Access to some celebrities can be tough under the happiest circumstances, next to impossible when tragedy intervenes. But steep odds did not deter PEOPLE managing editor Landon Jones from ordering up an interview with Reba McEntire just hours after seven members of the country singers band and a tour manager perished in a plane crash on March 16. After all, he had Jane Sanderson to call on.

Sanderson, who joined PEOPLE in 1978, has been covering the Nashville scene for about four years. Her affection for her region's principal export has lent a special flavor to her reporting on such country frontliners as Garth Brooks. Ricky Van Shelton, Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea: it also brought a special understanding to her Nov. 26, 1990, cover story on the ailing Naomi Judd. In 1989 she introduced McEntire to our readers, and just three weeks ago she visited with the singer after a concert in Sanderson's hometown of Memphis.

On Sunday March 17, Sanderson caught a flight to Nashville, where McEntire lives—and immediately got the expected turndown. "She said that she would make no statement to the press," says Sanderson. But the veteran reporter was just warming up. "[Reba] had confidence in me because she knew me," says Sanderson. "I sent word that I wanted her to do this story as a tribute to her band members." she says. That did it. McEntire agreed to talk because Sanderson was handling the assignment. The singer's wrenching account of the catastrophe begins on page 28.

Sanderson lives with her husband of 35 years, Robert, an art consultant, in a 125-year-old cotton warehouse on the Mississippi River. She came to PEOPLE from the Memphis Press-Scimitar to work on a cover story on the first anniversary of Elvis's death. Her elder daughter, Laura Sanderson Healy, 32, is a PEOPLE correspondent based in London. "Laura is the really, really good interviewer," says Jane with an equal mixture of modesty and maternal pride. "We've had bylines in the same issue at least a dozen times." (Younger daughter Lisa Sanderson, 28, has more direct ties to show business. She is vice president of development for A Great Jalopy, a Los Angeles-based production company owned by Empty Nest's Richard Mulligan.)

As she was wrapping up her interview with McEntire—just 58 hours after receiving the assignment-Sanderson was weary but gratified. "Reba is warm, direct and very honest," she says. "She opened her heart to me because she trusted me. That's something that I try to build on."