Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Reba McEntire, “One Promise Too Late”

“One Promise Too Late”

Reba McEntire

Written by David Loggins, Don Schlitz, and Lisa Silver

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

July 17, 1987

Billboard

#1 (1 week)

August 8, 1987

1987 was a victory lap for Reba McEntire.

After taking home the Entertainer of the Year trophy at the 1986 CMA Awards, she won her first Grammy in 1987 (for “Whoever’s in New England) and also won ACM Top Female Vocalist and CMA Female Vocalist that year, setting records for wins in each category that wouldn’t be matched until the following century.

Her move to MCA happened in 1984, and by 1987, she’d already done well enough – almost – to warrant her first Greatest Hits collection for the label.  Unlike Vol. 2 a few years later, every No. 1 single from the era was included, and only one MCA single was omitted: her most recent, “Let the Music Lift You Up,” which was the second single from What Am I Gonna Do About You. It was a bigger chart hit than four of the six pre-“New England” tracks, but underperformed compared to what came right before it.

Rather than close Greatest Hits with that single, the label picked another track from the album – “One Promise Too Late” – and dropped it on to the end of the hits collection, working it at radio as a stop gap while McEntire prepared her next studio album.

So for a song that almost wasn’t a single, given MCA’s track record of limiting McEntire projects to two singles each, it’s remarkable that “One Promise Too Late” might be her best single of the entire decade.

It’s a classic country lyric in the vein of “Almost Persuaded,” but this is more than just an almost cheating song.  The woman here isn’t passing up a weekend tryst. She’s actually met the man of her dreams, and she knows that he is who she is meant to be with.  “I met someone before you” is the last line she’s able to deliver straight before her voice starts cracking – “And my heart just couldn’t waiiit.”  So no matter how much she adores him, she’s got to stick with the guy she married because she didn’t think her soulmate was on his way.

McEntire twanging a heartbreak song while bathing in fiddles is about as good as country music gets, and it showcases her unique strengths as a pure country vocalist. She’s an all-time great who is pretty versatile as a stylist, but she’s the GOAT when she does pure country records like this.  The harmonies are stunning in the chorus, and even the lack of a second verse reinforces the song’s message.  Sorry, can’t stick around, or I might do the wrong thing: “I can’t have you, but I never will forget you.”

McEntire has some additional excellent No. 1 singles on deck, and some that aren’t up to the same level as those.  But in the eighties, this might be her highwater mark.

“One Promise Too Late” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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3 Comments

  1. Wow. It had never occurred to me that Reba would have already had a Greatest Hits album out in 1987. She played the grandstand in my hometown county fair in 1985 and, to my eternal regret, I didn’t attend. I was only seven years old so I wouldn’t have fully appreciated it, but I started attending most concerts at this fair the following summer and had been to a few before Reba. I knew who she was from what I heard on my mom and my babysitter’s radio, but for whatever reason, I had other priorities on the August day she performed.

    Anyway, I agree that this was Reba’s best song from the 80s. It’s quite a bit more country than I remembered. I had forgotten about all that delightful fiddle sprinkled through the song. Thankfully, the lyric is not relatable to me, but I’m sure it is for millions of people, and her performance nails the narrator’s heartbreak and makes it salient even for listeners like myself who never found themselves in such an unfortunate predicament. A masterpiece through and through.

    Grade: A

  2. I adore Reba, but I don’t think many would rank her as the GOAT. She is the best female vocalist of her particular era but she lacks having the iconic songs of the “other” GOATS of country music. This song is well done but not something a new generation would reach for if looking for country classics. I would give it a solid “B”.

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