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HER KIND OF country

Is there any diva in country music with more star power than Reba McEntire?

Sure, Shania's got the buzz, and Dolly's got the high-profile movie roles, but no woman in country music matches the sheer, fame-driven ambition of this 42-year-old former rodeo gal from Chockie, Okla.

Consider her current stage show, which reportedly continues her penchant for blockbuster spectacles with 11 costume changes, an 11-piece band, 10 dancers, three stages, a small plane and enough fireworks for any Fourth of July celebration.

There's her current, all-pervasive ad campaign for Doritos tortilla chips, and the second tier movie and television roles _ from the campy horror flick Tremors to the small tube's Buffalo Girls and The Gambler Returns.

Indeed, as the fiery-haired singer celebrates more than 20 years in the biz, McEntire still works harder than any other star at keeping her perky mug in front of the fans. And, in contrast to the easy-going style of longtime stars such as Parton and Tanya Tucker, she's not shy about expressing her ambitions.

"I'm hungry to maintain and excel," she told Ladies Home Journal magazine last year. "I always feel pressure from younger artists, and I like that competition. I've always said, if I ever have to go backwards _ even one step _ I'll quit."

How ambitious can she be? According to one story, when a fan asked her about not having a No. 1 country hit in 1994, instead of laughing off the comment, she focused on it. By spring 1995, a No. 1 was in her hip pocket.

"I wasn't doing the hip stuff kids want to listen to," McEntire told the Journal, stressing her own belief that it's the material _ not advancing age _ that keep many of country's older artists out of radio playlists and off the sales charts.

"It has nothing to do with old," she continued in the Journal piece. "If veteran artists invested their money back into their shows and romanced the younger generation with modernized songs, they'd be on the radio. They've got to have the drive and bust their butts."

It sounds like easy advice, coming from a woman who still looks at least 10 years younger than she actually is on the simple, elegant photos that grace the inner sleeve of her latest CD, Starting Over.

Still, it's an ethic McEntire backs up with a reported 120 live dates a year _ regardless of what other projects she has going _ along with an amazing 17 albums released over 20 years.

On Starting Over, the veteran star hedges her bets by re-interpreting songs made famous by other artists _ from the Linda Ronstadt vehicle You're No Good (twanged up a little with pedal steel and countrified backing vocals) to tunes first championed by Glen Campbell, Crystal Gayle, The Supremes and Patti Labelle.

Similarly, the players on this record include such '80s pop stalwarts as Karla Bonoff and keyboardist/producer Michael Omartian (Rod Stewart, Christopher Cross), along with musicians who've performed with James Taylor, Phil Collins and Michael Jackson.

"The 10 songs I selected are timeless," McEntire told USA Today in November. "They'll be hits when (5-year-old son) Shelby has kids."

They're also instantly recognizable tunes that have already received lots of airplay in other forms _ a shrewd choice of material for an artist that might have trouble getting on the radio with less-popular stuff.

Still, it's a stand that seems like an abrupt about-face from the position she staked in the mid-'80s, when her 1984 record My Kind of Country capitalized on the new traditionalist movement made popular by artists like Randy Travis.

"It seemed like, back when I did My Kind of Country, nobody was doing that kind of thing, and it really did feel like country music was slipping away," she told Country Music Magazine in 1987. "The old Ray Price-type songs are something I'll never get away from."

Some say Reba's no-hold-barred ambition _ at odds with her down-home, gingham girl image _ stems from her formative years spent growing up with an emotionally distant, rodeo-riding father and fish-bait saleswoman mother; enduring a childhood filled with tough times and hard work.

Things didn't get much better when she married rodeo star Charlie Battles in 1976, balancing her music with his work and chafing under his domineering management of her career. When their union finally collapsed in 1987, McEntire wound up falling for her then-married pedal steel player, Narvel Blackstock _ the same way she'd fallen for Battles while he was married to another woman, according to Redbook magazine.

Times only got tougher in 1991, when seven members of her band were killed in a plane crash coming from a San Diego show. Three weeks later, McEntire was singing at the Academy Awards; her explanation was that work helped ease the pain, but some criticized her for spinning the tragedy into a double platinum album, 1991's For My Broken Heart.

Regardless of her motivations, it's obvious country fans have responded warmly to her considerable vocal talents and knack for marketing herself, snapping up copies of Starting Over to the tune of more than one-million copies sold.

McEntire's financial savvy even prompted the singer to diversify her management company, Starstruck Entertainment, to help satisfy her needs as an artist.

Accordingly, besides guiding other stars such as Linda Davis and Rhett Akins, Starstruck also includes divisions in song publishing, ground transportation, an air charter service and a construction company, which built a 25,000-square-foot office building for the firm in Nashville.

"I'm gonna sound like a greedy, driven, possessed woman," McEntire told Working Woman magazine. "But that's pretty much what you have to be to get ahead. I have done everything in the world to break through."

AT A GLANCE

Reba McEntire appears Saturday with Billy Dean at the Florida State Fairgrounds, 4800 Hwy. 301 North, Tampa. Tickets are $30 for the 8 p.m. show. 621-7821.

Up next:Times-tasted

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