Times Staff Writer

After recording seven albums that weren't exactly right, country singer Reba McEntire made an all-out effort on her most recent album to explain to her producer the sound she was after.

"I wasn't finding the kind of songs I was looking for," McEntire said during an interview at her hotel, only a few hours after arriving in Los Angeles for shows today at the Palomino, her first local appearance in almost three years.

"We would talk about country and he would play a song and say, 'Now this is country,' and I would say, 'No, that's not country to me.' So he'd say, 'Well what is country to you?' And I'd just say, 'My kind of country.' I kept saying 'My kind of country' so many times I knew that had to be the title of the album," she said.

The decision paid off and the album, "My Kind of Country," earned the Oklahoma-born singer the Country Music Assn.'s 1984 Female Vocalist of the Year award. The award, she says, has brought her greater recognition and more clout. ("Overnight," she said, "people knew who I was.")

The album's back-to-country-basics sound and McEntire's heartfelt vocals have also meant that she's been labeled as a likely successor to such country queens as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

Long a fan of Cline, McEntire, 29, just beamed one of her wide smiles and said she takes no offense when someone points out that her vocals occasionally are startlingly reminiscent of one of her idols.

"That's the best compliment they can give me. I go for that 100%. Somebody else said I almost sound like Ray Price. I said, 'Thank you again.' I never sing a whole song like Patsy or Loretta, but those are the people I listen to, and you can't listen and listen and listen to somebody and just completely tune it out of your mind when you're singing," she said.

McEntire comes from a family of rodeo performers that goes back three generations--even her husband and co-manager Charlie Battles is a world champion bulldogger--which does a lot to explain her lifelong appreciation of country music. But perhaps her biggest influence and inspiration is her mother, who gave up a singing career to raise a family. So it was a fitting tribute when, upon receiving the Country Music Assn. award last fall, McEntire held up the statue and said, "This is for me and Mama."

Yet even after being discovered while singing at a rodeo, McEntire did a lot of experimenting with her sound and her appearance when she first entered the music business.

"All the sequins and the Spandex I used to wear was my idea--it wasn't the record company's. All the trial and error was me. There was a lot of trial and error and there was a lot of wrong-doing.

"It takes a long time to figure out who you are and what you are. Do you go out in cowboy boots and fringe shirts singing 'Ki-yi-yippie-yi-yay' or what? It's real hard to find the music you're comfortable with, and I've finally done that. And now I've found an image that's comfortable with me--finally, after I've grown up and matured and stopped listening to so many other people instead of just myself--and that is just to be me."

Her next album is due in June and she's also hoping to cement a deal for a movie in which she will both sing and act. But perhaps even more than those projects, she's looking forward to the International Fan Fair to be held this summer in Nashville, an annual event where hundreds of country performers set up booths to greet fans and sign autographs.

"We're planning for the fair and making a special effort to give back to the fans something which they've given all year long."

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