Heartbreak is at the heart of country music. Perhaps that’s because heartbreak is the common denominator for us all. No matter our lot or station in life, we’ve all lost someone or something at some point – a job to the economy, our innocence, a lover to another, a spouse to divorce or death, a child who grows up and away, or even our youth.
But how do you face multiple losses in the midst of tragedy? Alan Jackson’s ‘Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning’ after 9/11 is this decade’s healing anthem grappling with that question. In the 90s, Reba’s album For My Broken Heart as a whole was a healing agent following the tragic loss of her band, tour manager and the flight crew in a fiery plane crash on March 16, 1991 after a tour stop in San Diego.
For Reba and her husband and manager, Narvel, their family, the victims’ families and friends, the fans and the country music community, the world did stop turning. Intense tragedy knocks the breath out of you. How do you go on after such a blow to your heart and spirit?
The album, summed up in the title track, attempts to answer that question: with stumbling steps forward. Though the song ‘For My Broken Heart’ is about a congenial break-up, it traces the beginnings of how one begins to breathe again after loss:
Clocks still tickin’ life goes on
Radio still plays a song as I try to put my scattered thoughts in place
And it takes all the strength I’ve got to stumble to the coffee pot
The first of many lonely mornings I’ll have to face
You called to see if I’m ok I look out the window and I just say:
Last night I prayed the Lord my soul to keep
Then I cried myself to sleep
So sure life wouldn’t go on without you
But oh this sun is blinding me
As it wakes me from the dark
I guess the world didn’t stop
For my broken heart
Not only are the lyrics by Liz Hengber and Keith Palmer beautiful and honest, but so are Reba’s vocals backed by light guitar accompaniment on the verses. As others have said, the restraint in Reba’s voice on many of the tracks on this album is noticeable and adds to the overall sense of tentatively moving forward. This song is a perfect opener for this album, with that in mind, from its subtle quiet synthesizer beginning to the clock “still ticking” in the lyrics of the verse to its quiet ending.
Perhaps Liz Hengber’s beautiful writing on this one as well as others over her career is why Reba chose to collaborate with her on one of the tracks of her newest album, ‘She’s Turning Fifty Today’ from Keep On Loving You.
‘For My Broken Heart’ was the album’s lead single and the first #1 off this quadruple platinum record. The album itself was a record-breaker for women in country music since it was the first by a female to go double-platinum. Produced by Reba and Tony Brown, it garnered Favorite Country Album at the 1993 American Music Awards.
Even though you want the world to stop after a hurt this deep, both for you to catch your breath and also as an acknowledgement of how the world has been forever altered by the loss, it does keep turning, as the opener gently reminds us. The second track’s title on the album wonders, ‘Is There Life Out There?’ (Rick Giles/Susan Longacre). Going forward after a loss, isn’t that a real question? It’s hard to imagine life looking ahead because it will be so different from what you’ve known.
Again, the story in the song isn’t a direct reflection of the tragedy’s events. Instead, it’s the story of a woman who married young and never got to explore life beyond having a husband and family: ‘She doesn’t want to leave. She’s just wonderin’ is there life out there.’ The wonderful, tight, country harmonies on the background vocals are a highlight on this fan favorite and second #1 single off the album. Vince Gill and Linda Davis are among the background vocalists on several songs.
The music video, a pioneering mini-movie, directed by Jack Cole, cast Reba as a waitress, wife and mother wanting to go to college. Though CMT almost banned it from the network due to concerns that the message was taking precedence over the music, it was the Video of the Year for 1992 at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
Ironically, CMT devoted a whole segment to it in its first CMT Giants special honoring Reba. As Wynona Judd belted out the tribute on the special, the screens behind her displayed quotes from the hundreds of women inspired by the song to go on to college to complete their education or take it to the next level. Reba starred in a made-for-television movie of the same title based on this song in 1994. The film included another great track from the album, ‘The Greatest Man I Never Knew’ (Laying Martine, Jr./Richard Leigh).
‘Greatest Man’ was the fourth single and climbed to #3 on Billboard’s country chart and #1 on R & R. A lovely ode to an emotionally distant father who died without being able to verbally speak the love his daughter longed to hear:
The greatest words I never heard
I guess I’ll never hear
The man I thought would never die
’S been dead almost a year
He was good at business
But there was business left to do
He never said he loved me
Guess he thought I knew
Again, Reba’s voice takes on a gentle wistfulness acknowledging the love unspoken that she’s lost. The light keyboard and guitar accompaniment are more adult contemporary in style than country, but beautiful nonetheless.
The third single, which surprisingly only peaked at #12, was the dark and dramatic story song cover of Vicky Lawrence’s 1972 hit, ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia.’ Appropriately placed at the center of the album, its story of murder, betrayal and a hanging seems to perfectly illustrate the deep darkness often at the center of the journey through grief.
Reba is at her best dramatically and vocally on dark story songs. Her strong voice really comes into its own on the sharp and edgy melody in the chorus. The production is great on this one from the mysterious whines of the electric guitars, to the crisp rim shots on the drums that give the effect of gun shots, and the sparse accompaniment on the verses building up to the climax of the murder and resulting hanging of the innocent man. Who dun it? You’ll have to listen to find out!
Another mini-movie music video was again directed by Jack Cole. Reba ages from a young teenager to an old woman as the plot thickens…!
Reba went into the studio to record For My Broken Heart only two months after the crash. As she says in her autobiography, the album “was my commemoration of the band and of other lost loved ones.” She writes in her liner notes,
It seems your current emotional status determines what music you’d like to hear. That’s what happened on the song selection for this album. If for any reason you can relate to the emotion packed inside these songs, I hope it’s a form of healing for all our broken hearts.
Perhaps the other best known song from the album, though never officially released as a single (it did chart and peaked at #72), is the album’s closing ballad, “If I Had Only Known.” Reba says she only ran through it once in the studio and then recorded it. It was all she could do, she says. It is the most personal reflection of her own grief, and she has rarely performed it. Craig Morris’ and Jana Stanfield’s delicate lines lay bare the tender regret of grieving a love’s death,
If I had only known it was our last walk in the rain
I’d keep you out for hours in the storm.
I would hold your hand like a lifeline to my heart
Underneath the thunder we’d be warm.
If I had only known it was our last walk in the rain
Reba’s voice wavers, but only slightly, maintaining an almost fragile strength. Again, the sparse synthesizer gives it that ethereal quality – is the loss real? And Reba’s aching voice nods, yes. But paradoxically, acknowledging the pain of deep loss often opens the door to healing.
As is often the case, sometimes great songs are hidden amongst the tracks that are never released as singles. All of the remaining tracks are, in my opinion, great songs. And all are tales of loss and longing, but strangely in the telling contribute to the healing power of the album.
They’re almost all incredible story songs. ‘Bobby’ (Don Schlitz/Reba) is one of the more country tracks on the album featuring some nice acoustic guitar and fiddle. It’s the story of a young man whose father is imprisoned for the euthanasia of his mother and of their eventual reconciliation.
Next is ‘He’s In Dallas’ (Donny Kees/Johnny MacRae/Richard Ross) featuring some steel and the most country instrumentation and harmony vocals telling of a woman’s journey on a Greyhound bus, leaving the man who promised to make her “dreams come true in Texas” while holding in her lap “the only dream that turned out right”.
‘All Dressed Up (With Nowhere To Go)’ by the team of Biff Fink, Ira Rogers and Lisa Palas is the story of Ruby Wilson in room 303 of the Oaks Retirement Home who dresses up in her finest to meet the visitor that never comes. This one has some nice trembling mandolin reminding me of the trembling frailty of aging.
‘Buying Her Roses’ (Joe Doyle/Rick Peoples) is the age-old story of a woman discovering that her husband is having an affair and wondering what to do:
He’s out buying her roses
And where that leaves me God only knows
I know I should tell him
To leave me forever
But what’ll I do if he goes
Finally, ‘I Wouldn’t Go That Far’ (Bruce Burch/Dana McVicker/Vip Vipperman) finds a woman looking back on a “night long ago” on a dusty road when she “wouldn’t go that far.”
He was so patient, he didn’t give up
With a ring in his hand and a heart full of love
He asked me for forever, I asked him to wait
To please understand these dreams I must chase
Though it was a promise I wanted to make
I wouldn’t go that far
I didn’t follow my heart
He said he loved me
But I wasn’t ready
And I wouldn’t go that far
A trail of broken hearts winds its way through the whole album. It is probably Reba’s most thematically and musically consistent album, and the most artistically and emotionally poignant. It is a fitting and beautiful tribute to those that were lost, as well as a finely tuned instrument of healing for many at the time, and since, who suffered from the pain of a broken heart.
Full Album ‘For My Broken Heart’
Music Video ‘Is There Life Out There?’
Music Video ‘The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia’