Fiddles and tambourines. Laser zaps and handclaps. Banjos and heavy synth. Harmonicas and four-on-the-floor drums. For both country and electronic dance music lovers, this combination of sounds and instruments make no sense. For Reba McEntire, they are a match made in disco heaven.
You can thank (or blame) a number of popular social platforms for turning McEntire’s beat around. They helped fuel her latest project: a three-disc box set titled “Revived Remixed Revisited.”
“It was only a matter of time before we had to do somethin’ about the way this blew up,” McEntire, 66, says via Zoom from her home in Los Angeles. The “this” the country music icon is referring to? Bootleg, fan-made Reba remixes on YouTube, SoundCloud and Mixcloud, and Arkansas drag queen Icona overdramatizing McEntire’s hit “I’m A Survivor” on TikTok to the tune of 18.8 million views.
Icona leads a new-found army of country-queen loving TikTokers who have helped McEntire’s songs climb up radio and streaming charts for the first time in years. A flurry of Reba replicators have followed, including Guelph’s own Jon Dobbie (stage name: Crystal Quartz). Dobbie went from 1,000 to 220,000 viewers after posting a Jon-to-Reba wig and makeup transformation, using McEntire’s “Fancy” as his soundtrack.
“I’m just pleased as punch that this new generation of listeners keeps discovering my hits from the past as if they just got released,” McEntire said. “It made me start listening to them in a new light … in the same way some of these young digital creators have been doing. Some of these hits are older than they are!”
By the time McEntire realized her catalogue was stimulating millions of views on TikTok, she was already in the studio, knee deep into reinventing tracks that she had performed for decades. Her challenge was not easy. Satiating both old and new school Reba fans in “Revived Remixed Revisited” was an ambitious feat, and trying to appeal to voguers, discophiles and tech heads (“Remixed”), two-steppers, bluegrass lovers and country purists (“Revisited”), as well as lovers of new country and pop (“Revised”) required expanding the collection to 30 tracks in total.
The most interesting reworkings on the project can be found on the “Remixed” disc. To get her songs club-ready, McEntire enlisted the help of DJs and producers who are an active part of dance floor music history.
McEntire selected Grammy-winning Chicago house music pioneer DJ Ralphi Rosario to transform her midtempo version of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” into a 120 beat-per-minute banger. Rosario, known as one of the major forces behind popularizing house music from the LGBTQ and Latin communities he played for and belonged to, wasn’t the only heavyweight to be tapped. Tracy Young — one of the few and only Grammy-winning lesbian remixers — restyled McEntire’s “Turn on the Radio” from its Grand Ole Opry twang into a 21st-century Studio 54 bop.
“I do see these remixes as a bridge between cultures, and I’ve always had big LGBTQ and African-American fans,” McEntire said. “So, yeah, we had to treat the mixes with kid gloves and choose wisely.” In other words, this ain’t McEntire’s first time at the disco rodeo. Which explains how the most intriguing choice in this whole box set project is a Frank Ocean-meets-Shania Twain remix of “I’m A Survivor” by LeahAnn Mitchell, a.k.a. the Black transgender producer/singer-songwriter known as Lafemmebear.
“These days, we should be having very real conversations about what it looks like to give back to communities that white and/or straight folks have been able to take advantage of for a very long time,” Mitchell said from her home in San Francisco.
“It’s about putting your money where your mouth is and putting your clout on the line. This is where Reba comes in and anyone else who sticks their necks out to uplift queer, Black greatness and brilliance.” Mitchell points out that this isn’t the first time McEntire has been inclusive, citing the fact that the country legend toured with drag queens such as Coti Collins, whom McEntire would share the stage with for nearly a decade.
Aside from the fact that “Fancy” — a track about a young sex worker groomed by her own mother — was the song selected for a hotly debated lip-synch on Season 5 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” McEntire’s songbook also includes a song that outwardly speaks to queer history.
McEntire’s 1994 ballad “She Thinks His Name was John,” which was written by Sandy Knox (one of McEntire’s regular writers), was inspired by Knox’s brother, who died of an AIDS-related illness. Investing in the lyrical content while learning to sing the track ended up putting McEntire on a path to understanding the toll of HIV/AIDS, which she was previously sheltered from.
“It brought me a lot of compassion,” she said of fans who thanked her for recording it. “At the time, I didn’t know anybody who had AIDS. Then I performed at an HIV/AIDS benefit in Los Angeles with Magic Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor. Elizabeth said to me, ‘Has this really affected your friends?’ I said, ‘Elizabeth, I don’t know anybody who has AIDS.’ She told me, ‘Oh, I’ve thrown my address book away.’ That song made a huge impact on me.”
According to Mitchell, her collaboration with McEntire represents another milestone. “It’s important to push this narrative of queer and trans people being in a position of stability and thriving,” Mitchell said. “Too often our stories are always hung on the cusp of fragility and ask the same question: will we survive?
“This Reba record helped me buy my first piece of property that houses other queer and trans people. I’m now the first Black trans woman to appear on the Top 10 Billboard chart for top selling albums as a music producer. Lil Nas X and I are on some of the same charts right now, so it’s quite significant.”
Scholars of country music, such as Julie Haynes, director of the Center for the Advancement of Women in Communication at Rowan University, also feel that McEntire’s repertoire has the power to move the needle beyond the proverbial haystack. Haynes sees McEntire as someone who exemplifies what is referred to as “hillbilly feminism,” i.e. artists who, Haynes proposes in her research, “explore untraditional places for feminist possibilities which relate to gender, class and region.”
When Haynes’ study on hillbilly feminism is brought up mid-interview with McEntire, the performer answers quickly and without hesitation. “I think I’m a representative of hillbilly feminism,” she said. “If you look at my song ‘Little Rock,’ I wanted to sing for women to stand up for themselves. Another (track), ‘Consider Me Gone’ was a more mature way of saying ‘things may not be working out so pull the plug for your own sake.’”
Like many great artists, McEntire’s catalogue reflects her own self-discovery, yet she readily admits it wasn’t always that way. In 1987, she broke from her management team as well as her husband, Charlie Battles, and decided to launch a booking agency and publishing company as well as co-produce her own songs.
“That’s when the empowerment of me being a woman and taking more control of my career started happening, and that’s when my song selection started to get better, too,” she said. “I had just gotten through a divorce and so I was taking stock of where I wanted to be performing and what I wanted to be saying with my music. I wanted to sing my kind of country. The kind I grew up with … people like Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton.”
Having already recorded songs with Lynn and Wynette, McEntire came full circle for the “Revived Remixed Revisited” album by way of remaking her 1993 Liza Minnelli-penned hit “Does He Love You” with Parton, whom she had yet to collaborate with.
“I don’t mean to sound egotistical, but I finally do feel like I’m part of that fellowship of country music singers, and I’m thrilled to pieces and proud I can say that,” she said. “To be in the same sentence as Loretta, Dolly and Tammy — women that I admired, learned from, watched carefully and got to be friends with — makes me want to keep going.”
The next few months will keep McEntire busy, streaming, TikToking and hitting some big stages. Besides a new film, “Christmas in Tune,” that aired on Lifetime on Nov. 26, McEntire will release a holiday disc of the same name, finishing off her Vegas residency with Brooks and Dunn at Caesars Palace and then planning a full-blown tour starting in January 2022.
This is on top of an ongoing podcast she hosts, which is called “Living & Learning,” wherein McEntire shares some of her life secrets and struggles (one of her most recent episodes includes actor Rex Linn, her current boyfriend).
Throughout all her projects, McEntire insists she’s “a lot happier now” than when she first started recording and performing.
“I’m more secure, I don’t sweat the little stuff and I really don’t care what people think about me one way or another. If I’m happy with myself and what I do, that’s enough for me, whereas before I was a people pleaser and I wanted to make sure Mama and Daddy were happy with what I did. Both of them have passed now. Maturity has kind of given me a full licence to be my own person, which means there’s a heck of a lot more stories to tell.”