Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Rosanne Cash, “The Way We Make a Broken Heart”

“The Way We Make a Broken Heart”

Rosanne Cash

Written by John Hiatt

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

September 11, 1987


#1 (1 week)

October 10, 1987

Two projects that didn’t work out led to the masterpiece that is King’s Record Shop.

The first project was a greatest hits collection that Columbia was compiling as a follow-up to Rhythm & Romance. Cash pushed back, feeling it wasn’t time for one yet, and took some time to put together King’s Record Shop instead.

The lead single, “The Way We Make a Broken Heart,” was originally a creepy duet with its songwriter, John Hiatt. That 1983 effort wisely went unreleased until it eventually surfaced as bonus material on a Hiatt compilation many years later.  Cash reworked it as a solo track, and it works perfectly.

Cash is one of the cheaters in this situation, and by singing alone about the impact her philandering is having on the partner of her clandestine lover.  She’s not just a passive participant here, either: “We’ve laid a trail of tears for her to follow, and we’ve thought of every line that she might swallow.” That shared ownership is critical to why this song works so well as a solo effort. Sure, the “we” set it up to be a duet, but by doing it alone, it instead become a dark internal monologue where Cash is ruing what they have done to the one innocent party in this love triangle.

Then comes the devastating kicker at the end. The cheating lovers “dim the lights on this affair,” and the brokenhearted woman who was scorned tries to love again. Cash nearly drowns in her own self-loathing as she imagines that the rest of the world around her is just as corrupt as she is: “She’ll find someone new, and he’ll likely hurt her too, ’cause there must be millions just like you and me, practiced in the art.”

“The Way We Make a Broken Heart” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. The creme de le creme of cheating songs, the narrator being equal parts ruthless and self-aware, with a melody that’s equally as bipolar and keeps the listener consistently off-balance. It was hard to know exactly where Rosanne Cash was going next at any point in her career, but this song was a gamble for radio given its unambiguously adult themes and nuanced cruelty. It certainly seems an unlikely choice as the lead single of her most commercially successful album.

    I knew John Hiatt wrote the song and figured he performed it, but I never sought out his version and will respectfully continue to abstain. I didn’t realize Rosanne’s studio was pushing for a greatest hits album so early, but I’m glad she pushed back and I’m sure they ultimately did as well as “King’s Record Shop” is one of the best commercial country albums of my lifetime. In case you can’t tell, as this is my first review of a Rosanne Cash song, I’m a huge fan of her work! I lament that she went in a noncommercial direction just a couple of years later as I feel she would have fit right in with the women of the 90s that came of age on the charts just as she disappeared. On the other hand, I don’t think “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” could have been a hit by the time 1992 came around as the commercial country music scene had in ways grown more conservative even as it was trending more progressive in other ways, and a cheating song like this doesn’t feel like it would have fit in alongside “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this song has gotten effectively zero recurrent airplay in more than three decades.

    Grade: A

  2. Here we go!! Rosanne was one of the best artists of the 80’s. I always thought she was very creative during the 80’s and albeit not very country.Even though she said she didn’t want to ride on her dad’s name and go her own way I always thought she was just like her dad in the way that genres didn’t matter to her and she went wherever her creative muse went. She got on country radio with some of the most pop/new wave inspired music and still scored big because the songs were fantastic. I go back to her commercial period of music all the time.

  3. I first encountered “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” when it showed up on a 1985 Dot Records album released by Asleep At The Wheel. I thought the song was quite interesting and well sung and well produced – it certainly is more country that Cash’s version – but I really didn’t see any hit potential at the time even though I very much like their version. Chris O’Connell is the female vocalist on the track and Ray Benson takes the male vocals. For me, it’s a tossup which version I prefer

  4. I remember this single sounding so cool and artsy. There was something about it sonically that set it apart from everything else on the radio. Just the blunt “How To” structure of the song about cheating seemed simultaneously radical and familiar.

    Roseanne Cash was country music’s rock star.

    This is a great performance.

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