The way Reba McEntire tells it, she really hasn’t done all that much during the past two years, so your guess as to why we were talking one November afternoon is as good as hers.
“I just chilled,” she said. “I really liked to sit on that back porch. I had not gotten to do that. I thought, ‘Wow, what is it going to be like if we don’t ever go back to work?’ But I loved the time off. I could have gone either way: Go back to work or stay at home.”
She started dating someone new, the actor Rex Linn, and she has affectionately nicknamed him “Sugar Tot” to her “Tater Tot.” Together, they watched “Squid Game” and “Hacks” and “Mare of Easttown.” They also got into documentaries — one about hummingbirds and one about Jerry Lee Lewis.
But if you try to count the projects Ms. McEntire has been a part of in 2021 alone, you’ll start to run out of fingers. She’s had a cameo in the high camp film “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar”; a star-studded Spotify podcast that’s just entered its second season; a leading role in “Christmas in Tune,” on Lifetime; a continuing guest role on “Young Sheldon”; and somewhere along the way had time to record “three or four albums because you didn’t have anything else to do,” she said.
Zooming from her home in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles in a pair of thick-rimmed Harry Potter glasses (“I got them on Amazon — six to a pack,” she said in her thick Oklahoma accent), the 66-year-old’s iconic red hair split the difference between her emotive face and her garden, blurred by a software effect that obstructed any view but that of the country legend herself.
In a way, that image is a nice metaphor for the spotlight newly trained on her. It has bathed Ms. McEntire in the sort of cultural re-appreciation glow you’d expect if she’d just won a big award or, more distressingly, died (also no, but a close brush with a collapsing staircase in a decaying Nashville office building she was touring in September was too close for comfort). “Got a lot of publicity,” she said, cocking her head and winking.
Ms. McEntire still radiates a sincere “aw, shucks” attitude that’s rippled just under the surface of her decades-long career, during which she has topped the music charts, anchored a hit TV show, appeared briefly on Broadway, and built an iconography so deep that she’s among a select few celebrities known by one name.
It’s no wonder many fans sought comfort in her catalog during the pandemic, listening to songs like “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and “I’m a Survivor,” the “Reba” theme song, which became an inescapable TikTok staple last summer.
Many artists would have been happy to coast from home during a global shutdown, making an easy dollar by tossing out a greatest hits compilation that would require minimal promotion and even less effort. Not Ms. McEntire. In October, she released “Revived Remixed Revisited,” a three-disc compilation of hits seen through new lenses, including her first collaboration with Dolly Parton.
“They had the idea of doing 10 songs with the band, the way we perform them in concert, 10 songs in a dance mix version, and 10 songs stripped down,” she said of her label’s pitch. “I said, ‘OK, there you go. We’re doing the same songs, but we’re doing them differently.’ It’s not like reselling the same thing. I don’t have a good feeling about that — they’ve already got them! I feel that’s kind of cheating.”
Ms. McEntire’s brand — though she’d hate calling it that — hinges on fans feeling like she’s just one of them. “If you try to meet somebody that doesn’t like Reba, you can’t, and the reason is because she’s real,” said Ms. McEntire’s friend Kristin Chenoweth in a phone call. “I hate to talk about branding, but Reba knows her brand. She will make an audience out of you if you’re not one.”
Ms. McEntire credits a small inner circle — including Justin McIntosh, her vice president of creative and marketing; and Brett Freedman, her hair and makeup artist — for teaching her to tap into social media once it became the only way to reach her fans.
On one standout TikTok set to “I’m a Survivor,” Ms. McEntire tends to her donkeys on her Nashville farm. It’s been watched 22.8 million times since its late July upload, and she now has 2.3 million followers.
Ms. McEntire’s TikTok fame isn’t her first brush with meme-ification. Twelve years ago, “Saturday Night Live” and the Lonely Island comedy group lovingly parodied her ginger locks and twangy voice in a popular digital short. Drag queens across the country have been tossing on shake-and-go red wigs for performances of “Fancy” and “Consider Me Gone” since Ms. McEntire first rose to fame in the 1980s.
“If they didn’t love the song, if they didn’t love impersonating me, that would hurt my feelings,” she said.
Ms. McEntire picked up another pandemic hobby: a podcast, “Living & Learning With Reba McEntire,” on which she is a warm and intimate host.
“We don’t hit a fourth of the things I want to talk about because one thing leads to the other,” she said. “When something tricks my trigger on something they said, I’ll go a different route, because I’m curious.”
Guests including Ms. Parton, Ms. Chenoweth, Trisha Yearwood and Jean Smart have joined Ms. McEntire to talk about topics like legacy, love after heartbreak and staying grounded.
“I’m an Oklahoma girl, and where I come from, there’s Jesus Christ and then there’s Reba,” Ms. Chenoweth said.
In November, Ms. McEntire returned to the road with a tour she was meant to begin in March 2020. She has added some new songs and tightened some of the production and staging. “Like TikTok, our mind-set nowadays is quick, short, move on, keep my attention,” she said. The timeless hits will be there. “I’m a Survivor” will get its flowers the way it has for 20 years now. “It is a good time to be Reba McEntire,” she said at the end of our Zoom.
“I’ve always been able to have my cake and eat it too,” she added with a cheek-to-cheek grin. “What I have learned is to take this moment, this minute, this hour. That took me 65 years to do. I do stray, but I’m really focusing on loving this, because if I stay out of this moment and just look forward, then I’m missing what’s happening now.”