Every #1 Country Single of the Nineties: Reba McEntire, “The Greatest Man I Never Knew”

“The Greatest Man I Never Knew”

Reba McEntire

Written by Richard Leigh and Layng Martine, Jr. 

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

October 16, 1992

This just might be Reba McEntire’s best single.

The Road to No. 1

For My Broken Heart is one of only two Reba McEntire albums to produce three No. 1 hits.  After the title track and “Is There Life Out There” topped both charts, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” went top ten only on the R&R list, and it broke a string of consecutive Billboard top ten hits dating back to 1984.   She returned to the top of R&R with the fourth and final single from the album.

The No. 1

For My Broken Heart is Reba McEntire’s masterpiece.  I’m going to explore that more in a standalone piece for the album’s 30th anniversary, but suffice it to say that they could’ve pulled almost any track from the album and it would be in contention for her greatest single.

“The Greatest Man I Never Knew” is the best of the four singles that were sent to radio, and might be her absolute best hit of all time.

It features a stunning vocal performance that is all grief and regret and even a little bit of resentment intertwined, as she mourns the man who kept his distance while he sacrificed all of himself for her, but could never find the words or physical affection to express to his daughter just how much she was loved.

“Then the days turned into years, and the memories to black and white.  He grew cold like an old winter wind, blowing across my life.”

She mourns for what’s been lost and what was never found, for what had been and for what never was. When people wonder why the sitcom star and feisty media personality known as Reba is also considered one of the finest country music vocalists of all time, answer them with this.

The Road From No. 1

McEntire followed her top-selling studio album of all time with the triple platinum It’s Your Call.  The lead single, “Take it Back,” went top five, followed by two more chart-toppers from the collection. We’ll cover them in 1993.

“The Greatest Man I Never Knew” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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  1. I do believe this is her best song. I was always a bit disappointed that Reba did so many remakes. This is Reba at her very best. I just wish she had a few more this good.

  2. It’s a very good song, not one of my favorites, but still a very good song. For some reason the song stalled at #3 on Billboard’s country chart

  3. My dad passed away 15 yrs ago from a battle with colon cancer when I was 22. This song hits so hard but I love it so much because it speaks our story. All these years later this song can elicit memories of how hard my dad worked for us but didnt ever say he loved us. I don’t ever remember my dad saying her loved me but I knew he did from what he did for us. I 100% regret that it was never said between us before his death but even though he had stage 4 cancer it was an very unexpected death from a blood clot that took him sooner than we thought. Ppl, learn from me and this song say it before you loose the chance. Thank you Reba for this beautiful song that helps with the healing!

  4. Co-writer Richard Leigh also wrote 2 of Crystal Gayle’s biggest hits – I’ll Get Over You and Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.

  5. truth – I’m so sorry about your loss!

    Like others here, this song also never fails to make me emotional when I hear it, and I certainly have a greater understanding and appreciation for it now than when I was little. My step dad did often tell me he loved me when I was little, but he did it less and less as the years went by and as I got older. Still, he did show his love in the things he did for us. Fortunately, we did get to tell each other after a very long time, that we loved each other not long before he passed. Still, I have plenty of regrets of us not being quite as close in those last few years as we were when I was much younger. The line “Everything he gave to us took all he had” is pretty relatable for us, as well, especially after he took a new job in the 2000’s, which did seem to take a lot out of him. And I have to admit I had a pretty hard time keeping it together when I heard this song not long after losing him and hearing the line “The man I thought could never die has been dead for almost a year.” You know you have a great song when nearly 30 years later, it can still have such a huge effect on people emotionally. This is also definitely one of her greatest vocal performances, imo.

    I also agree with Tom P that it’s a shame that Reba is more well known for her covers today than her great songs original songs like this. I personally think this, along with “For My Broken Heart,” and “Is There Life Out There” are some of her best ever singles.

  6. Jamie,
    I really enjoy reading about your memories of your stepfather and how close you were when you were a young child. I’m sorry to learn that you weren’t so close when you were older. I wasn’t expecting that turn. I’m glad you were able to patch things up before he passed away.

    When I think about it, my dad isn’t someone who says the words I love you, but it is very evident in what he does say to us and through his actions. This song always makes me feel emotional, because I feel gratitude to have a father not like the one in this song.

  7. This is one county music’s most unsettling songs. The raw honesty of the song makes it uncomfortable to listen to. It’s confessional in its hurt and regret. All these years later I am still left rattled after listening to it and sometimes continue to wonder if McEntire really intended for me to hear what she just sang. An intimate listening experience, sort of like finding someone’s journal entry.

    Reading about how this song has touched other people speaks to its reach and power.

    A classic.

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