Susie McEntire’s has been a life steeped in the grace of God. Not the stand at the pulpit in a strip-mall church and tell an inspiring story kind of grace, but the honest, hit your knees and cry kind of grace. Born the youngest of four in five years to Clark and Jacqueline McEntire, Susie’s life began on a ranch in rural Oklahoma and from her earliest years, her days revolved around two things: working the land and making music while she did it. While there certainly is a classic rags-to-riches component to McEntire’s story, that is by no means what is most captivating about her. When I sat down in my living room and dialed McEntire’s number I expected to have a pleasant conversation, but one filled with well practiced talking points. She does, afterall, come from one of the most famous families in country music. What I had instead was a true blue heart to heart with someone who has experienced God’s grace through some of the most heartbreaking lessons of her life. I received kindness and goodness from a woman who has walked a path of forgiveness, redemption, and unconditional love and in turn has learned how to give those things back to family, friends, and strangers alike. It’s no wonder that McEntire has seen such success with her Christan Country music career and Cowboy Church. McEntire doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk and it shows in her ability to be open and kind and impact others with a disarming honesty and warmth. Much of McEntire’s story does revolve around her first marriage, but not her first husband. It was during her first marriage and ultimately her escape from the abuse she endured that McEntire found her voice, her strength, and ultimately learned to accept God’s grace. It is the combination of these things that has allowed her to walk honestly in her relationship with Christianity and thrive in her role within the enterprise of Cowboy Church. A seasoned entertainer, singer, and an active member of and host in Cowboy Church, Susie McEntire is still gracing stages across the country today in solo performances and in partnership with her current husband, Mark Eaton.
The Call to Christ
As the youngest of four siblings, McEntire’s birth order influenced every aspect of her young life and how she came into her relationship with Christ and, ultimately, the church. Being the youngest of four siblings meant alternate arrangements were often made for Susie while her older siblings accompanied her parents when they went off to rodeos or attended school while her parents worked; her mother as the secretary to the superintendent of the local school district and her father as a rancher on their family’s land. “My mama waited until I was seven to put me in school because my birthday was in November, so I would to go my Grandma’s while Mama worked.” McEntire’s relationship with her Grandma Smith would prove one of the most influential in her life as an example on how to conduct herself as a woman, a child of God, a steward of Christianity, and a mother and grandmother. To hear McEntire speak of her grandmother is a gift in itself; there is a spark of wisdom and love in Susie, no doubt passed down from the woman who helped to raise her in her earliest days, that simply lights up when her grandmother is brought up in conversation. Cited in many interviews as her greatest inspiration and a living example of Christ in her life, when asked what McEntire would say to her grandmother if they could sit down to one more conversation she responded, “I would cry. It won’t be anything in comparison to what it’s going to be like to be able to stand in front of Christ, but it might be pretty close for me to be able to see her again in my grown life. I would love to be able to tell her how much she influenced me. One of these days I’d love to write a book about her influence in my life and truly how much she’s made me aware of my own relationship with my grandchildren.”
“It’s come full circle because my son has a five year old daughter. They live just down the hill and I kept her last year while her sister went to school. So many memories flooded in and reminded me of my time with my Grandma. I think of her and it reminds me to be slower with my own granddaughter and to really listen to her and to let God be real in her life. My grandmother did not preach to me. She lived in a Godly way in front of me, and I hope that I am doing the same in front of my granddaughter. We have grown so close and I enjoy this child so much.” The years under her grandmother’s care were enough to plant the seed for a deeply personal and lasting relationship with Christ; one that would ultimately lead to the formation of a career within the Church and outreach for the youngest McEntire.
Though singing came naturally to McEntire, it was not her first career choice. “I never really wanted to sing as a career. I wanted to do something different. I went to college to be an accountant and got out of school and worked for an oil company in Oklahoma City when I first started out.” McEntire remarked that though she had started a career doing something she thought she loved, she gave up her calculator quickly for a microphone and joined her older sister on stage. “I was kind of lost [in my career] and then Reba asked me to come sing with her. I felt like, oh gosh, this is great because I loved to sing harmony. I loved being a backup singer for Reba. It’s not in the forefront, but it’s critical. It makes everything sound better, it fills everything out.” In addition to performing concerts for sold-out crowds, Susie and her sister made television appearances on programs such as “The Johnny Carson Show,” “Hee Haw”, and “The Grand Ole Opry” as Reba’s career continued to blossom. McEntire’s time on stage with her sister was in fact not a calling to Nashville or to mainstream country music, but was instead a valuable period of preparation for Susie for the rest of her career as she was called to Christan country music and the church. McEntire certainly practiced her craft on stage behind her sister, but that is not where she truly found her voice. That, instead, was found in a church pew back home in Oklahoma in 1984, four years after she’d embarked on her journey as a singer.
“I thought I had found out what I should be doing when I started singing with Reba, but then I got married to my first husband and we acted like normal honeymooners, but very shortly into the marriage it turned abusive. My husband was a steer wrestler and he had gone to a rodeo and come back at about 5:30 on a Sunday morning. One of our friends who’d been a pastor for a long time at a church about fifteen miles south of us asked if we wanted to go to church. I asked my husband Paul if he wanted to go, fully expecting that he would say no, and he said yes. He’d been fully expressing his views as a Christan for a while and I’d really been on the fence, but we went to church that morning, and I actually went back that night. When I went to church that morning all I could do was cry because I felt like I had been so far away from God- like I had been away from my friend. When I came back into contact with God in that church I just felt overwhelmed. I went back that night and I dedicated my life to stand for Him and that was probably the first time I really had the courage to stand up and sing and not feel inferior or embarrassed or feel like I needed to be quiet. I could sing out because I had something to sing about; something that mattered and made a difference in my life. I think that was the first time I really found my voice.”
In 1984 McEntire submitted to God’s calling in her life to sing Christian music and in the years to follow traveled the country with her husband Paul and three children. Recording under the name Susie Luchsinger for nearly two decades, Susie endured years of mental and physical abuse at the hands of her first husband. In 2006, entering into their second separation, McEntire took her time traveling alone or with close trusted girlfriends who would “put up with me” she claimed as she laughed, and then in 2007 found both the faith and the strength to seek a divorce after twenty five years of mental and physical abuse. When asked about sharing her testimony in the church and the power of helping others through her own experience McEntire responded, “It has taken me most of the time since my divorce- the better part of eleven years – to really be able to receive things from others as anything but a reminder of the fact that I had done something wrong by either giving up on that marriage too easily or by staying in that marriage too long and not protecting my children. When something like that happens there is so much shame and blame. It takes years and years for all those layers to come off and to realize what God did in our lives and that we will never quit growing. If we are willing to listen we can receive these revelations of ‘oh, that’s why that had to happen that way in my life’. In the meantime we must learn to give ourselves the same kind of grace that God gives us and be able to say it just wasn’t time for us to realize what was going on. We have to learn how to give ourselves mercy, but I couldn’t do that for a long time.”
“When people used to come up to me and tell me that my songs or my testimony or a story about my coming out of that abuse helped them it would remind me of what I saw as failure and shame. I am finally learning how to take those things as a blessing. It isn’t a false humility, either. I can finally embrace these people openly and honestly and hold their hands and hug them like they’re my friends and family and cradle them like they’re my own sister or child and truly listen to what they’re telling me. I feel like since I’ve been able to do that now my heart has been healed and I can truly give more and my story has started to feel good, not shameful.”
Cowboy Church and a New Way of Life
McEntire certainly is using her story and her platform for good. A long time contributor to Cowboy Church, McEntire is co-host of “Cowboy Church” on RFD-TV (Dish, Direct-TV, and Comcast), hosts an annual women’s retreat in Oklahoma, and spends as much time as she can on the road, traveling to live Cowboy Church events with her husband, Mark Eaton, who has taken an active and supportive interest in both the musical and spiritual aspects of her life. “My family has been in the ranching/rodeo world for four generations, and I am so pleased to be able to bring Jesus Christ to this audience in a down to earth, country style,” McEntire remarked.
Both McEntire and her older sister, Reba, owe the start of their careers to the rodeo in some form or fashion, and often go back to their roots to pay homage to the venues that gave them their earliest opportunities. Reba, discovered by none other than Mr. Red Steagall, got her start at the National Finals Rodeo performing the National Anthem. Mr. Steagall stated in an earlier interview with Lula 1892: “The first night that I heard Reba sing the National Anthem I heard the quality in her voice, I heard the total control she had over it. Mr. Justin of Justin Boot Company would get a big suite and we’d gather there after the rodeo, and Reba’s mother brought her up there after she sang. Reba sat down beside me and started singing harmony with me. My guitar playing was limited, but I played a couple of songs for her and she just absolutely blew me away….” The elder McEntire went on to work with Steagall for years and still stops by different rodeos to perform. Susie McEntire has stayed faithful to her roots in rodeo and Cowboy church, having sung with her family in local rodeos as she grew up, joining Cowboy Church as a singer, performer, and member of the ministry in 1984. Susie speaks fondly of the rodeo, attributing not only much of her success to this unique way of life, but also her sense of groundedness, belonging, and love for the land.
Whether housed in an arena with a dirt floor or a casino in Vegas, McEntire commented on the accessibility of Cowboy Church and its unique ability to reach an unlikely demographic. “We come with a simpler message because it’s a simpler type of life. We reach people who are not churched, but they’re drawn to the Western way of life. There are more men than women there usually. They like that kind of rugged feel. How often do you see a pastor deliver a sermon in a cowboy hat? It’s relatable. It’s a neat thing to be able to know the language. Think, for instance, Reba’s son is a race car driver. If he was to be in the ministry, he would be a great minister for the car people because he knows what they go through. He knows what they’re up against and he knows the lingo. It’s the same thing for cowboys. They respect someone who knows what they’re talking about when they’re talking about putting hay out in the winter time or getting the cattle up and getting them branded or the ins and outs of having to take care of their stock.”
McEntire, who met Mark Eaton in June 2008 and married in December 2009, isn’t going it alone in music or her walk with God and her presence in Cowboy Church. A stark contrast to her first marriage, Eaton has taken an active interest in McEntire’s career, going so far as to join her on the road and in her musical endeavors. Together Mark and Susie have a shared passion for bringing hope and positivity to others through their story and Mark, through his unwavering support and love, has given Susie a renewed sense of both safety and freedom. McEntire recalled the first time she noted the difference in their relationship while she was recording her album, Let Go. “Mark and I hadn’t been dating for very long when I was recording and he would text me and say ‘How’s it going’? In my previous relationship my husband would sit there and ask me why it was taking me so long. He would never necessarily say it to me but the question of didn’t I know how expensive this was and why couldn’t I do it faster was always implied. It was different with Mark from the start; the way he would encourage me. And then he texted me one day and he said ‘God smiles when you sing’. At that time in my life I really didn’t know if God knew when I sang. I wasn’t sure God even knew I was alive down here. And it was just this big sign that, yes God does know I’m alive. God does hear me sing, and he does smile when I sing.”
McEntire has used her marriage as an honest second go at life, adjusting not only her thoughts on love, but her thoughts on everything around her. “My husband is not a super religious man. Oh my gosh, he’s got a Master’s in Theology, and he’s known Christ since he was fourteen years old, but he’s not a preachy kind of guy, and that’s refreshing to me. He’s just a normal, real guy. He likes to have fun and smoke cigars. He’s got tattoos and climbs mountains. I’m married to a guy who wants to be friends with everyone. He genuinely loves people.”
“So when we go to a concert where Christian singers have been rude to the sound people or the stage people and they say “wow I hope those people never come back again” that matters to Mark. My husband wants to be friends with the sound man. He’ll ask him about their tattoos and wants to know what’s going on with their families and how they are. He’s very kind and very generous and he’s taught me to be that way. I got very cold in the midst of trying to be someone in the music business because I was hurt. I was dealing with this shame of being abused and I shut my heart off, so I would appear very elusive and cold. Thank God that the people who knew me back then have seen me again. They’ll walk up to Mark and say “she’s not the same person she used to be”. I am glad that I have found a man who has helped me to rebuild and who has shown me the love of Christ in my life and who has walked with me while I’ve redeemed the things I’ve done that were not good and stood by me while I’ve rebuilt those bridges and reintroduced people to the real Susie.”
Eaton and McEntire now share their story together during Cowboy Church, on stage during live performances, and even in recorded music. Eaton joined McEntire duet style on four songs on her 2012 Chase the Wind project and continues to join her on stage for a little blues guitar and a good duet when invited. McEntire’s discography spans Country, Celtic, Jazz, and Christmas tunes, and she’s nowhere near done yet. The couple just finished up Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming at the end of July and have a full schedule through December where they’ll wrap up their year at Cowboy Church at the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas, Nevada. While at Cheyenne Frontier Days Eaton shared his story and ended by telling the crowd to “pray three hours a day, read your Bible … go to church always” before stopping abruptly. “Oops, I read that wrong,” he said, going on to read John 13:34-35: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” While simple, I believe the joke perfectly sums up the Eatons; they can find good hearted humor in their religion because they are real about it. They know what sin and heartbreak and being lost feels like and they’re not in the game of judging or deciding who is worthy. They’re not standing on stage saying I’m better because I’m redeemed. They’re on stage saying I am broken, but I am loved, and you are too. They’re in the game of love, truly and completely, with each other and with the world in which they’ve chosen to be a part.
McEntire’s life has indeed come full circle; not only does she have a rich and fulfilling career singing and spreading the Gospel, but she lives on and works her family’s land in Oklahoma. “It’s so nice to be here, to look upon this land that my mom and daddy put together. It’s a huge honor and I love it. I love raising my kids and my grandkids here, and now to share it with Mark, who moved here from Washington state to be here with me. That he loved me enough to say I need to move where you are and for him to love this place as much as I do means more than anything. We’re making our life here and it’s awesome.” What began as a family of four children under the tutelage of Jacqueline and Clark, the rodeo cowboy and the sweet natured songbird, has grown into a tight knit dynasty of gentle hearted, whip smart performers dedicated to carrying on a legacy – of entertainment, yes – but also of Godliness, wisdom, heart, family values, hard work, and kindness.
The way that Susie McEntire speaks about her life, her family, and her career is remarkable. If one is willing to listen there is a lesson to be gleaned from her story – it is never too late to practice vulnerability, kindness, or openness. More than that, goodness can always be found in the world despite our past experiences. If one will allow themselves to see love and goodness and kindness, one just might encounter those things. We, also, are not the sum of our mistakes, thanks to the grace of our God. We, however, must be as willing to accept that grace as we are willing to accept that we are human and imperfect and will make mistakes. These are the things that Susie McEntire taught me during the course of our conversation simply by telling me her truth. I hadn’t expected to hang up the phone having been taken to Church, but the love of Christ and the lessons He wants us to hear come from all sorts of unexpected places. Perhaps at one time elusive and aloof, nowadays she is anything but. Warm, caring, genuine, and funny are a few things that come to mind when I think of her. During our phone call I felt more like I was having a catch up with a family member, not an interview with a stranger, and that is part of the distinct beauty of Susie McEntire.