Every #1 Single of the Nineties: Reba McEntire, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”

“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”

Reba McEntire

Written by Ed Hill, Mark D. Sanders, Kim Williams

Billboard

#1 (1 week)

April 15, 1995

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

April 7, 1995

McEntire’s return to radio dominance continues.

The Road to No. 1

McEntire’s commercial success was at its peak in the early-to-mid nineties, and Read My Mind‘s sluggish start at radio turned the corner with “Till You Love Me,” the third single and first of three consecutive No. 1 hits from the album.  The fourth single, and second No. 1 hit, became McEntire’s first solo No. 1 on the Billboard chart since “Is There Life Out There.”

The No. 1

That’s the only connective tissue that can be built between “Is There Life Out There” and “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”  Really, the best thing about this record is its title, which is borrowed from a classic piece of literature.

Everything else about it grates on my nerves.  The main character is a cardboard cutout more worthy of a Brooks & Dunn number, though I suspect if B&D had written this song, something might have actually happened in it.

“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” is all build-up, introducing us to a woman who doesn’t care “about right or wrong, she’s been alone way too long.”  The guitar hook reinforces this “predator on the move” atmosphere, hinting that due to her loneliness, she’s going to do something that she shouldn’t, so controlled she is by lust and loneliness.

So she meets a married man who tries to pick her up, she notices the ring mark, but the chorus reminds us again, “the heart is a lonely hunter,” setting us up for a payoff that doesn’t even happen.

Yes, by the time of the bridge, this predatory woman tells the man no, and turns away so he doesn’t see her tears.

I almost want to congratulate the writers for pulling off this pivot from one hollow female stereotype to another so shamelessly: “See, you thought she was a tramp but she’s really just an emotional wreck! Girl power!”

Look, I love Reba McEntire, and I’m looking forward to writing about her next three No. 1 singles.  But this was the peak of her style over substance era, where she chose theatrical songs that she could sing in her (wonderfully) over-the-top stage shows.  Her concerts of this era were arguably the best that country music has ever seen.  The records? Not so much.

The Road From No. 1

McEntire aims for the heart with her next No. 1 single, which we’ll cover later this year. (It’s a winner.)

“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” gets a D.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

Previous: Joe Diffie, “So Help Me Girl” |

Next: Alabama, “Give Me One More Shot”

 

15 Comments

  1. I disagree with this review. I don’t see any stereotypes in this song. While this is one of Reba’s more theatrical and poppy songs, it works for me as I can feel the pain of desperately wanting love but looking in the wrong places. My grade would be a B.

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  2. I’ll join the commenters saying this isn’t a D, at least for me.
    I mean reviews and criticism are always subjective, which is cool- because it’s nice to hear differing points of view about a song or an album or an artist. I’ll definitely agree it’s not among Reba’s top tier material, but in no world is this a lesser record than, for example, Pickup Man (which was given a C).

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    • I’d say that “Pickup Man” set the bar lower for what it was trying to do and met it, while “Heart is a Lonely Hunter” failed at the task it set for itself. “Pickup Man” was about as good as a song like that could be (C), but the idea behind “Heart is a Lonely Hunter” has been done so much better, even at around the same time.

      It doesn’t help the comparison that “Spilled Perfume” was on an album released the same day as the one with “Hunter.” But I’ll counter with something even better – a spin on the same idea from Reba herself, brilliantly written by Brandy Clark:

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  3. Yeah, personally I’ve enjoyed seeing all kinds of opinions from different people on these 90’s country songs, so far, even if I haven’t always agreed with some of them. It’s just yet another thing that’s made this feature fun and interesting. (Well, seeing almost all of the early 90’s singles being universally loved here earlier in the feature was pretty cool, too. :) )

    As for this one, it’s another one I’ve always liked more for it’s overall sound and vocal performance than the lyrics, similar to B&D’s “She’s Not The Cheatin’ Kind.”. I personally like the typical mid 90’s contemporary country sound of the song, and I’ve especially always enjoyed the guitar work on it. I really like the key change in the final chorus, as well. While I can’t really identify with the main character in this song (never been much for going to bars, either), like Truth said, I do feel and understand the overall sentiment of it, though.

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    • With everything from the late (first) Tony Brown era of Reba’s, I prefer the live performances over the recordings. Here’s a great live version of this song, which if being graded separately, would’ve bumped it up to a C+.

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      • I hadn’t seen this before, but I fully agree- this is better than the studio version; it has a bite to it that’s not present on the album track.
        Thanks for sharing the link.

        While the Tony Brown/Reba partnership resulted in her most successful era, her switching up producers and giving What If It’s You a more organic sound, resulted in what I think is probably her best album- so even though I personally enjoy nearly all of Reba’s 90s singles, the criticsm of her Brown-produced material is very fair.

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        • I consider What If It’s You Reba’s 2nd best album in general with For my Broken Heart tops! I’ve always considered it to be her Mary Chapin album as far as sound and using her live band. It’s also the first Reba cassette I got that was being promoted when I got it for Christmas 96.

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          • I had never thought of What If It’s You in terms of it being Reba’s MCC album, but omg that’s such a good call- I totally see that…and I’m such an unabashed MCC fanboy that it probably partly explains why I have such love for What If It’s You. Haha.

            I certainly can’t quibble with FMBH being your number one. It’s a masterpiece and I think it’s her most cohesive “album.” I love Reba, so I don’t mean it as a dig, but I’ve always thought Reba’s albums were mostly built around the singles- but that’s definitely not true of FMBH.
            Objectively, I think For My Broken Heart is probably the better album from an artistic POV- but I’m such a sucker for the breezy jangly sound of What If It’s You that I can’t help but gravitate to it. She revisted that sound again on Room to Breathe, but the non-singles aren’t nearly as strong as they are on WIIY.

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        • The overproduction on Read My Mind and Starting Over limited her options as a vocalist. It was a smart move using her road band on What If It’s You.

          The real ringer for me, no pun intended, was “Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands.” Listen to the way she sings “gold turned cold” in the chorus when doing it live. The studio version is so flat by comparison.

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          • Loving these videos youre linking. This thread put me deep into a Reba rabbit hole today. Man she’s an incredible live vocalist, especially during this era- it’s easy to take that for granted.

            And the production was absolutely out of control on Starting Over- the whole album felt heavy, goopy even. There are good tracks to be found on that album, but it was very strange misstep for her during a period where it had felt like she couldn’t miss…and while Starting Over is a touch off topic, this is probably as close as you’ll get to mentioning it during this particular series since Ring’s (I think) #9 peak was its highest charting single on Billboard, at least.

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          • It’s not covered in this feature, but “Ring On Her Finger” went No. 1 on the Gavin chart. It peaked at #6 on the R&R chart. After “And Still,” we won’t see Reba again until “The Fear of Being Alone.”

            Starting Over was definitely a career slower for her. She dropped out of the Entertainer of the Year race for good and the Female Vocalist race for many years to follow in the wake of that album. It still sold well – and her next studio set went double platinum – but Reba being the most prominent female artist came to an end. I’m not sure any woman before or since has dominated for as long as she did.

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  4. Oh this is my favorite of all the singles on Read My Mind, so definitely no D. Perhaps I prefer style over substance but this just rocks with that 90s country bombast that I love. Honestly it’s in my Top 10 Reba songs and not even as a guilty pleasure.

  5. I do agree with the assessment of Starting Over. It was the first time she felt out of touch. With the Industry quake of Shania just beginning along with the surging Faith and Martina, Reba with the gowns and big hair and overproduction seemed “old” for the first time. What If It’s You was a shrewd and needed adjustment that kept her in play for another decade+ commercially.

  6. This song rates well enough if considered in isolation. As Tony shared, it has that” 90’s country bombast.” I think this is what 90’s country sounds like to non-country fans. It is representative of a sound and an era. The rub is that the era had so much more to offer than this placeholder playing to sonic expectations and 90’s country conventions.

    Contextualize this single with what Yearwood, Loveless, Tillis, and Carpenter were doing and it does become clear Reba is in the rearview mirror of where women in country are headed.

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