On Sunday, April 15th, Reba McEntire returns as sole host of the ACM Awards live from Las Vegas. No stranger to the bright lights of the entertainment capital, McEntire has been in residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace with fellow country superstars Brooks & Dunn since 2015, with their next group of shows set for mid-August. McEntire's participation as an ACM Awards co-host stretches all the way back to 1986 when the show originated from California's Knotts Berry Farm theme park and the singer's Number One smash "Whoever's in New England" inspired her first-ever music video.
Co-hosting that year with Mac Davis and John Schneider, McEntire would take her first solo flight as host in 1999, then again from 2001 to 2010, as the show moved from L.A. to Vegas. Blake Shelton would join her as co-host in 2011 and the following year before Luke Bryan, and then Dierks Bentley, would step into the role.
McEntire's reason for returning to the podium this year? "They asked me," she tells Rolling Stone Country with a laugh. "Since I had turned that duty over to Blake and Luke and then Luke and Dierks, they just came back around and asked if I would be interested. I said, 'Sure!' I miss it. When you're sitting at the awards show and you're out in the audience, once you've gotten the honors of hosting, you're sitting there kind of wondering what's going on backstage and you miss being a part of that excitement."
As far as what viewers can expect when they tune in, McEntire is keeping any specifics to herself, but notes, "Our theme this year is fun. We're going to have fun and it's going to be a night of celebrating people who have worked real hard all year entertaining our fans, putting out great music. The atmosphere is going to be fun. We've been working on my monologue and getting it just right."
Striking the right balance has never been quite as important or challenging for the 15-time host and 16-time ACM award winner and the show's organizers, in light of the mass shooting at last October's Route 91 Harvest festival, where 58 people died and hundreds were injured.
"Everyone at the Academy of Country Music, we wanted to make sure that what happened will be mentioned, brought up and that we will pay our respects and that we as Americans will join together in the country-music field, also," says McEntire. "We will be together and pay a tribute to them with our love and our feelings to the victims and the people who were involved in that tragic, horrible night. But also, we're strong. We're joined together and we will move forward. We will pay homage and then move forward because we're strong; we're Americans."
But no matter what she addresses in her opening monologue, don't expect McEntire to get political. "I don't discuss politics," she says. "I never have and I echo Dolly [Parton]'s sentiments when she said, 'I learned a long time ago if you want to be in show business, keep your damn mouth shut.' I agree with Dolly 100 percent. My job is to entertain. I don't choose sides, I entertain. When people come in to watch me perform they leave their worries and their cares outside. With my music and the help of the songwriters and musicians that have worked on these songs, our job is to lift people up and encourage them so that when they go out into the world to face their problems again they can do it with a little more courage and lightheartedness."
The former sitcom star has recently generated laughs with her role as the first female to impersonate the iconic Colonel in commercials for fast-food giant KFC, but has had numerous encounters through the years with men and women copying her trademark looks in drag shows and other performances. "I'm always very flattered," she notes. "I'll walk up to them and ask, 'How did you do your makeup? You do a lot better job than I do.'"