Reba at Reliant Stadium, 3/6/2014

Reba (McEntire) Reliant Stadium March 6, 2014

Country stars facing a certain age inevitably come to a point where they can either continue chasing chart success or consolidate their style into a brand, using the showbiz capital they've accumulated to explore other interests and opportunities. For Reba McEntire, that must have been around the time she stopped using her last name.

The Oklahoma-born daughter of a rodeo man has made a respectable acting career for herself, first on Broadway -- "I love Annie Get Your Gun," she said -- and then television. (Hey, Reba was a decent sitcom, for what it was. Admit it.) It would be a hoot to see her show up on Nashville as a scheming, man-stealing villainess; someone at ABC please get on that. Deacon could use a juicy storyline at the moment.

But for now, Thursday night at RodeoHouston, Reba seemed quite content to be a singer again. Or make that "sanger."

Of course she can do dramatic ballads like "Whoever's In New England," the 1986 hit that sealed her position as one of country's biggest stars of the '80s. But her real sweet spot has become high-kicking country-soul, the electric result of combining Loretta Lynn with Aretha Franklin. Songs like "Can't Even Get the Blues" (which opened Thursday's set), "The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia" - which she introduced with an amusing story about Vicki Lawrence, the Carol Burnett Show/Mama's Family actress who made that song a hit in 1974 - "Why Haven't I Heard From You," and of course the last song, "Fancy" let her flex both her pipes and personality with room to spare.

Sounding strong and sassy, pausing at times to narrate her own career, Reba had some fun with her expert band on the Western Swing shuffle "I'll Have What She's Having," and both paid tribute and did justice to new daughter-in-law Kelly Clarkson on emotion-draining power ballad "Because of You." She was in her element Thursday.

She should have been. Earlier in the day, the rodeo announced the creation of the Reba McEntire Scholarship in honor of her astonishing 26th RodeoHouston performance. (This was her 19th year, but she did two shows a day several years.) As administered by the rodeo's Educational Fund, the scholarship will award $18,000 per year to one high-school student, a fitting honor for the only female inducted into the rodeo's Star Trail of Fame, and one who added another 57,857 happy fans to her astounding total rodeo attendance of c. 1.4 million people.

But, pardon the obvious metaphor, Reba also sounded like she's not ready to be put out to pasture just yet.

Review continues on the next page.

For her next-to-last song, she did "Turn On Your Radio" from her most recent album, 2010's All the Women I Am. Other songs in Thursday's set ("Rather Ride Around With You," for one) can still be heard in the music of country music's leading ladies circa 2014 -- what few of them there are in a field that currently has more testosterone than your average NFL locker room But with a heavier rock arrangement than almost any of her other songs, she sounded like she might be ready to jump right back in there with them. The message even fits - the song is addressed to an ex, but works just as well as an answer to any critics wondering whether or not Reba's still got it where it counts.

There's a sports term for that kind of hater-vanquishing achievement: scoreboard. Reba went scoreboard at the rodeo Thursday.

Personal Bias: Can't even get the blues.

The Crowd: Survivors. Many were old enough to know who Vicki Lawrence is.

Overheard In the Crowd: "We need to get something to eat."

Random Notebook Dump: Not sure how many of you know, but "Fancy" was originally written and performed by Bobbie Gentry, the Mississippi singer-songwriter much better-known for her runaway 1967 hit "Ode to Billie Joe."


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