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Reba McEntire embraces new TV sitcom role

“Malibu Country” stars RebMcEntire Lily Tomlin. The new sitcom airs Friday nights ABC. | ABC photo

“Malibu Country” stars Reba McEntire and Lily Tomlin. The new sitcom airs Friday nights on ABC. | ABC photo

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STUDIO CITY, Calif. — Reba McEntire’s got sand in her boots.

The grit is handy for a country song, but may fare even better as a TV show. Four decades into a legendary career, McEntire is reinventing herself again, this time as a sitcom star on a major network.

“I’m very curious to see what different things I can get into,” says McEntire, casual today in jeans and a cotton long-sleeved top. She settles into an overstuffed couch in her lightly floral scented, lemongrass-hued dressing room on the set of “Malibu Country,” her ABC sitcom that launches Friday (7:30 p.m. on WLS-Channel 7).

In “Country,” McEntire, 57, plays Reba Gallagher, a former singer turned political wife who detours from the blueprint of standing by your cheating man. In the pilot, Reba leaves her politico husband (Jeffrey Nordling) in the midst of his news conference confessional. With her sassy mother, Lillie Mae (Lily Tomlin), and opinionated teenage kids (Justin Prentice, Juliette Angelo) in tow, Gallagher flees her home in Nashville for a property her husband had stashed away: a beach house in Malibu. The series also follows Gallagher’s struggle to reclaim her career as a recording artist, and marks McEntire’s return to television after a six-year break. The light went dark on her WB/CW sitcom, “Reba,” in 2007.

What precipitated her return?

“I love television. I love to watch it, I love to be a part of it. I don’t care if it’s an awards show, game show, special event or a TV show,” she says.

Shot in front of a live audience, “Malibu Country,” like “Reba,” explores the concept of life after divorce. But while “Reba” had McEntire play a soccer mom coping with a pregnant teenage daughter, “Malibu Country’s” Gallagher is “a little more out of water, a little lost, because she had a husband who took care of her, and she took care of the kids,” says McEntire. Faced with a new life that trades Southern conventions for morally murky Malibu, “Reba is pretty much flying by the seat of her pants in a lot of situations.”

The half-hour sitcom joins Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing” in a hour-long comedy block on Friday nights, a more grown-up rejuvenation of the “TGIF” format popularized on ABC in the ’80s and ’90s, when family-friendly shows such as “Full House,” “Step by Step” and “Family Matters” dominated ratings.

McEntire plays a character close the real-life, big-hearted personality her fans have remained loyal to, with the added benefit (like sister ABC show “Nashville”) of being able to debut new, plot-perfect McEntire songs. (“New Me,” which debuts in the pilot episode, is written by McEntire, music producer Dave Stewart and Narvel Blackstock, McEntire’s longtime husband and manager. All three are executive producers.)

McEntire is one of the most successful country artists of all time, having sold 56 million albums worldwide and been inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011, yet she’s the first to point out how the face of country has gotten progressively younger.

“I can’t be bitter about radio not playing me anymore,” says McEntire. “They played me for decades. It’s time for other people to come up. They’ve still got the radio stations where it’s the oldie but goodies. I’m in that segment, it’s fine with me. And they still play the songs that I’ve had out in the last two, three years, which I’m very proud of.”

It’s a humble take — McEntire’s last album, “All the Women I Am,” spawned her 24th No. 1 hit on the country charts, “Turn on the Radio,” putting her behind only Dolly Parton among female country artists, who has 25 No. 1 hits.

Still, McEntire, whose demeanor is mix of Southern hospitality and on-message professionalism, insists she has embraced a new frontier.

“What I try to do is reinvent myself, and I don’t mean put another truck out on the road with more lights, more dancers, more costumes,” she says. “I had done tours where I had more lights on my stage than Madonna or Michael Jackson. I had the dancers, I had the 15 costume changes.”

Aside from recording songs for “Malibu Country,” McEntire has no news on an upcoming album. “Not yet,” she says. The only prediction she’ll make is that forthcoming songs will have an “uptempo, positive” mood.

Touring seems more likely. “We have dates for next year,” McEntire says, but does not elaborate.

Gannett News Service

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