Reba's Rough Ride Back

updated 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

THERE ARE STILL MOMENTS ONSTAGE when Reba McEntire, in the middle of singing one of the songs that has made her a top-of-the-juke-box country queen, turns to face her backup band—and stops short. "I expect other faces," says McEntire, 36. "I just miss them so bad."

The faces she misses are those of the seven band members who, along with her tour manager, Jim Hammon, died in a March 16 plane crash on Otay Mountain near San Diego [PEOPLE, April 1]. The band was en route to Fort Wayne, Ind., where McEntire was scheduled to join them the following day. "I choke up on songs," the singer says, describing her continuing struggle to deal with the loss. "I'm still looking for them."

Making the task harder is the fact that the victims' remains were scattered in the fiery crash. "We didn't see them in caskets," says the singer, working in the remodeled Nashville warehouse office of her Star-struck Entertainment company. "We didn't say goodbye." Other reminders are more ghoulish. Packages containing the band members' battered possessions have been sent to McEntire by hikers on the mountain. "People we don't even know are sending things back here," she says.

To help heal the hurt, McEntire made a decision to meet her career commitments. Two weeks after the accident she went back on tour with a pickup group of accomplished musicians assembled by Dolly Parton's bandleader, Gary Smith. She also has a new album (For My Broken Heart) and a new video (Reba in Concert). Earlier this month, she was the host of the Country Music Awards, and on Nov. 3 and 4 she will appear with Kenny Rogers in the NBC miniseries The Lack of the Draw: The Gambler Returns—TV longhand for Gambler TV.

To the world outside the Nashville music scene, Reba's ambition in the face of tragedy might seem cold-hearted. But she keeps in telephone contact with the victims' families and set up a memorial fund for them in March. In the insular and supportive community of country musicians, her ability to keep on track is applauded. "That's the thing that separates the great ones from the good—how you deal with tragedy and failure," says Garth Brooks, who beat out McEntire for this year's CMA Entertainer of the Year award.

The pluck shows in Reba's fiesta performance as Burgundy Jones, a reformed madam in Gambler IV. The TV movie was a welcome diversion and a part made-to-order for the former Chockie, Okla., ranch girl. Rogers had seen McEntire in the 1990 sci-fi spoof Tremors, in which she played a spunky wife, and decided immediately to offer her the part. He was glad he did. "From the moment she arrived, she lit up the set," says Rogers.

A rodeo barrel racer as a teenager, McEntire was in her equine element on the set. "It was an easy character for me to play," she says, because, like her, Burgundy is "a feminine tomboy who shoots guns and rides horses but still dresses up and handles herself very well with the roughest, toughest outlaws."

Reba's own cowpokes—husband-manager Narvel Blackstock, 35, and their 19-month-old son, Shelby—are more civilized. But her schedule doesn't allow her to spend much time at their 80-acre horse farm 30 miles northeast of Nashville. Narvel travels with her, and Shelby is shuttled by his nanny between home and McEntire's gigs.

Ironically, Reba's desire to spend as much time as possible with Shelby has required them both to spend a lot of hours in the air. But the reward, she says, is greater than any lingering fear she may have of flying. "I can be in the worst mood, down and out, tired and exhausted," she says. "But when Shelby throws those little old arms out and comes running toward me, boy, there's not a problem in the world."

MARY H.J. FARRELL
JANE SANDERSON in Nashville

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