Country superstar Reba McEntire shares the life secrets she learned from her grandmother.
- Posted on Aug 17, 2012
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.
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.
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.
I wanted to be a world champion barrel racer, a rodeo champion like my daddy. I grew up riding horses, all of us kids did. When we were five or six Daddy said, “Get on that horse, get in the brush and find some cattle.”
On a ranch, everyone has to pitch in. It’d be 4:00 A.M. when Daddy would get us up and we’d go catch and saddle the horses in a 40-acre pasture while he cooked breakfast. He’d fry bacon, then fry eggs in the grease. The eggs would float in bacon fat and slide off the platter.
We’d fill our bellies then get on our horses and chase cattle all day in brush so thick sometimes you couldn’t ride through it. Many times I had to get off my horse and pull his legs out of the briars.
One day while we were working cattle down at the corrals, I got real mad when they wouldn’t go into the chute. I reared back, cussing, and threw the hot shot— the cattle prod—at the fence. It busted into pieces and hit me in the forehead.
Mama and Daddy didn’t say a word about my cussing. I guess they thought getting my head cut was punishment enough.
I worked hard at being a barrel racer. You run the horse as fast as he can go, then stop him as fast as you can, turn around a barrel, accelerate and do the same thing with two more barrels, making a cloverleaf pattern. I started training at nine and by the time I was 11 I was competing, all 75 pounds of me on 1,500 pounds of horseflesh.
“Reba,” Daddy said, “you need to kick your horse more.”
“Daddy,” I said, “I’m kicking as hard as I can! My stirrups are sticking out like this.” I held up my hands as far apart as I could. Daddy just shook his head.
I loved the practice pen, or the roping pen as we called it. I practiced and practiced, entered one rodeo after another. I did okay, sometimes pretty good, but I got nervous and I’m sure the horse knew it!
Turns out, I was allergic to everything in the barn—the dust, the hay, the mold, the mildew. I’d start sneezing. My eyes itched and my throat got so constricted I wouldn’t have been able to sing if I tried. After one miserable showing, Daddy said, “Why do you want to do something you’re not that good at?”
“Well, what am I good at?”
“Singing. That’s your gift,” he said.
I’d like to say the rest was history, but sometimes the people you’re least likely to hear are your family, and I could be just as stubborn as Daddy. Finally I started focusing more on my music.
It started in junior high when Mama and my Oklahoma history/art teacher talked our superintendent Mr. Toaz into forming a country-western band at the school. We didn’t have a marching band or a choir. So that band was our country music 101 class.
Out of that class, my brother, Pake, my sister Susie and I formed a trio called the Singing McEntires, and performed at every place we could. In college, I got my first big break. Guess where? At a rodeo! I sang the national anthem at the 1974 National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City in front of 9,000 people each night for 10 performances.
Something happened there that was another good lesson in listening. “I sing the national anthem in the key of D,” I told the conductor.
“We play it in the key of A,” he said.
My gut told me that would never do. The key of A would be awful for me. I should have listened to my instincts. But I didn’t feel like I could argue with the conductor. We tried it at the rehearsal and, yes, I sounded awful.
Fortunately Clem McSpadden, the man who got me the job and one of the main men there at the NFR, spoke to the conductor. The next run-through we did it in D. But it was almost a disaster.
All this training in listening turned out to be invaluable in my career. Time and again I’d sit in the tour bus or on a plane, asking what was right for me. I’d try to listen. Sometimes I’d forget.
Once I auditioned for a part in a movie I really wanted. It seemed meant for me. I was sure I had it in the bag, then I found out that they’d cast another actress. I was crushed. Why didn’t I get the part? Why did they give it to someone else? If there had been a cattle prod handy I would have chucked it at the wall (probably with the same results too).
Finally I did what Grandma had taught me. I got myself quiet and listened for the answer. Listened real hard.
You didn’t get that part because you’re needed at home with the kids, came the message. My husband, Narvel, and I had his three kids, Shawna, Brandon and Chassidy, with us a lot, plus we had our own son, Shelby.
“Thanks for the answer, Lord,” I said. It was just what I needed to hear, and it made all the difference. I was more than glad to be there with my family.
By now Narvel, our kids and people who work with me know I don’t do a thing without praying first. “What are you doing next?” someone might ask.
“I don’t know,” I’ll say. “God hasn’t told me yet.” I honestly believe that.
Not long ago Shelby, age 22, announced he wanted to become a racecar driver. All I could think was what a dangerous occupation that was. I didn’t know anything about the racing business. Was it even more dangerous than rodeoing?
I could picture myself wearing a path in the dirt pacing, worrying, waiting to see that he’d finished a race safely.
I prayed hard. I finally realized God gave Shelby that passion and talent to race cars, so I had to trust God to take care of Shelby on the track, just like I trust him every minute of the day. “Shelby,” I finally told him, “I’m behind you a hundred percent.”
Shelby is racing now and he’s good at it. I’m talking to God more now too.
Sometimes when I close my eyes I can smell Grandma’s hot biscuits with butter fresh from the churn. It feels like she’s right there praying with me, her long gray braids running down her back, both of us opening our hearts and listening to what God has to say. Listening real hard.