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Ahead of ACM Awards, Reba McEntire talks women in country music, her new album, more

She's hosting the Academy of Country Music Awards show for the 16th time.

Reba McEntire will host the 54th Academy

 Reba McEntire will host the 54th Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday, April 7, from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Credit: CBS / Cliff Lipson

This is a mighty busy weekend for Reba McEntire.

First, the launch of “Stronger Than the Truth” on Friday, April 5. That’s her new studio album on Big Machine Records, an effort she calls “stone-cold country” and a return to her musical roots.

Then she’ll stride across the stage of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Sunday night, April 7, as host of the 54th Academy of Country Music Awards — again. It’s her 16th time hosting the show, which airs on CBS at 8 p.m. And if there was ever a moment when the country music industry needed a fresh dose of Reba, it’s now.

In recent years the industry has faced criticism for the apparent “bro” culture that seems to dominate country airwaves and music charts, and the entertainer of the year category at the upcoming ACM Awards is a stark reminder of that fact. All the nominees — Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban — are men. And for the second year in a row.

McEntire, 64, expressed her dismay when announcing the nominees in February on CBS This Morning. “I’m missin’ my girlfriends on this,” she said. And she’s still not happy about it.

“Well, no,” says McEntire, speaking by phone from a hotel in Los Angeles. “We love to have women in that category. [With] everybody bringing attention to it, hopefully next year it’ll change.”

It’s not like the women aren’t out there — especially this year, when Kacey Musgraves just won album of the year at the Grammys. The issue is serious enough that the ACM recently announced it was forming a task force to examine the lack of diversity within the industry. (The Recording Academy set up a similar panel last year.)

“It’s all cyclical,” says McEntire. “Sometimes country’s more traditional, sometimes more contemporary. Sometimes they’re playing more men, sometimes more women.”

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Maybe so. But as award categories go, the ACM’s entertainer of the year has never been all that great for women. According to the statistics on acmcountry.com the first entertainer of the year was Merle Haggard in 1970. Since then there have been 248 nominees, with women nominated 44 times as either single performers or a group. Of the 48 entertainer-of-the-year winners since 1970, there have been 10 women. Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood have each won twice. The Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell and Loretta Lynn have each won once, although McEntire has been nominated nine times, and Lynn has been nominated eight. Miranda Lambert, Faith Hill and Crystal Gayle have only been nominated. The last woman to be nominated was Carrie Underwood in 2016. Between 2001 and 2007, no women were nominated, which appears to be the longest period in ACM history. 

The dominance of men in recent years is in large part driven by concert ticket sales, and men now drive those sales, says Phathead, who co-hosts a morning show on WJVC 96.1 FM, Long Island’s country music radio station.

“At our station, we play a ton of women and new artists,” says Phathead, who also serves as director of country programming for JVC Broadcasting. He notes that the station helped break  Kelsea Ballerini, and gives considerable airtime to Cassadee Pope, Cam and other women. “A good song is a good song — it doesn’t matter who’s singing it.”

McEntire agrees, believing the pendulum will swing back.

“I think the girls are comin’ on,” she says.

Given the uphill road that women face in country music, McEntire’s success over the last 45 years is nothing less than remarkable. Consider her numbers — 29 studio records, 35 No. 1 hits, and 56 million albums sold worldwide. And at last year’s Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, she received the county's highest award for artistic merit.

 She "belongs on the Mount Rushmore of country music,” says Phathead. “She’s a legendary figure that people gravitate toward.”

She also has a distinctive voice, which in the recording business — especially in the current era, when performers are more wonders of slick packaging than vocal prowess — sets her apart.

“You hear her sing a song and in the first note or two you know it’s Reba,” says Phathead.

Since splitting with her husband of 26 years (and long-time manager) Narvel Blackstock, she's released two albums. “Stronger” marks a return "to what I was singing when I was growing up,” she says. “Songs you can dance to. Songs that tell a story.”

McEntire grew up on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma and started singing in a trio with her brother and sister. A solo gig singing the national anthem at a rodeo got her noticed, and led to her first record deal in 1975.

She's still fascinated by the power of music. Take “Is There Life Out There,” her 1991 anthem to hardworking wives and mothers. (In the music video, she plays a waitress mom going back to school to get her college degree.)

“I thought it was a great melody, but I had no idea it would touch so many hearts,” she said. “Women stood up in the audience showing their high school and college diplomas. They found life out there after they got their children raised.”

Her new album features songs like the boot-stompin’ “No U in Oklahoma” (“and that’s OK with me,” as the lyric goes), the heartfelt “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain,” and “The Bar’s Getting Lower,” a ballad about an aging single woman, which McEntire felt apprehensive about recording.

“I thought women [will] either love it or hate it,” she says. “It’ll either hurt too much, or they’ll say, ‘Yeah, well, that’s the truth.’ ”

With songs like these — and perhaps a break in the “bro” culture — McEntire may find herself once again winning “Entertainer of the Year” next year.

“Truth hurts,” says McEntire, “But that’s what makes country songs so strong. People can relate to them. They’re honest.”

REBA EVERYWHERE

Reba McEntire’s wide-ranging appeal is not confined to just the country music world:

TV She’s most known for her six seasons as the star of “Reba” (from 2001 to 2007).

FILM She’s appeared in 11 movies, from the 1990 cult thriller “Tremors” to 2006’s “Charlotte’s Web” (voicing Betsy the Cow).

BROADWAY Her acclaimed run as Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun” in 2001 is still buzzed about by theater fans.

PITCHWOMAN   She made history last year as the first woman to play KFC pitch “man” Col. Sanders, part of an ad campaign in which celebrities impersonated the icon. Her Colonel wore fringe on his suit.

— JOSEPH V. AMODIO

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