by James Barker, Staff Writer
Reba Was Her Name
A country music queer icon who goes by one name with flaming locks of auburn hair. It’s the one and only Reba (McEntire)! McEntire was one of the most consistent album sellers at a time when the country music industry was expanding. After some success in the mid to late 70s with country-pop, McEntire relaunched herself in the 1980s as part of the country neotraditionalists.
Clearly inspired by the music of past country eras, yet McEntire always made sure her kind of country spoke to the lives of people in the present day and was not defined to one sound. With outings on stage and screen, in TV shows, including her sitcoms Reba and Malibu Country (the latter of which McEntire served as Executive Producer for and included LGBTQ+ characters), McEntire has been a mainstay in US popular culture for more than 40 years.
McEntire proves that where you come from does not have to be your destiny, and you can cherish the past without turning away from the future. Today we look back on some of McEntire’s greatest songs, times when she has been an ally to LGBTQ+ people, and what a Country Queer might take from Reba.
Where else to start but with the song that cemented her status as a queer icon: her version of the Bobbie Gentry classic “Fancy.” In previous pieces I have described “Fancy” as country music’s answer to Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. Its mix of dark comedy, sexuality, and class critique has made “Fancy” an enduring song for over 50 years — Orville Peck delivered an equally iconic version last year. The narrative song tells the tale of a young woman born into poverty and out of desperation her mother pushes her into sex work ‘just be nice to the gentlemen Fancy and they’ll be nice to you’, which ultimately enables Fancy to reach a position where she never has to worry about money ever again.
McEntire transforms this song into a diva anthem that has been performed by drag queens ever since (even featuring on Ru Paul’s Drag Race). McEntire’s voice — her vibrato inspired by listening to Dolly Parton — gives the song just the right amount of campy drama whilst also maintaining her distinct accent. The song’s critique of poverty, class, stigma, shame and hypocrisy make “Fancy” a queer anthem to self-acceptance, whilst at the same time it retains a rich class critique that is essential for queer communities to ensure that the focus is on liberation for all, and not on allowing a privileged few to achieve respectability. The song’s sense of fun and rich narrative, I believe, is what has made “Fancy” and Reba endure.
Is There Life Out There?
Beyond “Fancy,” McEntire’s discography has plenty of gems for any country queer. As Alan Cackett has described, many of Reba’s songs are about hard circumstances, but instead of seeing people as defined by them, the songs are often about finding the courage to strive beyond them. Even when singing about divorce in “Somebody Should Leave,” the emphasis is on moving ahead, accepting that the relationship is over rather than clinging to memories of what was. In 1991, McEntire released “Is There Life Out There?” complete with a music video about a mother completing college. We see her hardship, but also her triumph, and the song’s excitement at looking beyond is still affecting today.
Instead of indulging in nostalgia, McEntire’s songs are about making the best of the future ahead. In this way, LGBTQ+ listeners can also relate. McEntire’s vibrato provides the perfect expression of both pain and strength, validating experiences of suffering, yet carrying us with her in a resolve to overcome them.
Our families, schools, workplaces, places of worship who may have rejected us do not get to define us. To paraphrase Reba: there’s life beyond our family, and our home. Even those of us who are fortunate to have had happy homes and families, who has not found themselves wistfully contemplating (especially at this time) “is there life out there?”
Going Out Like That
McEntire first voiced her support for marriage equality back in 2009 although rather tepidly expressing it in terms of not judging people, rather than explicit acceptance. However, in 2015 when promoting her album Love Somebody, McEntire appeared to get bolder as an LGBTQ+ ally. Speaking to Chris Azzopardi at Pride Source, McEntire said that she “embraced [her] gay and lesbian fans with both arms” and on marriage equality “that it was not fair” especially because of the legal rights and protections marriage provides couples in the US, such as the right to make decisions for them if one of them is in hospital. McEntire was also emphatic about LGBTQ+ youth needing “love and support” from their parents, saying: “You made ’em. They’re a gift from God. Love ’em as they are.”
McEntire’s LGBTQ+ allyship is often connected to her general attitude around empowerment and self-determination. The lead single from Love Somebody was the power anthem “Going Out Like That.” This break-up song is at its heart about refusing to live a life on anyone else’s terms but her own.
She Thinks His Name Was John
McEntire’s music has often engaged with social themes, such as cancer in the heartbreakingly beautiful “What Do You Say,” feminism, and in 1994 she released a single on the subject of AIDS. “She Thinks His Name Was John” is not a perfect song by any means. I can’t help but find its commentary (‘in her heart though she knew that it was wrong’) about a woman who has a one-night stand and is dying from AIDS all too moralistic and slut-shaming, not to mention its homophobic undertones even if the song is coming from a place of compassion.
Yet McEntire deserves some credit for recording a song on this subject at a time when the country music establishment was sticking its fingers in its ears. In 1992, when awards shows were wearing red ribbons to mark AIDS awareness, the Country Music Association were silent on the issue, although Kathy Mattea wore three red ribbons to the ceremony that year. McEntire’s song is also important for drawing attention to the experiences of women, who are often overlooked in both historical narratives and healthcare around HIV and AIDS. In an era of murderous silence, this imperfect song was an important statement nonetheless.
Back To God
Perhaps an unusual choice for this article, but for my own personal reasons and in honor of the great queer tradition of reclaiming, I had to include “Back to God.” Recorded for her GRAMMY award winning gospel album Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope, this song was treated by some Trump supporters as a song endorsing him, something that McEntire strongly disputed, disliking that the song had been politicized in that way. A song about faith, “Back to God” is about us trusting our pain and troubles with God and its McEntire performs an ecstatic vision of suffering and hope all in one in this song.
This song with its country-pop sound featuring on a double album that includes traditional gospel songs alongside more contemporary material does the perfect job of engaging people who may have felt that religion was not for them. The song has played a significant role in my own rediscovering of faith. “Back to God” is a reminder that faith and God is for everyone and to paraphrase Linda Ronstadt: homophobia is anti-Christian values period.
McEntire may not be the perfect LGBTQ+ ally, and it is important to be careful that the fandom of straight female “divas” does not cloud the vital work of elevating LGBTQ+ voices in the genre.
However, LGBTQ+ audiences also warrant attention; the way listeners have engaged with and actively made Reba part of their way of navigating and experiencing country music, make her an important part of the genre and its history for country queers.