Careers

How Reba McEntire climbed to the top of the music world and stayed there for 40 years

You know you've made it when you only need to go by a first name.

"It sure does help when I'm autographing things. Instead of saying 'Reba McEntire,'" the singer told CNBC, "I just have to say 'Reba'!"

McEntire is one of the most successful female recording artists in the history of country music — and one of the most prolific. Since her debut single, "I Don't Want to Be a One Night Stand," hit airwaves in 1976, she's sold 56 million albums worldwide, recorded 30 studio albums and 13 compilation albums, and had 35 singles top the country music charts.

She's also racked up loads of professional accolades. She is one of only four entertainers to receive the National Artistic Achievement Award from Congress, and her shelves are lined with American Country Music awards, People's Choice awards and Grammys.

Over the past 40 years, she has achieved a difficult feat: She's not only had staying power, but she's managed to leverage her celebrity into several additional businesses, from clothing lines to TV shows.

How did she do it? To find out, CNBC caught up with the 61-year-old singer and other industry leaders at this year's annual CMA Music Festival, hosted by the Country Music Association, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Reba McEntire
Sabrina Korber | CNBC
Reba McEntire

McEntire owes a lot of her success to finding a great niche in the music industry. In an interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, she reflected on how country music has evolved during her career. "It's really grown," she said. "And that is just so great because that means we have more fans to accommodate."

The power of the country audience can't be underestimated. Nielsen says 23 percent of adults "often listen to country music" — that's the same percentage as those who listen to alternative rock and more than those who listen to hip-hop.

Tim Westergren, CEO of music streaming service Pandora, said the country genre is its second most popular station with 63 million listeners. Country is also popular among millennials. According to the CMA, the genre has seen a 54 percent increase in fans ages 18 to 24 in the past decade.

In addition to a large and growing audience, McEntire has benefited from strong fan loyalty.

"They're very loyal; they're very loving and caring; and they're devoted," she said. "I don't know how many fans of mine have come to my concerts repeatedly."

McEntire is picking up on what makes country music fans different: They outspend the general population on concerts by 21 percent, on small music sessions by 29 percent and on festivals by 12 percent, according to Nielsen.

Bobby Bones, a country music DJ and host of the popular syndicated radio program "The Bobby Bones Show," said fans are looking for authenticity. "You have to be nice to everybody or you're not going to make it," Bones said.

And, of course, "you have to be good," he added. "You have to be able to make it by performing in front of people over and over again."

McEntire has a reputation for being both very kind and very talented. But, she acknowledged, she hasn't gotten to where she is alone.

"I'm a team player," she said. "I loved basketball when I was growing up because I like to be a team player. I like to learn from people; I like to hear their ideas."

Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, the country music duo that make up Florida Georgia Line, agreed that building a strong team is the one piece of advice they would give those seeking similar success in the business.

"Build a great team around you," said Hubbard. "Because at some point me and Brian can't do it all, and it's really, really important to be able to delegate."

When it comes to juggling many things at once, McEntire takes the cake. In addition to starring in six seasons of her television show, "Reba," she's also been in 11 movies and two theatrical productions. She even found the time to write an autobiography and start her own product lines. In 2005, she launched a lifestyle line at Dillard's for clothing, shoes, luggage and bedding, and just last year she launched a makeup brand sold on Amazon.

"The things we're getting to do now weren't even a dream 20 years ago," she said.

McEntire is not just a face, either. She's very involved in the businesses, even though it's been a steep learning curve.

She recalled being approached by a reporter in 2001 who asked who her favorite designer was. She said she replied either Levi's or Wrangler: "That's all I could think of because that's all I ever wore!"

So when she was approached about the possibility of a clothing line, her first thought was, "What in the world do I know about that?" But ultimately she realized, "I know more than I thought I did. I know what I like. I know what's comfortable, and a lot of women go for comfort just like me."

"A lot of celebrities with product lines are really just people taking a check," said Jim Stockman, Dillard's vice president of product development. But "there's not one garment that Reba hasn't approved. She's very involved. The reason the line is a success is because it is authentic and there's nothing that she wouldn't wear."

It's all part of her authentic touch that keeps her fans coming back for more. While she's already hit most everything on her professional bucket list, McEntire said she will keep doing more as long as the fans will keep on coming.

"I'd love to do another Broadway show. I'd love to do another television show. I'd love to do another movie. I'd love to continue to tour," she said. "I'm a very happy camper. I love what I'm doing. I'm very blessed, and I'm very grateful."