How Dolly Parton Shook up Reba McEntire’s Grand Ole Opry Debut

When Reba McEntire fulfilled her dream of performing on the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in 1977, she was already a bit nervous for obvious reasons. Then she heard Dolly Parton showed up as a surprise, meaning her plans for the night had changed.

After the rearrangement, McEntire had one song to perform instead of two. And things got even worse than that, she said. What did she feel was the worst part of the shakeup?

(L-R) Dolly Parton in red and Reba McEntire in blue, c. 1986
(L-R) Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire | CBS/Getty Images

Reba McEntire debuted on the Grand Ole Opry on Sept. 17, 1977

As McEntire shared in Reba: My Story, she fulfilled a dream when she made her Opry debut on Sept. 17, 1977. But a guard at the gate almost prevented her from even getting in. Her name wasn’t on his list, he said. So, he told her to “turn around and go home” with her family.

Her parents and sister had traveled from Oklahoma to Nashville to see her perform, so they turned around but didn’t go home. Instead, McEntire called her booking agent, a veteran in the industry. He told her to turn around and go back to the gate.

And things were different when they arrived again. “The guard’s attitude had totally changed,” she shared. “That was one of my first lessons in the power of influence.”

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Reba McEntire: ‘I didn’t even get to meet Dolly Parton’

Soon after McEntire arrived at the Opry with her family, her father told her he’d been named the “All Around Cowboy of the Rodeo” exactly 30 years before that day. “What a lucky sign!” she said. “Maybe I could make history, too.”

“Then I heard about Dolly,” she wrote. “Dolly Parton, one of the biggest stars in the entire entertainment industry, decided to make a surprise appearance on the Opry the night I made my premiere.”

Though most artists sang two songs on the show, McEntire lost one of hers and therefore only performed one. “Things could get worse,” she noted, “and they did. I didn’t even get to meet Dolly.”

In the end, she wasn’t resentful toward Parton and remains a fan. But she did wish she’d been told to “come back another night” to make her Opry debut.

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Reba McEntire recalled Dolly Parton’s ‘trademark’ rhinestone butterflies and her own all-denim outfit

Though McEntire didn’t get to meet Parton that night, she recalled seeing her in person in her autobiography.

“Dolly looked magnificent, as always,” she shared. “She wore a black pantsuit with chiffon, transparent, flowing arms. The outfit was dotted with rhinestone butterflies, Dolly’s trademark.”

Of her own getup, she wrote, “I wore a straight denim skirt with a matching shirt.”

McEntire said she was “very shy about performing” then and was “totally in awe” of Parton, who was “beaming and smiling all over the room.”

“Having to follow Dolly Parton wouldn’t have been easy even for a veteran,” McEntire wrote, emphasizing she had to go on after the “Jolene” singer. She said she was physically helped to the center of the stage due to nerves. And though she “hardly [remembered] getting through,” she sang “Invitation to the Blues.”

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