By the mid-1980s, Reba McEntire had become simply “Reba,” joining that pantheon of entertainers for whom one name was ample identification: Elvis, Dolly, Tammy, Loretta, Cher.
Her success was slow coming, though. She first charted in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1980 that she had a Top 10 and until 1982 that she scored a No. 1. After that, however, the spunky redhead — who celebrates her 64th birthday today (March 28) — came on like a runaway train. She snagged the CMA female vocalist award in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987. Also in 1986, she won the CMA entertainer of the year prize and a best female vocalist Grammy.
She was one of the first to turn her music videos into full-fledged mini-movies rather than settle for the usual tarted up performance clips. Occasionally, she drafted well-known actors to serve as her co-stars. Video versions of “Whoever’s In New England,” “What Am I Gonna Do About You,” “Sunday Kind of Love,” “Cathy’s Clown” and “Fancy” all served to spread her visibility beyond the country audience.
In 1990, she appeared in her first movie, Tremors, with Kevin Bacon.
Then, on March 19, 1991, eight of her band members were killed in a plane crash following a concert. Reba gave vent to her sorrow in the album that followed, For My Broken Heart. Co-produced by Reba and Tony Brown and released Oct. 1, 1991, For My Broken Heart is possibly the saddest album in country music and certainly one of the best ones.
“I ached singing every song,” she told this reporter. “I remember the musicians praying for an upbeat, happy song every time we said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do this one next.’”
Here are the 10 songs that emerged from her heartbreak:
“For My Broken Heart” (written by Liz Hengber, Keith Palmer)
Together the separating couple pick up the boxes, carry them to his car and he drives away alone, leaving her to cry herself to sleep alone. And the world — brutally and mercifully — goes on.
“Is There Life Out There” (Susan Longacre, Rick Giles)
Hemmed in by an early marriage and the obligations of family, the singer can only wonder how it might have been — or still might be — better than the life she’s living. Reba’s video version is considerably more hopeful, showing her as a waitress with two kids and doting husband but with work and college obligations that try her patience and stretch her thin. Its departure from the lyrics to include dramatic scenes and dialogue made the video so long it drew a widely publicized reprimand from CMT when it was first released. Rocker Huey Lewis is cast as Reba’s husband. In 1994, the song was made into a full-fledged TV movie with Reba as its star.
“Bobby” (Reba McEntire, Don Schlitz)
Bobby killed his wife to end her suffering and is reviled by his young son as he’s taken away to prison. But through it all, he knows he acted out of love and is content with his decision. When the son grows up and learns what love is, he is finally able to appreciate and embrace his father, not as a villain but as a man of mercy. This may be the strangest country song ever written, with the possible exception of the Pirates of the Mississippi’s “Feed Jake.”
“He’s in Dallas” (Donny Kees, Richard Ross, Johnny MacRae)
A silver-tongued devil enchants a girl from West Virginia and lures her to move to Dallas, where she has his child. But she no longer has him since he’s abandoned her and the baby for the city’s nightlife. Now she’s on a Greyhound bus and headed home holding in her arms “the only dream that turned out right.” And he’s still in Dallas. There’s far more breakage here than in “For My Broken Heart.”
“All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)” (Lisa Palas, Biff Fink, Ira Rogers)
Sometimes it’s hard to know which is the greater tragedy — an old person who’s lost her mind or one who’s still in possession of it and realizes her stark predicament. Here an old lady in the nursing home dresses up each Sunday and waits to be taken home by the family that never comes. It’s an image that makes certain of us weep profusely.
“The Night That the Lights Went Out in Georgia” (Bobby Russell)
This is a veritable round robin of adultery, mixed motives and mistaken identity. “That’s the night that the lights went out in Georgia / That’s the night that they hung an innocent man.” But if the lyrics are rather murky and hard to follow, Reba makes the story plain in her music video, wherein she plays herself as both a young and an old woman. If you’re still puzzled about who did what to whom, read the newspaper headline that ends the video.
“Buying Her Roses” (Joe Doyle, Rick Peoples)
Told from the point of view of a woman who knows her marriage has gone stale. “Between the jobs and the kids/wasn’t much time for him” now “he’s out buying her roses.” What to do? What to do? There’s no video that resolves this emotional dilemma.
“The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (Richard Leigh, Layng Martine Jr.)
Few things are sadder to a child than a remote parent. And that’s what we have here. Dutiful, reliable but always distant. “Oh he was good at business / But there was business left to do / He never said he loved me / Guess he thought I knew.”
“I Wouldn’t Go That Far” (Dana McVicker, Bruce Burch, Vip Vipperman)
At last, a persuasive argument against delayed gratification. Listening more to her head than her heart, she declines to make love to him or accept his offer of marriage: “I wouldn’t go that far,” she explains. After all, she has other dreams to chase. Years later, when she meets him and his family, he assumes her success has brought her happiness. Well, she wouldn’t go that far.
“If I Had Only Known” (Jana Stanfield, Craig Morris)
One day they’re here — and then they’re gone, leaving us to struggle with the agonizing what-ifs. This song dwells on the grief that lingers when loved ones are taken abruptly from us, as was Reba’s doomed band.