“I listened to this young lady sing the national anthem, and it just blew me away,” Steagall said in a phone interview. “I had never heard that kind of voice before.”
As it turned out, the singer was a 19-year-old Oklahoman who would turn out to be one of the most memorable voices in country music. (In addition to being an actress, author and coach on “The Voice.”) And on Sunday, Reba McEntire will experience a full-circle moment when she performs the national anthem at the Super Bowl.
McEntire, who was unavailable for an interview, has previously explained that everything began in late 1974 when her father (a champion steer roper who inspired her to compete in barrel racing) found out that she was planning to go watch the rodeo, and suggested that she do more than just party with her friends. At the time, McEntire performed in a family band with her brother and sister.
“Daddy was very smart. He said, ‘Reba, why don’t you get you a job if you’re gonna go up there?’” McEntire said in Cody Johnson’s 2021 “Dear Rodeo” documentary. “And I said, ‘Doing what?’ And he said, ‘Singing the national anthem.’”
So McEntire got in touch with family friend Rep. Clem McSpadden (D-Okla.), who was also a rodeo announcer and general manager of the National Finals Rodeo. He helped McEntire secure the performance, and her mother, Jackie, joined her for the trip. The video from 1974 shows her wearing a white cowboy hat as she delivers her soaring vocals, while the camera cuts to another woman holding an American flag while sitting on a horse.
Steagall, now 85, has stayed friends with McEntire, 68. He said that after the rodeo, he started walking over to a hotel suite sponsored by Justin Boots; cowboys and cowgirls were encouraged to gather there so they didn’t get in trouble out on the town. Steagall recalled that he bumped into McEntire’s mother, who asked if she and her daughter could get into the suite, and he said, “Sure.”
Someone always brought a guitar to the gatherings, Steagall said, and McEntire started singing and harmonizing with everyone else. (In past interviews, she said she remembers singing Dolly Parton’s “Joshua.”)
“I was overwhelmed with her talent and the way she handled herself,” Steagall said. “You could tell she had a tremendous amount of confidence.”
Steagall returned to Nashville, he said, but he soon wrote a song that needed a woman’s voice and immediately thought of the singer he had seen perform the national anthem in Oklahoma. So he called McEntire’s mother and said she should bring Reba to Music City.
They recorded a couple of demos, Steagall said, and he and one of his colleagues started to pitch the tapes all over town. He heard from Glenn Keener, a producer at Polygram/Mercury Records, who said, “Well, I don’t care for either one of those songs, but I sure like the sound of that girl’s voice. Can I record her?’”
Back then, Steagall remembered, it was a long shot that McEntire would get a chance in the industry. “In those days, it was pretty tough for a girl singer to get a start. That was just the nature of the business,” he said. If there was any doubt of that statement, McEntire told Entertainment Weekly in 1992 that she heard she ultimately got signed because executives told Keener they had a slot for just one female singer on the label, and he had two tapes in his hand, and he gave them McEntire’s tape.
McEntire landed the record deal with Mercury in the fall of 1975; Steagall said he helped negotiate her contract. She released her debut album two years later, and her singles soon started climbing. She hit the top of the country charts with “Can’t Even Get the Blues” and “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving” in 1982. When she left Mercury for MCA in the mid-1980s, the No. 1 hits stacked up and she became a bona fide star.
Steagall said he will always think of the release of 1986’s “Whoever’s in New England,” a song about a woman who matter-of-factly acknowledges that her husband is probably having an affair, as her breakout. Listeners loved that the message wasn’t “Oh, poor me, you left me,” but rather, “I know something’s going on, but I’ll get over it and you’ll get over it,” he said. He saw firsthand how McEntire connected with live audiences, particularly women.
“I saw her changing the industry by being a showperson rather than just a singer standing in front of a microphone. She created emotion on the stage,” Steagall said.
Now, Steagall predicts McEntire will do a “fantastic” job as she sings the anthem before the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers play on Sunday. After the news was announced, McEntire sat down with “CBS Mornings,” where co-host Gayle King noted that the national anthem is known as one of the most difficult songs to sing. McEntire was not fazed, she said, because she has been singing the anthem for 50 years: “You just warm up like you do a concert and sing it about five or six times and get in there and do it.”
Naturally, the producers seized the opportunity to show footage of McEntire’s performance at the rodeo in 1974. Steagall isn’t surprised that the moment lives on, because he has always believed that her voice is unmatched.
“I had never heard that kind of control, [with] her vocal cords and tonal quality,” he said. “Some people just have that sixth sense of perfect notes at the perfect time and perfect emotional interpretation of the words — and she has all of that.”