would be: Listen.
My grandma, my mama’s mother, Reba Estelle Brassfield, taught me a lot about listening. I’m her namesake and I adored her. I remember her braiding her long hair every night before she went to bed.
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After supper, we’d sit on the porch looking at the sunset and Grandma would take a gallon jar filled with fresh milk heavy with cream and churn it into butter. Next morning we’d slather it on her home-baked biscuits or let it melt on her blackberry cobbler.
Grandma would take us kids fishing at a pond behind her house. We’d drop our lines in the water and listen as she told Bible stories, waiting for the fish to bite. That’s where I learned about Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the whale, Joseph and his coat of many colors. And the songs she sang to me, like “Jesus Loves Me.”
But mostly she showed me how to talk to Jesus. You just said whatever was on your heart. I used to watch her get on her knees in her nightgown by her bed, braids trailing down her back. Afterward I asked her what she was doing. “Talking to Jesus. The Holy Spirit is talking to Jesus for me.”
“How do you know what he’s saying, Grandma?”
“I listen real hard. I listen to what God wants me to do. That’s the most important part of praying.”
Listening is a part of singing too, something I first discovered in church. I still have the little brown hymnbook I used as a child. Alice, Susie and I would go with Grandma and Grandpa Smith to worship at a one-room country church near our ranch in Chockie, Oklahoma.
There was a piano in the church, but most of the time, we didn’t have a piano player. Thank goodness Stella McGee could read music. Mrs. McGee would study the hymnal, call for silence, hum the pitch to the congregation and then we’d sing a cappella.
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We had to hear the right note for everyone to start together and we had to keep listening to sing the song through together. Just like Grandma’s prayers, singing involved listening as much as anything else, and all great musicians have great ears.
First grade was the beginning of my performing career. I sang “Away in a Manger” for our school Christmas program, the first time I sang behind a microphone. I loved hearing my voice soaring in the gym. I felt bigger than I was, bolder.
I was the third of four kids so it wasn’t easy to get noticed. But when I sang, people paid attention. People listened.
I kept at it, getting one solo after another, “My Favorite Things” one year, “Red Wing” the next. At the 4-H talent show when I was in fifth grade I borrowed my teacher Mrs. Mackey’s daughter’s prom dress along with a rhinestone necklace and bracelet and sang “My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown.”
I won the Junior Individual Act division, my first trophy ever. Still, I didn’t think my voice was anything special. Singing came so natural, I guess that’s why I thought I was meant to succeed at something else, something that didn’t come so natural. That turned out to be another lesson in listening.