Even by phone, Reba McEntire makes you feel right at home. "Thanks for the visit; I've enjoyed visitin' with you!" the singer drawls, wrapping up our conversation as if I'd just stopped by for buttered grits and a cup of hot coffee.
A music, television, film and theater superstar with a trove of prestigious awards, McEntire is enormously famous, but talking to her, you wouldn't know it. She comes across more like a friend. Fancy? Not so much. And she certainly won't let her rabid gay following downshe has delighted in a friendship with the LGBT community since the beginning of her 40-year career.
Now, as she releases her 27th studio album, Love Somebody, the country icon's ready to take some serious stands.
In our chat, McEntire stressed the importance of gay marriage, how "sad" it is to know that some country artists feel they can't come out, and her message to parents who can't accept a child who's not straight.
Windy City Times: You grew up in a town with, like, 16 people and lots of cows. I imagine there weren't a lot of gay people in Chockie, Oklahoma.
Reba McEntire: Nope, nope. Not at all that I know of, or in high school. I guess in college was the first time I was around any gay people, and they became my friends first and then I found out they were gay, so there ya go! Didn't change my opinion of 'em; I still liked 'em a lot.
One was a very dear friend of mine who helped me a lot with my singing and my music, and he was just a super sweet, gentle man who loved music with all his heart. I'm pretty sure that was my first introduction, the first time I met anyone who was gay.
WCT: As a longtime ally, how important are LGBT equality and same-sex marriage rights to you?
Reba McEntire: Very important. I just went to my first gay wedding a couple of months ago in California for Michael and Steven, my two great friends. They've been together for 20 years! I thought that it was not fair, and I didn't understand why they couldn't get married. It wasn't because they just wanted to get married. If one of them had gotten injured and gone to the hospital, the other one couldn't make decisions for them. It's very upsetting. It's not only for convenience or for romantic reasonsit's for practicality. For practical reasons! I get a kick out of what Dolly said: "Why shouldn't they get married and be as miserable as the rest of us?" [Laughs]
WCT: You don't seem so miserable in your marriage, though.
Reba McEntire: No, not at all. But I don't understand why people have a problem with it. I'm a very spiritual person, but I don't judge. I try not to; I'm only human. To each his own, and everybody is different. God did not make us all the same. So, I just pray for an open mind and a loving heart, and I think that's all I can do.
WCT: In your four decades as a country musician, how much progress do you think the genre has made when it comes to embracing LGBT fans with open arms?
Reba McEntire: Well, I've always embraced gay and lesbian fans with both arms. I have a huge gay following!
WCT: Absolutely. But country music as a wholedo you see progress when it comes to LGBT equality?
Yeah, I do. There are more [artists] speaking out about it, but I can't really speak for anyone else other than myself.
WCT: If Reba, Wynonna and Dolly drag queens were to compete, how would you mentor the Reba queen to ensure her victory?
Reba McEntire: Good landsthat's a hard question! Because Wynonna is such a character! I love her with all my heart. Dolly is bigger than life, and I love her with all my heart. So I'd say, get out there and work your tail off!
WCT: Throughout the years, there's been some pretty darn good Rebas. I'm sure you've encountered some yourself.
Totally, absolutely! I've had a Reba impersonator in my [touring] show before, and David [Lowman aka Coti Collins] came off the stage one night and he said he'd done such a good job of impersonating me in the song "Fancy" that the limo driver opened the door for him.
WCT: Have you ever been mistaken for a fake Reba?
RE: Not that I know of!
WCT: Female country artists aren't getting the same radio airplay as their male counterparts these days. Why aren't the ladies getting a fair shake?
Reba McEntire: It goes cyclical. It's always in phases, and it'll come back around. In my 40-year career, I've seen it go from very contemporary country music to very traditional, and then it goes back to contemporary and then you can't get a male song recorded or a male on the radio, and then you can't get a female song recorded or a female on the radio.
It's gonna come back. It's been the good ol' boy season right now, but it'll change. It'll go back to more romantic, more females. But we've gotta promote these younger females coming on. I'm with ya. There's a bunch that have been lost in the shufflefemale singersthat I don't know they'll get a second chance, but they're out there. We just need to get them on the radio and get them out to the public to listen to.
WCT: Who comes to mind?
Reba McEntire: Brandy Clark. My gosh, that girl! I've got three or four songs of hers on my new album. She's got great material. I mean, Miranda's recorded them. All the girls have recorded her songs.
WCT: I have to know: When's the big hair coming back?
[Laughs] I can't get [my stylist] Brett Freedman to get it that high anymore! My good friend Shane Tarleton is always saying, "Get that big hair out. Jack it up to Jesus!"
WCT: Is that your real hair?
Reba McEntire: Yeah, it's my real hair now. I did wear wigs when I did Annie Get Your Gun, and then on one tour where we went from Reba in 1974 to present Reba, I did wear the big wigs and had my short hair at the end. And I've done it on vacation, ya know. You go from the swimming pool to getting ready for dinner in 30 minutes when you're wearing wigs! They're great!
WCT: Redheads sometimes get a lot of flak when they're young. As a redhead in a small town, what was it like for you? Did you ever feel like an outsider?
Reba McEntire: No, absolutely not. I loved my red hair. My mom was a redhead, so I felt she gave me her red hair. I've always been very, very proud of it.
WCT: And people didn't treat you any differently because of it?
Reba McEntire: Oh, I didn't care!
WCT: What has made you gravitate toward themes of empowerment, then?
Reba McEntire: Because I think they're important. To be encouraging. These songs are encouraging; they're encouraging to folks. Every song I sing has a message, and it might not be for me and I might not have experienced what's going on in the song, but I think it's for somebody who needs to hear it. I've had people come up to me before saying, "You have no idea how so-and-so song changed my life. It helped me through a bad situation." God knows what he's doing. He gives me the gut feeling to say yes to this song, yes to that song. And it might not have anything to do with my career, my lifestyle, but he's got somebody down the road who needs to hear it.
WCT: Would you consider recording a country song inspired by a gay person's story?
Reba McEntire: It just depends on the song. If it touches my heart, absolutely.
WCT: Your daughter-in-law, Kelly Clarkson, told me recently that she didn't care if one of her kids turned out to be gay. And then you actually backed her on that on Facebook, posting "amen!" on the article. As a grandparent and a parent yourself, what kind of message do you hope to send by affirming your open-mindedness when it comes to loving and caring for a child regardless of sexual orientation?
Reba McEntire: What a child needs when they're growing up is support and love, mainly love. Love can go a long, long ways whether they're gay or not. All the troubles and the problems and the obstacles that they are going to face in their lives are going to be astronomical, especially in their very young, inexperienced minds. And if they do happen to be gay, that's going to be a harder hurdle to get over. What a parent needs to do more than anything is jump in there with love and support. You made 'em. They're a gift from God. Love 'em as they are.
WCT: With Billy Gilman, Ty Herndon and Brandy Clark, there's been a recent wave of country musicians coming out. What are your thoughts on these artists taking that step and coming out publicly?
Reba McEntire: It's really, really sad what they're living with before they decide to come out. And then why they decide to come out, and how they deal with it after they've come outthe pressure society puts upon them, their families and what they put upon them, whether they accept it or they don't. You know, my new album is called Love Somebody … I wish it'd been called Love Everybody. You gotta love people for who they are. Accept them, and then go on with life.
WCT: Love Everybodythe title of the next album.
Reba McEntire: I'm gonna work on that!
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com .