CMT’s Nashville may have left the Volunteer State for the Broadway stage, but Music City shows no signs of giving up its Hollywood connections. Recent entertainment headlines announced a new TV project from Dolly Parton, and Dierks Bentley is making his first foray into episodic television with a development deal at FOX. Plugging country music stars into movies and TV is by no means a new concept, but it’s one that moves in cycles, and success as a country star is no guarantee for silver screen stardom.
The challenge for country music artists is not a lack of opportunity, but the type of roles available within a given trend or cultural cycle. The 1980s set a benchmark, fueled by several pop culture influences that created nostalgia for a South that never existed in films like Smokey & The Bandit and CBS’ The Dukes of Hazzard. When Urban Cowboy hit theaters in 1980, it kicked opened the door for country music stars to find new audiences in Hollywood. The 1980 film 9 to 5 made Dolly Parton an internationally known actress, but Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) made her a movie star. Kenny Rogers extended his brand to made-for-TV movies adapted The Gambler (1980) and The Coward of the County (1982) before driving audiences to see Six Pack. Though no sequel followed, a TV series based on the film aired in 1983 featuring Don Johnson in the role of Brewster Baker and Joaquin Phoenix.
The big question marks for movie studios, producers, and artists: Will fans who follow the music follow the artist into the theater? Or can the artist create new fans who may not necessarily like the music?
The best example of this is Kris Kristofferson, whose career includes music and acting in equal doses. Whether starring in the critically acclaimed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or sharing the screen with Barbara Streisand in A Star Is Born, Kristofferson demonstrated a legitimate talent that could eclipse his music career. As an actor, Kristofferson would reach a different level of celebrity in the 1990s with the international success of the Blade vampire action films.
Without a franchise platform, even the most beloved talent can struggle at the box office. Even Dolly struggled with making the connection: Her 1984 film Rhinestone was a box office and critical disaster. Despite the film’s poor reception, her soundtrack contributions were embraced by fans and became Top 10 radio hits at the time.
The best example of this frustrating dichotomy may be George Strait and Pure Country: The soundtrack proved to be the highest selling of his career with more than six million units. It’s hard to find even a casual country music fan who doesn’t know “I Cross My Heart.” The movie, however, was far short of blockbuster material, returning $15 million against a $10 million budget in 1992. It wasn’t until the film reached rural markets through home video and near-continual airing on TNN and then CMT that it found a near-cult-level status amongst fans.
The cultural shift to home video is what saved so many artists’ performances for new generations of fans to find and explore. Today, the best way to find episodes of Shotgun Slade with Johnny Cash is to order them from Amazon. Fans of Conway Twitty can find his nearly forgotten performance in the 1960 comedy College Confidential starring TV icon Steve Allen. Home video is also where fans can explore more recent successes that may have passed unnoticed.
Roy Rogers is still the “reigning” king of singing cowboys with 118 credited roles. His TV appearances later in his career helped him surpass Gene Autry. Fans who visit the Cash Museum can see clips of a young Johnny Cash and movie posters, who made 26 appearances in film and TV shows. In the modern era, Billy Ray Cyrus and Trace Adkinswho lead country music artists who act with a combined 62 roles between them.
But the number of roles doesn’t really address the strength of the impression an artist can make on audiences. If the measure of crossover success for country music artists is durability and audience reach, there is only one atop the rankings.
Reba McEntire burst onto the movie scene in 1990 with the role of Heather Gummer in the monster thriller Tremors. The film performed well at the box office and, again thanks to home video, found a cult audience that propelled the film to five sequels, the most recent released in 2015. As if starting a second career, McEntire honed her skill with walk-on and guest roles and built her acting resume throughout the 1990s. In 2001, The WB network aired a pilot for a new show about a recently divorced mother and her pregnant teenage daughter. In the role of Reba Hart, McEntire would catapult to a different type of stardom.
With a total of 127 episodes across six seasons (2001 – 2007), Reba proved to be a solid ratings performer for The WB in its effort to challenge the “Alphabet Networks.” While the Nielsen ratings slotted the show in the bottom of its prime-time reporting, Reba regularly drew nearly 4 million weekly viewers. That was enough to ensure McEntire a contract worth more than $100,000 per episode. Syndication become a lucrative audience booster as fans in nations as far flung as the Czech Republic and Croatia connected with McEntire’s charm and the show’s comedic spin on family strength in challenging circumstances. In total, foreign syndication carried Reba to 30 different countries around the globe. The final episode reached more than 8 million international viewers.
Reba would return to TV in 2012 as Reba MacKenzie in Malibu Country, an ABC sitcom that offered a different spin on the same plot concept behind Reba. The show ran one season before being cancelled. McEntire continues to balance her career: Her new album, Stronger Than the Truth, will be released on April 5 and MCA Nashville is re-issuing a 25th anniversary edition of Read My Mind exclusively on vinyl. Meanwhile, McEntire is reportedly developing a TV project with super-producer Marc Cherry, best known for Desperate Housewives.
Dolly’s place as the Queen of Country is secure, but McEntire deserves her own accolade. While both artists were recognized with Kennedy Center Honors, McEntire carved a separate lane for her career that can’t be compared. Like Kristofferson before her, McEntire demonstrated a wholly separate set of artistic skills while continuing to thrive as a country music icon. With those accomplishments informing McEntire’s next steps, her third act may be the best yet.