Recorded in the aftermath of the tragic plane crash that killed her tour manager and most of her band, For My Broken Heart is Reba McEntire’s masterpiece, a somber album that pays tribute to the loss by tying together ten songs around the theme of missed opportunities, most notably the chance to let true feelings be shown before it’s too late.
With the exception of the murder ballad “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia”, which within the context of the album manages to sound less campy than one would expect, the characters in these songs are anything but broadly drawn. They are wounded, vulnerable and conflicted, unsure if the right opportunity has already passed them by or if they’re doing the right thing by putting faith in those they love.
Witness the quiet elderly woman who waits in the lobby of her nursing home every Sunday for her family that never shows up (”All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)”, or the woman in “Buying Her Roses”, who has been betrayed by her husband, but isn’t sure which step to take next, with the tough feminist ideal conflicting with her own sense of identity (”I know I should tell him to leave me forever, but what’ll I do if he goes?”).
In “He’s In Dallas”, the woman who was sold on the dreams of her husband but let down leaves on a Greyhound bus with child in tow, “holding on to the only dream that turned out right.” In “I Wouldn’t Go That Far”, she’s a career-minded woman who lets the man of her dreams slip away so she can chase her ambitions, but realizes in the end that “I didn’t follow my heart” and that happiness has eluded her.
The best two songs on the album deal with the loss of a loved one where words were left unspoken. “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” has a daughter remembering her father, who loved her so deeply but was never able to express it to her: “He was good at business, but there was business left to do. He never said he loved me, guess he thought I knew.”
Most powerful of all is the album closer, “If I Had Only Known”, which may be the greatest thing McEntire has ever recorded. She sings to a person who has died unexpectedly, and mourns not only the loved one who is gone, but also the opportunity to tell them how she felt: “You were the treasure in my hand, you were the one who always stood beside me. So unaware, I foolishly believed that you would always be there. Then there came I day, and I turned my head, and you slipped away…”
The circumstances that birthed this album were tragic, but also brought the very best out of McEntire as an artist. In recording the best album of her career, she honored those who were lost in a way that only a person with her stunning level of talent could do.