McEntire credits "baby steps" for her longevity, since success was slow in coming. Her first single came out in 1976, the year she married Charlie Battles, a national steer-wrestling champion. They managed McEntire's career from their ranch in Stringtown, Okla. But it would be seven long years before she landed her first No. 1 song.
By that time, Narvel Blackstock had been playing pedal steel guitar in her band for three years. Though he had dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, he impressed McEntire with his organizational skills and ingenuity, and, in 1984, she promoted him to tour manager. "We'd set on the bus, and he'd think of new things to do," she remembers. "It was just always another step higher up, getting better."
In 1987, McEntire's marriage to Battles ended. She wanted to focus more on music; he wanted her to stay home and help run the ranch. "I wasn't that little girl anymore, taking orders and doing what he said," she revealed not long afterward.
A year later, McEntire asked Blackstock to manage her entire career. By then she'd become a big star, her shelves crammed with awards. "God gave her vocal cords of steel," says singer Linda Davis, " but he also gave her a sweet style that sounds like nobody else." In the Nashville way of doing business at the time, that should have been enough.
But it wasn't for Reba. "Narvel became my manager because everybody kind of patted me on the head and said, 'You've done it. Good girl,' " McEntire explains. "They assumed I had peaked. Narvel was like, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Here's what we could do.' "
In 1989 they married, and McEntire became a stepmother to his three kids, now grown. "I love those beautiful children with all my heart," she says. "We don't use the word step."
McEntire never yearned to have biological children, but early into the marriage she became pregnant. Shelby arrived in 1990. Two weeks later he attended his first McEntire concert. "From the minute I knew I was pregnant, he and I bonded," McEntire says with a smile. "It's a special connection."
"We're best friends," confirms Shelby, now 22 and the spitting image of his mother. "We always get along." He laughs. "At least 99.9 percent of the time."
As she did with her older kids, McEntire raised Shelby to respect right and wrong, and to have solid values. "I can't stand spoiled children," she says.
Shelby grew to appreciate such humility. When he was in high school, his parents bought him his first car — a V-6 Mustang. After that, says Shelby, "it's been, 'If you want it, you have to work for it.' "
Looking back, McEntire says her biggest problem as a parent was time management. When Shelby was little, the harried mom kept a grueling schedule — performing, then flying home to get her son up and take him to school. "I wanted to work," she says, "so I made the time to be with him and still keep a career."
Next page: From tragedy to "grateful happy camper." »