Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.
On a plane bound for Amarillo, Tex., touring band members Chris Austin, Paula Evans, Terry Jackson, Kirk Cappello, Michael Thomas, Anthony Saputo and Joey Cigainero and tour manager Jim Hammon were unaware of their fate that crisp March morning. How could they have known what lay ahead. A few minutes past 1:45 am, after taking off from the Brown Field airstrip, their plane crashed into the snow-capped Otay Mountain along the US-Mexico border. Everyone aboard, including the pilot and co-pilot, died on impact. Reba and her husband/manager Narvel Blackstock flew out on another plane later that Saturday but not before hearing the tragic news.
“She was very close to all of them (the band members). Some of them had been with her for years,” spokeswoman Jennifer Bohler shared with LA Times in 1991, two days later. “Reba is totally devastated by this. It’s like losing part of your family. Right now she just wants to get back to Nashville.” Reba had just performed a private event for IBM executives in San Diego and was set to play for a crowd in Ft. Wayne, Ind. the next night.
But all that had changed in a blink of an eye. How fleeting life really is.
In the aftermath of the wreckage, Reba returned to the recording studio with a heavy heart and a clouded mind. For My Broken Heart, her 16th album (released seven months later), was born out of sorrow, and the song selection process became a healing agent as she scavenged through the rubble of her life in an attempt to glue the pieces back together. “I guess the world didn’t stop for my broken heart,” she weeps on the titular track, which opens the LP with the insurmountable weight of that harrowing accident. “Clock still ticking, life goes on. Radio still plays a song. I try to put my scattered thoughts in place.”
Often lauded as the best album of her career, Heart never shies away from those brittle, crippling and sometimes ghastly emotions: from “Is There Life Out There” (about a working woman who wishes things had turned out a bit differently) to her cover of Vicki Lawrence’s 1972 song “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” (a southern gothic tale which surprisingly fits nicely on a record about moving on and redemption) and the smoldering closer, “If I Had Only Known.” Reba’s vocal is rich in nuance and conviction, pouring out her heart on some of the most honest and moving lyrics of country music. “If I had only known it was the last walk in the rain, I’d keep you out for hours in the storm I would hold your hand like a life line to my heart,” she prays on the latter. “Underneath the thunder, we’d be warm. If I had only known it was our last walk in the rain…”
On “Bobby” (a co-write with Don Schlitz), she details a powerful story of a woman who suffers a car crash and loses her mind, and her husband, then, doesn’t want to see her hurt anymore, so he ends her life. He is charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison. “A little boy, dressed in blue, was standing at the rail. He said, ‘I hope they kill you, I hope you go to hell,'” Reba recounts of the son’s blinded misunderstanding of events. It wouldn’t be until many years later that he would learn the truth. “He took out the papers from the trunk beneath his bed, and all the years just disappeared as through his tears he read the stories of the accident that robbed his mama’s mind and the man who held her in his arms and chose to cut the line.”
The album, produced by Tony Brown (Vince Gill, George Strait), spawned major hits with “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (in contention as one of her best singles ever) and the aforementioned title track, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and “Is There Life Out There.” The album has since moved four million copies and garnered Reba a slew of award nominations, including Best Female Country Vocal Performance at the 1992 Grammy Awards (for the title song) and CMA Album of the Year. Other essential album songs are “He’s in Dallas,” “All Dressed Up (with No Where to Go),” “Buying Her Roses” and “I Wouldn’t Go That Far.” Really, there’s absolutely no dud on this album whatsoever, a rarity in mainstream country.
Earlier this year, on the 26th anniversary of the crash, Reba took to Instagram to pay tribute. “How time flies. 26 years ago our friends went to sit on the right hand side of God. I love and miss them,” she wrote. “Can you imagine the wonderful music they’re playing up there? And Jim making sure everything is set up just right?God takes the best. He has great taste.”
Reba is far too often overlooked for her album work. She’s most notably a live performer with grandiose staging and elaborate costumes, but without such risky songs, also including career-makers like “She Thinks His Name Was John” “Cathy’s Clown” (an Everly Brothers original), “Whoever’s in New England,” “Fancy” (originally recorded by Bobbie Gentry) and “You Lie,” she would never have built the empire she now enjoys. Shoutout goes to Country Universe, who posted a response to NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women, for inspiring this week’s #ThrowbackThursday. As a long-time country and Reba fan, I grew up listening to all her albums, especially For My Broken Heart, which came out at a pivotal, transformative time in my life when my parents split⎯as a five-year-old, that can be utterly devastating. In fact, I recall that memory vividly, as tears stained my porcelain cheeks and my father packed up all my clothes in a hand-me-down sky-blue suitcase. I’ll never forget it, and I was never the same after that.
Reba’s voice was somehow reassuring and made me believe everything would eventually work itself out. Well, it did. My parents never got back together, but I learned a very important lesson in love lost and how to forgive.
Spin the album below: