The country music superstar shares songs of hope and faith that have been a part of her life ever since her girlhood days in a one-room church in Chockie, Oklahoma.
- Posted on Feb 24, 2017
The first song I ever sang in front of an audience was a hymn. I was four or five years old, and our family was staying at the Frontier Hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for the Frontier Days Rodeo.
Daddy had won the steer-roping event there twice in previous years—just like his daddy had done a couple of decades earlier at the same venue—and he was competing again. In between performances, when we weren’t at the rodeo arena, the cowboys and their families would hang out in the lobby of the hotel to visit and pass the time.
One afternoon my older brother, Pake, stood in front of a group of the cowboys, who had talked him into singing them a song. He launched into Elvis’s “Hound Dog” (minus the hip swiveling). To my amazement, Everett Shaw, one of the rodeo champions, fished a quarter out of his jeans and gave it to Pake.
“I want a quarter too,” I told my brother. But what would I sing for the folks?
“Well, you know ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ don’t you?” Pake said. “Sing that.”
So I sauntered to the center of the lobby while Pake got everybody quiet, and I sang in my best Sunday-school voice, “Jesus loves me, this I know....” At the end, everybody clapped.
Somebody did press a coin in my hand, but it was only a nickel. No matter. I was officially a singer, and as my family will tell you, it’s been hard to get me to stop singing.
I love singing, love making music with others, love working on a song in my head and then sharing it. But I especially love how songs of faith, new ones and old, keep me connected to God.
So I suppose it was only a matter of time before I recorded an album of inspirational songs and classic hymns.
It’s taken me all these years to collect the ones that have made the biggest difference in my life. People have been lifting up their voices to God since before David penned a psalm and riffed on his harp. It’s the way we let each other know who we are and Whose we are.
Here’s a selection of some of my alltime favorite hymns. You’ll find them all on the album. Don’t be afraid to sing along.
“When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder”
Yes, we had a piano in the tiny one-room church near our ranch in Chockie, Oklahoma, but most of the time there wasn’t anybody good enough to play it. So Mrs. Stella McGee would turn to the hymnal, finger the opening chord and get us all launched in the same key.
Singing a cappella—without accompaniment—is one of the best ways to sing, as it turns out. You learn how to listen to yourself and tune up to each other, getting all the intervals right, blending the harmonies so that many voices become one, each voice lifting the others.
I can still see my maternal grandparents, Elvin and Reba Smith, standing in front of the congregation and leading us in “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” singing, “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound...”
There were no trumpets in our church either, but you can be sure we all made a fine sound, letting the Lord know where we would be when that roll was called. I can still close my eyes and see those Sundays in the little church that we filled with praise. I can still hear those lovely voices lifted up to God.
“I’ll Fly Away”
My hymnal from childhood, a much-thumbed-through green volume with gold lettering, sits on my piano. I was looking through it the other day and found this classic, one of my favorites.
Albert E. Brumley, the composer, got the idea for the song when he was picking cotton on his father’s farm in Rock Island, Oklahoma, sweltering under the hot sun, wishing he could fly away—if not to heaven, at least to a cooler place. I can relate to that, from all the hard work we kids had to do on the ranch.
So when I decided to record this song, I realized I wanted my family with me. Nobody harmonizes more naturally than your relatives. Blood harmony, I call it. We always sing a gospel tune or two when we’re together for holidays. I knew we could make it happen in a Nashville studio.
My mama, who is 90 years old, and my sisters, Alice and Susie, joined me. Boy, did we have a good time. And we sounded pretty good too. We could have been satisfied with one take, but we were having so much fun we did several more. As I always say, music is a great connector.
“Angel on My Shoulder”
Growing up, I used to think that someone was watching me when I was outside. I would be riding my horse on the right-of-way next to the railroad tracks and the feeling was so strong I sometimes thought that maybe someone was filming me, like a cameraman somewhere. I couldn’t figure it out.
I actually asked God, Lord, is this because I’m supposed to be on television or in the movies? (I was a pretty ambitious kid with a very vivid imagination!)
Later it came to me. That feeling—those were my angels! I’ve leaned on them ever since. My son, Shelby, is a race-car driver, and whenever I know there’s a race coming up I pray for the angels to keep Shelby and all the other drivers safe on the track.
Any album I did of songs of faith would have to include praises of the angels, heavenly and otherwise. This song, by Leigh Reynolds, Amber White and Philip White, says it all: “There must be an angel on my shoulder/Whispering in my ear….”
“I Got the Lord on My Side”
I pray a lot. First thing in the morning, I throw my arms in the air and say, “Thank you, Lord Jesus, Father God and Holy Spirit. Thank you for a wonderful night’s sleep. This is going to be a great day because you made it.” That positivity stays with me all day long. It’s very comforting to know that you’ve got the Lord on your side.
One day, those words formed in my mind: “I’m so happy I’ve got the Lord on my side.” I wanted to thank God for all the good in my life. I linked a tune in my head to the words and it became a prayer.
You know that old saying: When you sing, you pray twice! But the song wasn’t really complete until I was in the recording studio. Mama was listening in the control booth and she said after she heard the first take, “Instead of saying ‘I’m so happy’ on the last verse, why don’t you say, ‘If you’re happy’?”
In other words, why didn’t I sing about sharing that happiness—that blessedness? Happiness comes when we do indeed have the Lord on our side.
“Does this mean I’m going to have to give you a writer’s credit?” I asked Mama. We both burst out laughing. In the end, I did give her a writer’s credit—and I give her credit for a lot more than that. I sure did appreciate Mama’s help.
“How Great Thou Art”
These last few years haven’t been easy, with the end of my marriage after 26 years. I felt a real sense of loss. Music has always been incredibly healing for me. I can remember how healing it was when Grandma Smith died and we all sang “How Great Thou Art” at her funeral. I’ve sung this during my hard times too.
I’ve heard folks say, “Why does God need to be praised all the time?” I believe it is because it helps us. I find if I’m worrying too much about something, I’m not trusting God. I need to give my worries back to him.
I can’t tell you what a joy it was to sing my old favorites like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or “Softly and Tenderly” or “In the Garden.” I love the newer songs too, like “God and My Girlfriends,” by Patricia Conroy, Lisa Hentrich and Marcia Ramirez.
It’s so real, because those are the two places I go when I’ve got problems. God is always there to listen to me, and my girlfriends form this cocoon around me when I’m down and hurting. Some of them I’ve known since grade school. Without them, the world would be a lonely place.
And there’s the song “From the Inside Out,” by Amy Fletcher, which describes just how God works, digging down deep to truly heal from the inside out.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that the more time I spend with God, the more I can face my challenges and thank him for my blessings. I hope these songs will help anyone who listens to them, that they will be a prayer for them.
I love the song “Say a Prayer,” by Michael Dulaney, Jason Sellers and Neil Thrasher. The refrain goes, “Oh, say a prayer for me/When you’re down on your knees/And I will say one for you/And hope it helps sees you through.”
How can you go wrong with that?
Reba's album , 'Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope,' (Nash Icon Records and Capitol Christian Music Group) is #1 on Billboard's Christian/Gospel and Country Music. Buy it here. Did you enjoy this story? Subscribe to Guideposts magazine.