In the early morning hours of March 16, 1991, a plane crashed into Otay Mountain in southern California. The crash, which left no survivors, occurred shortly after the Hawker Sidley aircraft had taken off from Brown Field, a private airport about 15 miles southeast of San Diego. In addition to the pilot and co-pilot, Jim Hammon, Reba’s tour manager, and band members Kirk Cappello and Joey Cigainero, keyboardists; Paula Kaye Evans, background vocalist; Michael Thomas and Terry Jackson, guitarists; Tony Saputo, drummer, and Chris Austin, a vocalist who also played fiddle and acoustic guitar, were lost.
Reba herself had spent the night in San Diego to rest up and planned to meet her band the following night for a show in Indiana. In the aftermath of the tragedy, she was scheduled to perform on the Academy Awards that year, only 9 days after the crash. She sang the song ‘I’m Checkin’ Out’ from the Meryl Streep flick Postcards from the Edge. Many music insiders criticized her for going back to work so quickly.
In the People magazine exclusive interview, she explained her decision to go forward with her career:
We were wondering what to do. I was wanting to cancel everything until July. I said, “I’m just not going to go back out there. It’s too much, I can’t do it without them.” I told Debbie I had to make a decision. And she looked at me, just like Jim would have done, and said, ‘Are you thinking about quitting?’ ”
I said, “Well, no, but I don’t know when I can go back.” And she said, “Jim Hammon worked all this time to help get you where you are today. He’d kick your butt if you thought about quitting.” And I hugged her neck and said, “I needed that, you’re right.” I know Jim would tell me, “Now, Reba, you know those fans expect that out of you, and you can’t quit; you’ve worked too hard and too long, and you’ve got to get back up there.”
I’ve got a very good calm that Jim wants me to go back out there. I know Kirk and Joey and Terry and Tony and Chris and Michael and Paula Kaye, they’d want me to, too. So my first time to perform again is on the Academy Awards, and I’m going to sing a song called “I’m Checkin’ Out” from Postcards from the Edge. I’m going to do it for the band. They’re checking out. They’ve got a new place to dwell.
Reba then channeled her pain into her next album, the landmark release For My Broken Heart. The album is a collection of songs of loss, loneliness, heartbreak, and pain. And the grief surrounding the recording can be heard on every track, but particularly the album closer, ‘If I Had Only Known’. Reba dedicated the entire album to her lost loved ones, but this song more than any other addresses the sorrow of losing someone all too quickly without ever saying goodbye: ’If I had only known/It was my last night by your side/I’d pray a miracle would stop the dawn/And when you smile at me/I would look into your eyes/And make sure you know my love for you goes on and on/If I had only known’.
To me, this is the mark of a true artist: one who can face adversity and the worst of heartache and then turn that tragedy into a timeless work of art. The loss of these 8 talented musicians was a blow to the entire country music community, but their legacy lives on. Every time someone takes solace in the songs on For My Broken Heart, their memory lives on.
Reba doesn’t include ‘If I Had Only Known’ in her stage shows, saying it’s just too painful and personal a song to do every night. Aside from a performance on Oprah in the early 90s, and a music video for the song to benefit St. Jude Children’s Hospital, the following is one of the only live performances.
And Reba’s performance from the 1991 Academy Awards ceremony, in my opinion, is one of her best vocal performances ever.