With four years passed since her last studio album, Reba McEntire has returned to the CD aisles ( and online shops ) with a little help from her friends. Duets ( MCA Nashville ) , released last month, features impressive, and in some cases crossover, superstar pairings: Justin Timberlake on the lush strings-laden The Only Promise That Remains; Don Henley on the thoroughly country ballad Break Each Other's Hearts Again; Kelly Clarkson on the grand, sweeping Because of You; and LeAnn Rimes on the super-catchy When You Love Someone Like That. Others sharing McEntire's microphone include Trisha Yearwood, Carole King, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts and Faith Hill.
The Oklahoma-born McEntire has over thirty years of charting/award-winning singles and albums behind her, as well as turns on the Broadway stage ( including the 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun ) , film ( notably 1990's cult monster flick, Tremors ) and six seasons of her eponymous Emmy-nominated TV sitcom, Reba ( 2001-07 ) . But she still considers music her first love, so to discuss Duets, whether she'd like to sing Dick in a Box with Timberlake and her favorite YouTube clip, I spoke with McEntire by phone.
Lawrence Ferber: What is your favorite duet of all time? One that perhaps inspired your own duets?
Reba McEntire: The ones that Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner did together I'm a huge fan of. When I was growing up I was part of The Singing McEntires with my older brother Pake and my little sister Susie. We had a little band there in Kiowa, Okla. So I loved to sing with other people and sing harmony. That's really the reason why I wanted to do this album.
LF: One of Duets' most surprising contributions, and impressive genre crossovers, is from Justin Timberlake.
RM: When I asked him to do the project he said, 'Okay, great, I'll write something. Is that okay?' And I was like [ skeptical ] , yeahhhhh. I had no idea what he was going to bring back to me—was it going to be SexyBack Two? I didn't know what it was and he and Matt Morris wrote this beautiful Celtic love song. I was so relieved. I was expecting something that was wayyy out of my ballpark. But it worked out really great. He's a sweetheart, a very good old country boy from Memphis, Tenn., and he's a huge fan of country music so it worked out wonderfully well.'
LF: Any chance that if he appears at one of your live gigs you'll perform Dick in a Box together?
RM: Oh, Lordy. I don't think so. I don't think my fans would accept that one. We'll leave that for Justin.
LF: Was there anyone you wanted to duet with who was so outside of the country genre that it would have been too crazy? Like Flavor Flav or the French dudes from AIR?
RM: Annie Lennox. I don't know if it's crazy but I'm just a huge fan of her singing and style. She wrote me the sweetest e-mail back and said she was just swamped right now and couldn't do it and working on a project of her own. I really wanted to sing with Annie Lennox.
LF: What's the story behind your covering Kelly Clarkson's hit Because of You—with Clarkson, no less!
RM: When we were doing this show [ for the CMT ] together, 'Crossroads,' I did four of her songs with her singing with me and she did four of my songs with me singing with her and when we did 'Because of You,'… well, it really touched me the first time I sang it and that's why we went back into the studio to rerecord it.
LF: What's the saddest song on the album?
RM: The song that really is a tear-jerker is Sleeping with the Telephone, [ with Faith Hill ] because it's about two women—they're neighbors—and one woman has a husband who's fighting over in Iraq and the other's husband is a policeman and out on the workforce every day, and they sleep with the telephone just knowing that call is going to come in.
LF: Drag queens love you—do a Google for 'Reba' and 'drag' and there is no shortage of results. And I understand a male fan came to a lot of your shows dressed as you, and you even had one appear onstage.
RM: We had guys come into the show dressed as me as [ my character of ] Fancy [ from the video ] and would come to the meet and greet and my tour manager would say, 'We have a Fancy impersonator tonight and when you walk in the room he's to the right so don't be shocked when you see him.' I thought, 'Even though I don't wear that much make-up; he looks better than I do!' I didn't know if he was gay or just a cross-dresser or a female impersonator. But I also hired a guy that I saw at those [ impersonator ] shows—lots were dressed up like Liza and me and Dolly. One guy did me, and he did Garth Brooks! Now that's a talented person. Anyway, I hired him to come on the road with me and he was part of the gag on 'Fancy'; he walked on stage dressed in the black coat and the pillbox hat and I'm under the stage way down on the arena. So, yeah, I've had female impersonators on the road with me.
LF: Do you miss making your TV series?
RM: Oh my gosh, yes. I miss my family. I miss having the giggles. We got in there and would rehearse and laugh. It wasn't work—it was fun. I miss all my family so much. But I love music. Out of everything I've gotten to do music will always be my first love.
LF: You've addressed some serious issues in your music—specifically, AIDS on the 1994 song She Thinks His Name Was John. Do you still perform that in concert?
RM: No, I haven't done that in a while. There are two songs you don't do when you're playing festivals and fairs. One is John and the other is Moving Oleta. Wow, you talk about taking the breath out of the room; all the air is gone. The way I found John is I was over at Bluewater Music in Nashville listening to songs for the album. And they said, 'We're a little bit nervous but want to ask if you want to listen to one song that's way left-field, but you're the only one that we know that would have the nerve to even record it.' I said, 'OK, now you've got a challenge up there for me. Let me hear it!' And it was John and I said, 'Oh my gosh, yes, let me have that!' I recorded it and did it on stage and it was moving!
LF: What was the most profound effect of John for you, personally?
RM: I think what was really interesting to me on that song was the honesty and I felt that if I could sing about it, more people could talk about it. I think it really did help a lot.
LF: Have you thought about doing a song that addresses gay marriage, or dedicating a honeymoon song specifically to gay couples?
RM: Since I don't write, I don't say I'm going to write a song about that like Kelly can do. If she's got a topic she can sit down and write a song.
LF: Another fantastic Clarkson duet you performed for Crossroads, A Lot Like You, doesn't appear on the album. Any shot it might be available on iTunes or elsewhere?
RM: I love it. I think it's a wonderful song. My good friend Linda Davison and her daughter co-wrote it. But I have no idea [ if it will be available ] ; I really don't. It won't be on this album, I know that for sure.
LF: Welcome to the political part of the interview, Reba. Do you think about the presidential election and what we're going to be getting into come November 2008?
RM: I do, and I keep my opinions to myself because I don't want to influence a person one way or the other in case I have been misinformed and I am spreading bad information. So I don't get into the political thing at all. I'm friends with senior President Bush and we never talk politics.
LF: You have a clothing line. Will you offer Hillary Clinton a free wardrobe so she can work the Reba look?
RM: I really love the clothing line. It's a lot of fun. A lot of hard work but I sure do like it.
LF: That was a pretty good sidestep! I think we're going to see you run for something in the future.
RM: I know how to dodge a question, don't I?
LF: Are you into pop culture? Do you go online and read the gossip blogs?
RM: No. My hobbies are more into photography and I love to mess with the pictures I take on vacations. I do go on YouTube every once in a while but that's about it.
LF: What's the most insane thing you're seen on YouTube so far?
RM: These two guys had a horse that they put in a car. They took the top of their car off to make it like a convertible and put the horse in the front and would go to a drive-thru and order their white horse hamburgers and the horse would eat it. That's pretty bizarre.
Lawrence Ferber's writing has appeared in The Advocate, Entertainment Weekly and The Village Voice. His blog is ewelthorpe.blogspot.com .