It was a beautiful spring morning when Mama and I set off from our ranch in Oklahoma for Nashville, where I was going to audition for a recording contract. I was 20 years old, well-prepared vocally, ready to take a chance on the dream of a lifetime.
But as the hillsides rolled by, resplendent with the whites and pinks of dogwood and redbud blossoms, I felt a creeping uneasiness. The closer we got to the country music capital, the more I tried to prolong the trip, making Mama detour for some sightseeing, then for a snack, then for anything I could think of.
Finally I yelled, “Stop!” and Mama pulled the big blue Ford into a Dairy Queen on the side of the highway and we went inside.
As I toyed with my mountain of ice cream, I didn’t have to explain I was scared. Mama knew me too well. “Reba Nell,” she said, adding the Nell for gentle emphasis, “we can turn around right now and go on back home if that’s what you want, and I’ll understand. The music business is not for everyone.”
I looked at Mama across the melting swirl of my sundae. She wasn’t pushing me. But when she was my age, Mama would have given just about anything to have had the opportunity I was getting a chance at now. I wondered if that was what was confusing me.
We’d always had a special bond. Maybe it was because of my singing. Music had gone way back in Mama’s life. But right out of high school she had to take a teaching job, working in a two-room schoolhouse. Then she married, worked as an assistant to the school superintendent, and did all the bookkeeping on our ranch while raising four kids.
Mama and I were middle kids, both the third of four children. Being a middle kid, I was always looking for attention. I was a tomboy, doing everything my older brother, Pake, did. “Anything you can do I can do better!” was our sibling motto, whether it was throwing rocks and doing chin-ups, or riding horses and roping. I was out to be the best, to get the attention. Then I learned to sing.
I remember in the second grade, my music teacher, pretty Mrs. Kanton, helped me learn “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. When I went home and sang it for Mama, her eyes met mine and just sort of glowed. It tickled me to think I could make Mama react like that, and to hear adults say that I was gifted.
That’s what my grandmother—Mama’s mother and my namesake—used to say when I was growing up. But she called it a special gift, a gift from God. I was almost as close to her as I was to Mama. Grandma used to take me fishing at a pond on her place.
We never did catch much, but we liked to throw in our lines and sit on the pond dam while Grandma told stories, mostly from the Bible. She told me about David, Moses and Daniel, and the special gifts that God had given them, like courage and leadership and prophecy. In fact, David was a songwriter.
I probably learned as much of my Bible going fishing with Grandma as I did in Sunday school. She taught me gospel songs and hymns so I could sing to her. “Reba,” she’d say, “God gives all of us our own special gifts, and he’s given you yours for a reason. Now you have to learn to use it.”
The cherry was sliding down the whipped cream peak on my sundae. I looked outside at the glowing Dairy Queen cone rotating slowly, almost as if it were sitting on a record turntable. Mama was nursing a cup of coffee and watching the traffic flash by. She was not about to rush me.
We’d spent many an hour on the road together. Grandpap and Daddy were champion steer ropers. Summers we’d all go with Daddy on the rodeo circuit.
We had a two-horse trailer that was so heavy all four of us kids had to stand on the back of it so Daddy could pull the nose up and hitch it to the Ford. Then we’d pile into the backseat and take off for rodeos in Wyoming and Colorado.
We’d play road games, like counting mile markers or Volkswagens. We’d see who could spot the most out-of-state license plates.
Then someone struck up a song and everybody joined in. Mama coached. She kept us on pitch and taught us how to harmonize. If the lyrics got lost in the jumble, she announced, “Okay, stop. Reba Nell, enunciate. Now go ahead.” One word would do it. That was the schoolteacher coming out in her.
When we got older, Pake, my younger sister, Susie, and I formed a country-and-western band at Kiowa High School. We called ourselves the Singing McEntires. We practiced in the living room while Mama was in the kitchen frying potatoes.
I remember one day we were singing harmonies and things got a little messed up. I was on Susie’s part or Susie was on Pake’s—we couldn’t tell—but Pake got really aggravated and started bossing us around.
Quick enough, Mama marched in, spatula in hand. “All right,” she said, “sing it.”
We sang it.
“Susie, you’re on Reba’s part,” she said, pointing with her spatula. “Now, just sing the song.” We sang it.
“That sounds better. Sing it again.” We sang it again.
“That’s perfect. Now do it once more.” Then she walked back into the kitchen. That was Mama.
Across the Formica tabletop I caught Mama glancing at her watch. I couldn’t stall much longer. My ice cream had turned to soup.
After my voice had matured into a real singer’s instrument, I started performing at rodeos. I loved singing to the big crowds. I’d listen to my favorite country music stars, like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, and go out there and try to sound just like them and get all that attention.
Then one day Mama took me aside for a quiet talk that would turn out to be one of the most important conversations we ever had.
“Reba Nell,” she said, “you have a beautiful voice all your own. If people want to hear Dolly or Loretta sing, they’ll buy their albums. But now you’ve got to find your own style. Sing what you feel, sing from your own heart, and you’ll discover the voice God intended for you. That’s what people will really come to hear.”
She was right. After our talk people in the music business started taking a real look at me, and that’s why we were now sitting here in this Dairy Queen outside Nashville.
I looked up at Mama. She was fishing in her purse for the keys to the Ford. “Reba,” she said, pulling them out, “I’m serious about turning back. But if you get that record deal, I’ll be very proud of you. If you don’t—I’ll be just as proud.”
Then she reached over and gave me a tight hug, and suddenly I remembered the glow in her eyes when I sang “My Favorite Things.”
I knew what that glow had meant. All Mama wanted—all any mother wants for her child—was for me to be myself. And she’d seen what I could be. She didn’t have to say that if I signed a record deal she’d be living out her dreams a little bit through me. I understood that now and I was proud. Suddenly I wanted to get to Nashville as quick as we could.
And I’ve been making records ever since, using those gifts that Grandma talked about and Mama helped me find. The gifts God provides to make each of us unique.
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