By Chris Azzopardi
Reba McEntire has released a beautiful new Christmas album. The melancholy spirit of her friend Dolly Parton’s 1982 holiday staple “Hard Candy Christmas” is preserved on McEntire’s new reading, and her sparse version of “Mary, Did You Know?” featuring Christmas mainstays Vince Gill and Amy Grant engenders a spirited hopefulness even the secular population may find comfort in.
But it is two weeks after the Las Vegas shooting, and nearly a month before the CMAs, which emotionally honored the victims during its “In Memoriam,” when I connect with McEntire to talk about the new album and her holiday plans. Sticking to casual banter seems malapropos given the recent series of tragic and divisive events that eventually led to McEntire pledging to love you the best she can during the all-star musical opening of the CMAs.
How do you not talk about issues affecting all of us, even McEntire?
After all, the Country Music Hall of Famer performs in Vegas regularly during her residency, Reba, Brooks & Dunn: Together in Vegas, which recently announced additional 2018 dates. Moreover, the icon has wielded great influence as an entertainer – singer; Broadway, film and TV actress; gay favorite – during her four-decade career, and so when she pledged her support for marriage equality in 2014 to me during our last conversation, it felt especially groundbreaking. At the time, she spoke lovingly about her dear friends, Michael and Steven, who didn’t have the same legal protections as heterosexual couples. “It was not fair,” she told me, pointedly. Just over a year after our talk, Michael and Steven’s relationship was legally recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, any artist with clout is being called upon to take on other hot topics, as evidenced by the preemptive decision by CMA producers to enact a no-politics stipulation on journalists during the event (the provision was overturned by the time the show aired). But the pressure to weigh in on political issues can be felt even within the country music community, as Rosanne Cash pled for the genre’s influencers to speak out against the NRA in a Oct. 3 New York Times column called “Country Musicians, Stand Up to the N.R.A.” (Faith Hill and Tim McGraw recently called for sensible gun laws in an interview with Billboard after Cash’s call to action).
In addition to talking about her personal struggles with religion and being true to her musical roots, McEntire, 62, told me she looks to God for guidance on addressing the world’s affairs. Strikingly, she did clarify that her track “Back to God,” featured as an acoustic version on My Kind of Christmas, is purely a faith song despite various sites and social-media memes associating the song with President Donald Trump.
Do you have gay people in your circle of family and friends who you’ll be seeing for the holidays?
Probably so, yeah. I’ll be in Nashville before we go out of the country after Christmas, so I’ve got a lot of friends in town that we’ll be seeing after we get through with our show in Las Vegas on (December) 10th.
What special something do your gay and lesbian loved ones bring to your holiday festivities?
Friendship. And we hang out throughout the year, so it’s not much different around Christmas than it is throughout the year.
Just more eating.
A lot more eating – yeah, true! And lots of just hanging together and the reason for the season, which is the birthday of Jesus and we all celebrate that. It’s more of the same, just being great friends at Christmas like we are throughout the year.
Please tell me all of our favorite country gay icons – yourself, Dolly, Faith, Martina, and so on – have some kind of Secret Santa.
(Laughs) No, we don’t. Wouldn’t that be fun, though?
Do you do White Elephant exchanges?
Oh yeah, we do it with my RBI (Firm) team and we used to do it at Starstruck. Dirty Santa or White Elephants are really a lot of fun.
What’s the craziest gift you ever received during a White Elephant exchange?
Oh my gosh, probably an old dirty sweater!
I just spoke to your daughter-in-law, Kelly Clarkson, who you collaborate with on “Silent Night.” As I’m sure you know, she finally has creative control. Was there a time in your career when, like Kelly, you struggled to make the music you wanted to make because of label heads?
You know, I was very, very lucky to get to work with people who are open-minded. It wasn’t a situation of not getting to sing the music I wanted to and make the music I wanted to; it’s that when I got started I didn’t know, other than I had been raised with what I wanted to sing, and then when it got a little more contemporary with the orchestras, I had to go to the head of the label, Jimmy Bowen, and say, “I really wanna go back to my roots,” and he said, “What’s that?” I said, “Steel guitar and fiddle.” He said, “All right, you can do it.” And I said, “Well, how do I do it?” And he said, “Well, you need to go start finding your own music.” So Jimmy was totally 100 percent for me doing what I wanted to do and I was very grateful for that.
Kelly is bold when it comes to expressing her social and political beliefs, and I understand her stepdaughter and your grandchild, Savannah, is really political. Do you have political debates within the family?
Nope. I don’t talk politics because I think there are a lot more things I can contribute to the world without arguing with somebody about politics. My family has this rule, especially during holiday gatherings: no political discussions. I think that’s very healthy.
Do you have a similar rule?
I just don’t do it. When somebody wants to talk politics, I let ’em know that and we change the subject.
There seems to be a lot of pressure on public figures to take stances on some important issues concerning our country. During our last interview, in fact, you pledged your full support for same-sex marriages for the first time. A lot has happened since, including the recent shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, and recently, Rosanne Cash penned a column in the New York Times encouraging the country music community to speak out against gun violence. For you, when is a potentially divisive issue important enough to talk about?
I think I’ll know it when it comes to me. I think I’ll know it when that happens. So, I can’t say it’s gonna be tomorrow (laughs), or what the topic is gonna be. I’ll know it – I think it’ll be told to me. I rely on God a lot to let me know what I need to be doing and I ask him for guidance, totally, all the time, every day. So when that’s needed, I’ll be the spokesperson.
Regarding the Rosanne Cash piece calling on the country music, did you feel a need to step forward?
This is the first time I’ve heard of it.
She wrote a column in the New York Times asking country artists to speak out on gun violence and gun control. Basically, “Is the issue deeper than just ‘thoughts and prayers’?” It was a really thought-provoking column.
Well, good for her. Good deal.
How has what is happening in the world become personal for you?
It always has been. When you have children and people you love and care about, it’s not only your children or your grandchildren, it’s your whole family. It’s your friends, it’s your community, it’s your country, it’s your town, it’s your neighbors. You deal with all of it and your concern is for all of them, so yeah, it’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on since – long before we ever got here. It just seems like because of the media we know about what’s going on a lot more than we did when we were kids. When I was growing up, we only had the 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock news and what you heard on the radio and that was it.
Do you think we would benefit by going back to just the 6 and 10 o’clock news?
I really don’t know which is best. Are we overloaded with press? Do we need more? Do we need to know all of this? I remember that song that Anne Murray had out, “A Little Good News” (laughs). That’s what I like to watch – good news.
What does it mean to be an artist who can, in one night, bring together gay fans, conservative right fans and drag queens?
It means a lot to me because what we’re there for – my job is to entertain and to lighten the load off your back, and I hope when everybody walks through that door to come into a concert they leave their troubles at the door and they come in and join together and listen and enjoy and take away something that will brighten their day. Give them somethin’ to think about and improve their lives, hopefully.
Maybe there’s a message in those songs. I have always said, Chris, that I’m the conduit, I’m the water hose. I’m singing these songs because there’s a message in music, because it’s so healing, and so when I sing it, I sing songs that touch my heart. Hopefully when you’re in the audience and you listen to those songs it touches your heart – and in a way that I have no idea how it’s gonna touch your heart, but I hope that it does.
How did you feel about ABC passing on your TV project created by out Desperate Housewives and Golden Girls writer Marc Cherry?
I couldn’t believe it. I was devastated. I thought it was the greatest show. Everybody who I played it for was like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to see more,” and I said, “Well, unfortunately, you’re not gonna get to because they didn’t take it.” Marc did a wonderful job. He’s a genius. I love him to pieces. He is so clever. And it was just such a good show. But we’re not gonna get to continue on, so my heart just hurt for that. We shot (the pilot) in March of this year, and I was really wanting everybody to see it.
Will we see you on TV aside from CMA Country Christmas?
I hope so! We’re looking at scripts now for next year and some TV movies and different things like that. You never know what’s gonna materialize. I talked about the Marc Cherry script for, gosh, four or five months and was so excited. Just knew it was gonna be a slam dunk. But you never know about the future. I just have to say, well, wasn’t in the plans, everything happens for a reason, timing is everything.
Getting back to music, your song “Back to God,” which originally appeared on your Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope released in early 2017 and now on My Kind of Christmas as an acoustic duet with Lauren Daigle, was being associated with President Donald Trump by his supporters upon its release. I mention that because I grew up trying to reconcile being a gay man with my Catholic upbringing, and that was really a struggle for me because I didn’t know which I should choose or if I had to choose. So now, when I see a song like “Back to God” being politicized, I think of LGBT children who don’t side with the president but seek comfort from a song like “Back to God.”
How do you feel about your song being politicized in that way when it can potentially alienate gay fans?
I think that’s ridiculous.
But there really are memes and articles saying “Back to God” is essentially a Trump anthem.
No, no. It wasn’t at all. (The lyric) “give this world back to God” means we’ve got troubles, we’ve got things going on, people are worrying, people are trying to solve problems themselves. If they gave their problems and their worries up to the Lord, he will take care of him and you’ll have a peace that you’ve never experienced in your life. How anybody took that and politicized that is beyond my imagination. It’s totally a faith song. Faith-based, and of hope and of faith and looking for a better way of dealing with the stuff that’s going on. And my way of dealing with it is giving it to the Lord.
As a person of faith, what message would you like to send to LGBT people who may struggle with religion?
You know, sometimes I struggle with religion because there are so many, but if you read all of ‘em, all of the different religions, there is one underlying thing: God wants us to love each other. Treat people like you want to be treated and love each other – that’s not hard, but in a sense, it is. But that’s it. He just wants us to love each other, and I think that’s what we all really need to work on.
When I spoke to Amy Grant in 2013, she told me, “I know that the religious community has not been very welcoming, but I just want to stress that the journey of faith brings us into community, but it’s really about one relationship. The journey of faith is just being willing and open to have a relationship with God. And everybody is welcome. Everybody.”
Yeah, yup! And also, another thing: The secret of peace is forgiveness, and that’s hard. That’s really hard. But when you do, all of that hatred and resentment that’s eating up your heart and your stomach and your gallbladder and it’s just making you sick, if you forgive, all that goes away and it’s replaced with space that is ready to have more love put in and you find better relationships and more friends, so you gotta forgive and you gotta just love people.
Sounds like you found the secret, Reba.
(Laughs) Ya know, funny enough: I kind of think I did! Everybody says, “Oh yeah, I’ve known that for a long time,” and then I say, “Why didn’t I understand that?” It’s hard. It’s real hard to forgive. But it’s the best blessing in the world to give yourself.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).