American Songwriter Throwback 1984: Reba McEntire Says You Have to Look for the Hit Songs

This article was originally published in the premiere print issue of American Songwriter in August 1984.

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These days around Music Row, songwriters and publishers are hustling to pitch their best songs to Reba McEntire. Getting a song recorded by the Oklahoma-born singer has become one of the choicest cuts in town. In the Country Superstar Sweepstakes, she’d be a good filly to bet the ranch on. She has all the ingredients of a winner: looks, charm, attitude, stamina, and, most importantly, a voice that brings out the heart of a song.

During the past year, McEntire’s career reached a new peak. In 1983, she broke through the chart barrier with two No. 1 singles—“Can’t Even Get The Blues” (Tom Damphier/Rick Carnes) and “You’re The First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving” (Dickey Lee/Kerry Chater).

[RELATED: 4 of Reba McEntire’s Best ACM Awards Moments Ever]

Longevity in country music is built on a solid foundation of hit songs, and for McEntire, that process began in 1976 with her first single release on Mercury Records, “I Don’t Want To Be A One Night Stand” (Layng Martine Jr.). Since that time, McEntire’s career has steadily progressed. “It’s been a good, slow, building process,” she notes. “I’m not disappointed; it’s been growing all the time.”

Home for McEntire and her husband, Charlie Battles, a former pro rodeo bull-dogging champ, is a 215-acre ranch near Stringtown, Oklahoma. Recently, McEntire, who is herself a songwriter, was in Nashville taking care of business—looking for that elusive, hard-to-define hit song.

AS: So you’re in town hunting for hits?

McEntire: What we’ve been doing is going into the publishing companies. I’ve never done that before I started working with MCA Records and Norro Wilson, who was my producer.

AS: What kind of tunes are you looking for?

McEntire: This time, we’re going back to more traditional country. I want traditional songs that I can do in a now day country theme. I like to call it new country.

AS: How do you go about the process of finding these songs?

McEntire: You go back to familiar writers, and you go to publishing companies you’ve never dealt with before.

AS: Is the quality of songs that are pitched to you improving?

McEntire: You bet. After two No. 1 records, I thought, boy, now I’ll get the good songs. Well, that wasn’t right; it was when I started going around to the publishing companies.

AS: That can be time-consuming.

McEntire: I think it’s good to shop around. If you go to every one of them, you’re sure to hear at least one hit song. The publishing companies I’ve gone to are real good. We’ve probably gotten a song out of every one of them.

AS: What do you look for in a hit song?

McEntire: For the melody to just knock me down like “He Broke Your Memory Last Night”—a Dickey Lee song. It was like the National Anthem. You’ve got to strain every gut you have to get it. You really have to be emotional on stage, and this is the type of song that if the chorus don’t grab you, you’re dead.

AS: What else do you look for?

McEntire: I listen to the first line. If that grabs you, it’ll hold your attention for the rest of the song. I look for a topic that everybody can relate to. That’s a good, strong selling point I like a good, different melody, usually one that everybody can sing along with. Gut instinct. I guess that’s what I go by.

AS: Do you like to find songs well in advance of your recording date and rehearse them?

McEntire: I sure do. I’ve got a song I want to try out on the crowd. I’m gonna have my band work it up this month, and we’ll see how the audiences like it. We mainly want to see if it’s a good song. Hank Williams Jr. does that all the time. I think it’s smart, and it won’t take that long to learn it.

[RELATED: Essential Reba McEntire Tracks: 4 Deep Cuts for Fans of the Country Queen]

AS: Are there any song topics you steer away from?

McEntire: Sure. Things that are drug-related or sex-wise, like, “Come sleep with me, and we’ll have a good time tonight.” Stuff like that I wouldn’t even attempt to listen to. I wouldn’t record something I wouldn’t play for my Mama.

AS: That cuts out a whole segment of country music.

McEntire: I’m getting a little more outgoing or liberal. I will record a song that mentions beer. That’s not that big of a deal. But it’s too easy to influence children. Or anybody who leads a straight life and thinks I’m a pretty good kid; I wouldn’t want them to think any less of me because I sang something like that.

AS: “You’re The First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving” was pretty close to being explicit.

McEntire: If you think about it, it’s a cheating song, even though she hasn’t done it yet. But that was such a pretty song, and everybody’s been in that circumstance at one time or another. There are so many women who come up to me after a show and say, “Boy, did that song fit me, but don’t tell my husband.”

AS: Do you get song demos pitched to you that are sung by a male?

McEntire: “(You Lift Me) Up To Heaven” (Bill Zerface/Jim Zerface/Bob Morrison/ Johnny MacRae) was sung by a male on the demo

AS: So just because it’s sung by a male doesn’t mean a woman can’t sing it too.

McEntire: I don’t go for that. If it can be a hit for George Strait, why can’t it be a hit for me too?

AS: Has that situation ever arisen?

McEntire: The first time I heard “Can’t Even Get The Blues,” my producer at the time, Jerry Kennedy, said it was just a song for a male singer. I said, “Wait a minute, what about me?” He said it wasn’t a girl’s song. If you say, “Reba, you can’t do that,” Well, I’m gonna do it.

AS: What are some of your personal favorite songs that you’ve recorded?

McEntire: My favorite song that I’ve ever recorded is “Suddenly There’s A Valley” (Chuck Meyers/Bill Jones). My place at home is in a valley. You drive through the mountains, and then, suddenly, there’s a valley. Also, I really love to do “You Really Better Love Me After This” (Bill Rice/Mary S. Rice) on stage. Also, “Can’t Even Get The Blues” and “Today All Over Again” (Bobby Harden/Lola Jean Dillon). Whatever gives me a good feeling when I’m on stage singing it—that’s my favorite song.

AS: Who administers your own publishing companies?

McEntire: The Welk Group administers my companies—Reba McEntire Music and Chockie Mountain Music.

AS: When do you get the time to write yourself?

McEntire: We write on the bus—my two guitar players, David Anthony, and Leigh Reynolds, and my road manager, Preecher Williams.

AS: Do you all write together?

McEntire: One time, we were going to New Orleans, and I had an idea for a song. Everybody was in the mood to write, so I said, “Alright everybody, get your pencils and papers. We’re gonna write. Now don’t talk—here’s the theme, and write down your own ideas.” It was just like school teaching. We came up with a pretty good song. Then we tried it on the next trip, and it didn’t work at all.

AS: Do you write at home very much?

McEntire: When I’m at home, it’s hustle and bustle, and there are 15 million people wanting different things.

AS: One of my favorite songs that you’ve written is “Daddy.” It’s so honest and biographical.

McEntire: I’m very proud of it; I can’t believe I wrote it. It was my first big try at it. It was the first song that I would show anybody.

A.S.: When did you write it?

McEntire: We were off rodeoing, and while we were driving home, I had Charlie turn on the dome lights so I could write it down. I got home and Mama helped me with it.

AS: It was really recorded nicely; I especially liked the arrangement.

McEntire: I had the melody to it, and when we got into the studio, Chip Young had the idea to slow it down near the end of the song. I really appreciated that.

AS: You also wrote “Reasons” on your Behind the Scenes album, didn’t you?

McEntire: I wrote that in 1981 while I was out riding my horse. I had to repeat it over and over in my mind until I got back to the house so I could write it down.

AS: I’m sure it’s a satisfying feeling to record one of your own tunes.

McEntire: I’m real skeptical about recording my own things. If there’s a slot empty in there and we can’t find anything else, I’ll put one of mine in there. But if there’s a Wayland Holyfield or a Dickey Lee song, or whoever, I’m dang sure gonna put them in there before I’d record my own. Mine would have to be a monster.

AS: Does Charlie ever write with you?

McEntire: He’s helped me a bit. He’s not musically inclined at all, but he tells me if something is a good idea or if it sounds right. He’s a good critic, and I really respect his judgment. I’m trying to get my Mama to write some more poems so I can put them to music. I’ll get her talked into it one of these days.

AS: What do you do when people try to submit songs to you out on the road, at concerts?

McEntire: I take them. I’ll take a song anytime. You never know. Wouldn’t it be a terrible feeling if some ol’ boy came up to you and said he had a monster, and you turn it down? Then, the next month, you hear the Oak Ridge Boys singing it, and it’s a hit. That would be an awful feeling, so we take everything.

AS: What advice would you offer to people who might submit songs to you in that manner?

McEntire: I used to tell them not to worry about the quality of the vocal or the tape recorder but that’s wrong. I had more time back then to listen and decipher. Nowadays, I don’t. They need to borrow a good tape recorder if they don’t own one, and make a demo with a good hollow-bodied guitar, and find somebody who can sing. You can’t imagine the quality of tapes I get sometimes humming the music, tapping spoons or whatever.

AS: In other words, make as professional a presentation as possible.

McEntire: It doesn’t have to be a demo session from a recording studio, just something nice. Also, type the lyrics on a piece of paper so that somebody can read them. A lot of times, I don’t even get lyric sheets. This is not a Mickey Mouse business to me. It’s too much hard work, and there is too much competition. You can’t waste your time on things that aren’t gonna make you more successful.

AS: The key to writing hit songs is to keep writing, wouldn’t you agree?

McEntire: You can’t quit. You never know if the next one is gonna be it. It’s just like gold mining.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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