Reba McEntire’s Healing Music

Read the Listening Notes for our 30th-anniversary edition of ‘For My Broken Heart’

On June 24th 2021 » By Natalie Weiner

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The most enduring hit off of For My Broken Heart is — like “Fancy” before it — a pitch-perfect cover of a song that had already been enormously popular: “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” a gruesome murder ballad with a disarmingly upbeat (and catchy) chorus. Reba revived the tune with dramatic flair and effortless technique, and hers has slowly burned into becoming the definitive version of the single, going Gold nearly 30 years after its release.

It also fits well with the contemporary, non-musical perception of Reba, an endearingly kitschy country elder whose compelling hint of edge never erupts into full-fledged controversy. What’s taken her from small-town Oklahoma girl to mononymous star is a kind of specifically country combination of no-nonsense attitude and humble good humor.

She favors one-liners drenched in brash self-assuredness. She struts and swaggers when her other country peers would swoon. She has red hair. She sings about murder and prostitution with a knowing wink. She loves corn dogs. She’s a single mom who works two jobs, who loves her kids and never stops. Her favorite interview anecdote is talking about how she helped her father castrate bulls when she was a kid — and happily ate the resulting Rocky Mountain oysters. It’s easy to joke because it’s what Reba herself does, leaning into some degree of cheerful self-parody without losing the exacting artistry and forceful vocal talent that brought her into the position of crafting a public persona in the first place. Ultimately, she’s a tough-talking country broad in the vein of Loretta Lynn, whose sass has similarly outlasted her more heartfelt balladry.

But that wasn’t necessarily what her fans were seeking out as her fame crested in the early ’90s. McEntire had broken through as the female face of the 1980s’ neo-traditional movement — a reaction to the pop-crossover urban cowboy trend that had defined the turn of the decade. Reba’s stripped-down, twangy paeans to steel guitar and fiddle were immensely popular, and her late ’80s pivot to melancholic ballads made her even more so. “Whoever’s In New England,” for example, the heartbreaking tale of a wife resigned to her husband’s coastal dalliances, was the first single off the Platinum album of the same name — her first. Before For My Broken Heart, Reba’s most recent country No. 1 had been “You Lie,” a soaring ballad waltz grounded by warm instrumentation and a full choir. It was a version of Reba that receded as she moved from country’s epicenter to its fringe “legend” status, but it was the version that made her one of the biggest artists of one of the genre’s biggest eras.

Nowhere is the dissonance between contemporary meme Reba and superstar artist Reba more striking than in the light of the tragedy that struck right at the peak of her fame. As Reba was promoting the triple-Platinum Rumor Has It, the album before this one, her performance schedule was so tight that she and her band had been going from gig to gig by private plane. After a private show for IBM in San Diego on March 15, 1991, one of the planes crashed into the side of Otay Mountain, killing everyone onboard: eight members of her band and the two pilots.

“I would follow Narvel [her then-husband] pacing from room to room in our suite, crying,” McEntire wrote of the hours following the accident a few years later in her memoir Reba: My Story. “It was worse than any nightmare I could imagine.”

Her fame made the horror of coping with such an acute, freakish loss exponentially more challenging — the press clung to the story and its attendant mysteries, even going so far as to suggest McEntire herself had been negligent, or that she was callous and insensitive for returning to work within a few months of the crash.

For a while after the fact McEntire refused to answer interview questions about the accident, letting a People exclusive cover story serve as her statement. Even though she’s been more open to discussing it in recent years, she usually tears up when she does.

“First, it made me feel like, ‘Man, all my friends that I’ve got, I’m gonna see ’em, I’m gonna write ’em … I’m gonna stay in great communication with my family,’” she said in a 1993 interview on 20/20. “And in the next breath I’d say, ‘I don’t ever want to get that close to anybody in my life again.’”

It was an impossible situation. By getting back onstage and in the studio, McEntire faced criticism and insinuations that she was capitalizing on tragedy. If she hadn’t, though, she would be stuck wallowing. “I feared that if I allowed myself to hurt that hard for that long,” she wrote, “I might never return to work.”

“These are stories without redemption, without a cheerful twist or upbeat perspective. If country music so often pulls from the blues’ signature blend of pathos and humor, ‘Broken Heart’ doesn’t shy from expressing heartfelt, deep sadness without an easy antidote.”

So McEntire began working on a new album, reportedly listening to 1,000 songs before settling on the 10 that eventually appeared on For My Broken Heart. “I looked for solace in the places where I’d always found it before — in the Lord and in my music,” as she put it in her memoir. Returning to Nashville’s Emerald Sound Studios — the same studio where she had recorded Rumor Has It — with producer Tony Brown, whom she had first worked with on Rumor, Reba nevertheless took a very different tack with her new project.

Rumor Has It was just the 10 best songs I could find, which is usually the way I go about it,” she told USA Today. “But I wanted this to be a tribute album, and it couldn’t be a tribute album if it was a happy, up-tempo album. And I just don’t feel like singing that way right now, anyway. The pain is not … it’s not through yet. The wound’s not closed.”

Backed by a slew of top-tier session players and vocalists including fiddler Mark O’Connor, bassist Leland Sklar and Vince Gill (yes, the famous one), Reba set about trying to convey all that pain in song. The album’s title track and first single is ostensibly about a different kind of loss: divorce — which McEntire had also recently been through when she separated from her first husband, Charlie Battles, in 1987. But the lighters-up ballad, penned by Liz Hengber and Keith Palmer (two then-recent signees to McEntire’s Starstruck Entertainment), is more about resilience than despair. It does paint a vivid portrait, though, of the quotidian malaise that can follow a jarring life change. “Clock’s still ticking, life goes on / Radio still plays a song,” she sings. “It takes all the strength I’ve got / To stumble to the coffee pot.”

The hymn-like synth that introduces the song (and album) indicates its reflective mood; combined with the church choir stylings of her backing vocalists and Reba’s tremulous melodies, it drives home that this is a song about breaking up and much more than that. The album is essentially divided between songs like “Broken Heart” — about recovering from loss, about moving on — and full blown weepers. “Bobby,” the album’s only track co-written by McEntire herself alongside the legendary Don Schlitz, is about a boy whose father spends life in jail after pulling the plug on his mother’s life support when she’s left brain-dead in the wake of a terrible accident. “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” tells the story of how sometimes we don’t actually take time to get to know the people closest to us — in this case, a distant father — before it’s too late. “I Wouldn’t Go That Far” must have had some personal resonance with Reba, with its tale of young love thwarted by ambition and the regret that followed. “All Dressed Up (With Nowhere To Go)” is a gutting, ordinary tale of a woman in a retirement home, who prepares each Sunday for her family to visit her. With unmistakable background vocals from Vince Gill, McEntire sings the hard truth: they never do.

These are stories without redemption, without a cheerful twist or upbeat perspective. If country music so often pulls from the blues’ signature blend of pathos and humor, Broken Heart doesn’t shy from expressing heartfelt, deep sadness without an easy antidote. It’s most potent on the album’s closer, “If I Had Only Known” — a song so gutting McEntire has rarely performed it live. In the studio, she could barely get through it. The understandable emotion in her usually strong, unwavering voice is audible throughout; there are shakes that don’t sound intentional, words that trail off instead of being hit with her typical punch. It is a song seemingly written for the occasion, one that might have sounded maudlin without the simple arrangement and the raw emotion that Reba put into it.

The album became her most successful to date, reaching No. 13 on the Billboard 200. But its sincere grief — translated via straightforward, skillfully executed country-pop — is an achievement that hasn’t necessarily been reflected in McEntire’s legacy. It’s a facet of how skillful a singer she is; the emotional force of her performances is sometimes taken for granted because it comes across as effortless. Probably because she’s taken her own lessons about moving on and strength — a different kind of toughness — so to heart, as in one of the album’s other big singles, “Is There Life Out There.” The way it’s performed, what might have been a cooped-up housewife’s lament becomes an optimistic tribute to embracing curiosity, bravery and joie de vivre even when it seems impossible.

“Music is so weird sometimes,” McEntire wrote in My Story. “So therapeutic and so healing. It’s almost like it’s waiting to be there for you when you need it — just like a good friend with open arms.” When she does talk about the accident, Reba always says the same thing: Impossible tragedies happen, too often. Go to those friends, embrace them, tell them how much you love them. Tomorrow may not be promised, but they’re here today.

Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner is a freelance writer in Dallas covering music and sports for outlets including NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Billboard.

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