Interviews

Susie McEntire-Eaton Applies Family's Gifts to Music + Ministry

Mindy Small/FilmMagic

God had a different plan for Susie McEntire-Eaton than mainstream recording act The Singing McEntires.

The former musical collaborator of older sister Reba McEntire runs a multi-faceted ministry with husband Mark Eaton. You may recognize McEntire-Eaton as a television personality from RFD TV's Cowboy Church and the Circle Network's Jesus Calling: Stories of Faith or as a recording artist who's long blurred the razor-thin line between country and Christian music.

It all began back home in Oklahoma, where McEntire-Eaton was the youngest of four children in a musically-inclined household.

"Mama really had a huge interest in singing, and when she saw that we could do that, it really started (with her) trying to keep us quiet going down the road," McEntire-Eaton told Wide Open Country. "We didn't have a radio in the car, and we were coming back or going to a rodeo. So we'd all be in the back seat, four of us kids. We'd start fussing, so Mama would teach us how to sing three-part harmony. Our older sister Alice didn't perform with us, but she can sing. It was me, Reba and our brother Pake."

What started as a means to make young 'uns behave on road trips helped inspire the siblings' mother, the late educator Jacqueline McEntire, to pitch a before-its-time idea for music in schools.

"In high school, when my brother was about a sophomore or junior... He was the oldest of us three, The Singing McEntires," McEntire-Eaton explained. "He was the frontman of a band we had in high school. We had an hour a day, and the school wasn't big enough for a marching band. It was just a real small school. Maybe 19, 20 people in our graduating classes.

"So my mama worked for the school, and she went before the school board and said, 'Hey, we've got talent in this school. Maybe y'all can give us money to buy sound equipment and some instruments and drums and help these kids to learn a trade'," McEntire-Eaton continued. "She was looking at it like, 'Well, we invest in kids to learn how to do carpentry, to learn how to sew, to learn how to be accountants and teachers and things like that. What about teaching these kids to be able to perform?'"

Susie, Reba and Pake gained experience playing live and recording as The Singing McEntires (also known as the Kiowa High School Cowboy Band) until Reba's life-changing gig singing the national anthem at the 1974 National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City landed her a major label deal.

"We always knew Reba was special, and she tired harder and practiced more," McEntire-Eaton said. "But she didn't see it in herself until she got her contract, I think. When she was in high school, she always wanted to go haul hay with friends and do these other odd jobs. I don't think she really wanted to do those jobs. She just wanted to be with her friends. Daddy told her one day, he said, 'Reba, why don't you work on your music as hard as you work on these odd jobs? You've got a voice, and you've got this career looming ahead of you. Why don't you go and do that?'

"I think he kind of woke her up," McEntire-Eaton continued. "She started doing more things. You know, learning her guitar better and things like that. Then when she got her contract, they just said there's not any kind of opening for a trio, but they thought they could help Reba to get a foothold and then she could help us to get going in music in a different way."

McEntire-Eaton sang backup for Reba from 1980-'82, on tour and for the albums Heart to Heart (1981) and Unlimited (1982). Reba went from looking for a hit in that time span to scoring her first two No. 1s with Unlimited singles "Can't Even Get The Blues" and "You're the First Time I've Thought About Leaving."

Still, touring with a rising major label act wasn't the pleasure cruise you might expect.

"I look at these young artists that just get a record deal and they're in a bus going down the road and they're on a tour with somebody big and all this kind of stuff," McEntire-Eaton said. "First of all, the guys were in a van with a trailer behind it. Reba and I and her husband Charlie, he wanted a comfortable car for us, so we had a blue Continental. After a little while, we got a used bus. I was with her when she got her first bus. It was a transition. We were doing a few more dates and we were going a little bit more, so we needed a little bit better transportation."

Traveling accommodations with Reba and the venues in between interstate hauls inspired McEntire-Eaton to count her blessings once her solo career progressed.

"She sang in dives, I mean in dancehalls where crickets kamakazied towards our shiny outfits and you might even have some chicken wire up in front of you," McEntire-Eaton added. "It wasn't in a big hall in front of 20,000 people at first. It was grassroots, playing dances and up in an announcer's stand at a rodeo with rain pouring down and getting cold or being so hot you couldn't hardly stand it. In that, I learned you be appreciative of what you have. You be appreciative of the jobs you have. You show up early, you stay late and you do the very best job you can."

Read More: George Strait Surprises Las Vegas Crowd With Miranda Lambert Duet

Reba's fellow Singing McEntires found success of their own in music, starting with Pake's consecutive Top 15 country singles in 1986. McEntire-Eaton earned her own audience, as well, first as a gospel singer and later with uplifting country songs (marketed in the '90s as "positive country music").

"In '93, I signed with Integrity Music and they said, 'Who would you like to pattern your music after?," McEntire-Eaton explained. "I said, 'Well, I have for so many years just sang gospel. But if you're not in church, you're not going to hear these songs. If you don't listen to Christian radio, you're not going to hear these songs. I would love to sing songs like Paul Overstreet songs. One that he relates to the family and real life and it has such a great message.'"

McEntire-Eaton's music ministry for sacred and secular listeners positioned her for such opportunities as her current spokesperson role for Jesus Listens: Daily Devotional Prayers of Peace, Joy, and Hope, a new book by Jesus Calling author Sarah Young.

"Jesus Calling made an impact on my life long before I began hosting the Jesus Calling TV show. I love that book because Sarah Young's writing points readers to Jesus and His love," McEntire-Eaton said in a press release. "It's a special honor to introduce Jesus Listens to readers, because I want folks to experience the joy of sharing their concerns and joys with Jesus every day of the year."

Related Videos

recommended for you

Susie McEntire-Eaton Applies Family's Gifts to Music + Ministry