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A cowgirl at heart, singer and actress Reba McEntire shows off her custom boot closet. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Ranching Roots to Stardom: Country Queen Reba McEntire Shares Life Lessons

Some would say the McEntires are a very set-in-their-ways, stubborn, hardheaded bunch of people. But I think that hardheadedness is what got Daddy to where he was, Grandpap to where he was, and his father, Pap, to where he was. Some might say it wasn’t all that far—but it was much further than where they started!

None of us McEntires came from money, but each generation’s been a little more prosperous than the one before it. My daddy, Clark, was determined to make a better life for himself than the one he’d been handed. Like Grandpap before him, Daddy had the rodeo bug. He knew that rodeo couldn’t pay all the bills, but it sure helped get him started.

Take, for instance, one time when Daddy won a roping competition. The prize was a new car and 500 dollars cash. He gave it all to Mama and sent her to swap it for 80 acres of land that Uncle Dale, Mama’s brother, owned. That gave Daddy enough space to expand his ranch with more cattle. It was the start he needed. A few years later, in 1957, Daddy and Mama were able to buy a much bigger plot of land in Chockie, so he moved the family and all the cattle over there. Not exactly the land of milk and honey, but little by little, he was moving on up.

Ms. McEntire’s grandfather, John McEntire, competing at Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyo., 1934. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Land in Chockie was only $6.40 an acre, and there was good reason for that! A lot of neighbors called it “sorry land,” and they warned Daddy not to buy it. It was rocky, hilly, and didn’t grow much except briars and scrub brush, but he saw something no one else saw in that “sorry land.” He turned a profit selling timber to the paper mill and rocks to the architects in Dallas. Then he struck gas.

That sorry land turned out to be worth more than anyone realized.

Daddy liked the rodeos, but he loved ranching. Rodeoing and selling timber, rocks, and natural gas all helped in the progression of our ranch. Daddy had to travel to compete in rodeos, but he wanted to be home on the ranch.

But ranch life is not an easy life. Maintaining the land and cattle takes time, and you can’t skip a day just because you’re worn out. Working the land was a whole family affair. The only time you wouldn’t find us kids helping out was when we were in school. I thought that going to college would give me a break. Nope. I was wrong. Daddy had leased some land halfway between home and the Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma. So every other day, after my classes, I loaded 30 fifty-pound sacks of feed into my pickup truck and fed the 300 head of cattle.

Not quite the college experience everybody else had!

I didn’t really know anything else though. I had started pitching in before I could even sit in a saddle. I don’t remember exactly the first time I was on a horse, but it feels like I was born riding. Us kids spent a lot of time rounding up cattle. It was rough country, and often we’d have to ride through brush and briars taller than we were on the off chance we’d find even one lonely steer. There was always more work than hands to do it. We got cattle in the spring, straightened them up, and shipped them off to the feed lots in the fall.

Reba McEntire (center) rides on the family ranch in Chockie, Okla., alongside her parents and siblings Susie, Alice, and Pake, while filming the “Reba: Starting Over” CBSTV special in 1995. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Daddy always had a plan to get the job done. Problem was, he wasn’t the best at relaying his plan to the rest of us. He was usually looking the other direction or doing three things at once when he was giving us our instructions for the day. Most of the time, we only got a quarter of what he was trying to tell us. We always looked to Grandpap for an interpretation. I’m sure glad we had him to help us out!

The most important thing about helping out on the ranch was getting in line, doing your part, and following instructions. If our instructions were to sit at a gate until Daddy returned, under no circumstances were we going to abandon our posts. You sat at that gate until Daddy came back and told you that you could leave. It could be several hours, but that didn’t matter. Hot or cold, rain or shine, you stayed glued to your saddle.

It was out there in those hills that I first learned that the work is in the waiting.

Fast-forward 15 years, when I got into the music business. I knew less than nothing about how it all worked. I thought that once your record got on the radio, you got a tour bus and a big ol’ check. You’d made it. You were a big star. Wrong!

I remember being so excited when I heard my debut single playing on our staticky, old radio for the very first time. Mama, Susie, and I were all sitting on the floor, crying with joy, thinking, “This is it.”

But then—not much happened. No fancy tour bus or big royalty check appeared. I felt pretty sure that God had called me to the dream of singing, but much like my daddy giving me instructions up in the hills, it felt like I had only gotten a fourth of what God said, and I knew I needed to wait for more information. So just like I learned as a kid, I stayed patient. And I kept working.

“Not That Fancy: Simple Lessons on Living, Loving, Eating, and Dusting Off Your Boots” by Reba McEntire (Harper Celebrate, 2023).

From hearing that first song on the radio, I spent the next seven years traveling around, playing everywhere I could, living on greasy burgers and corn dogs at truck stops and county fairs from Los Angeles to Boston—seven years of performing at fairs, rodeos, and honky-tonks, singing over bar brawls, tractor-pull competitions, and bull sales. Seven years of patience before I had a real hit, “Can’t Even Get the Blues,” in January 1983.

Even with that hit, the first time I headlined my own show, in 1984, only 800 people showed up, and I actually lost money. I had to write a check to get out of town because I didn’t sell enough tickets. And I thought, “Welcome to the big time!” I sure did appreciate the few who did show up, though!

Thank God for that McEntire determination.

When it came my turn to be a parent, I was determined to teach my son, Shelby, how important hard work is too, but I didn’t need to worry. From an early age, Shelby was a very determined young man. He has a great work ethic. When it came time for him to start his own career, he put his nose to the grindstone. When Shelby told me he wanted to be a race car driver, I wanted to help but had no clue where to start. If there had been a “Racing for Dummies” book, I would have bought 10. I asked anyone I could think of for information, but no one I knew had much advice to give. Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine Records and a former race car driver himself, told me to buy him a go-kart. But Shelby already had a go-kart! So, we bought Shelby a membership to the Skip Barber Racing School. It’s a school that teaches kids the racing business, and it allowed him to race in as many races as possible. You have to pay your dues in racing, just like you do in the rodeo and music businesses. Shelby raced in the Southern and the Western series. He drove eight to nine races a day for three days every weekend. I gave him my airline miles and hotel points from years of touring, and he flew on Southwest and stayed in the cheapest motels to make the most of it. Funny part was, he was too young to rent a car, so he had to get a taxi or bum a ride to the track.

Ms. McEntire with her son, Shelby, at the race car track. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Shelby could have followed his daddy’s, Narvel Blackstock’s, footsteps into music management, but he chose to chart his own course. He’s now into real estate and developing property. You don’t think your kids listen to half of what you tell them, but Shelby did. I’m so proud of him. He’s kind and confident and is building a life that he’s proud of and that makes him happy. And he still wants me to be a big part of that. I am so grateful.

Most of what you hope for in this life takes time and some old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness. None of us in the McEntire family were overnight successes. From generation to generation, we just keep learning, dreaming, and working hard.

One thing I’m sure of: Good things won’t come if you give up and go home.

RECIPE: Mama’s Pimento Cheese Sandwich

RECIPE: Fried Green Tomato Slices

Taken from the chapter “A Lot of Hope and Hard Work” from “Not That Fancy: Simple Lessons on Living, Loving, Eating, and Dusting Off Your Boots” by Reba McEntire. Copyright 2023 by Reba McEntire. Used by permission of Harper Celebrate.