Everybody feels the need for a good, cathartic hurtin’ song sometimes, but I bet for a lot of folks this one hurts a bit too much. It’s beautiful, but it’s real, and this level of emotional honesty cuts pretty deep.
It kind of guts me, too, but I can’t help myself.
It seems such a perfect expression of a particularly feminine point of view, and the way women process heartbreak, that it may come as a surprise that it was written by a couple of guys, who based it on a true story that was purely about male folly. The composers, Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, were inspired by a newspaper article. The report was in the “crime and punishment” genre on the back page of the morning edition, and concerned this fairly pathetic back-hollow sort of country boy who, one gathers, had been dumped by his girlfriend, and wasn’t ready to accept it. Sad, frustrated, and angry, he got himself all drunked up on moonshine and shot her car full of holes, like that was going to show her something. Well, that lands you in the slam, sonny. At sentencing the judge asked him if he’d learned anything from all this, probably expecting him to admit that guns and alcohol don’t mix and he was powerful sorry, but instead he looked balefully at the bench and said “Yes your honour. You can’t make a woman love you, if she don’t.”
Mike Reid remembers that when they finished the song, it was the only time he ever really felt they’d done something they couldn’t improve upon. Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt were the only ones they felt could possibly do right by it, and Raitt got the first crack. She didn’t need time to think about it. Her first impression was that it might be one of the greatest songs ever written. Other songwriters agree, including the great Carole King, who described it as “torn from the depths of feeling, from the bottom of that place where your love is unrequited”.
You can’t make a woman love you, if she don’t. Maybe to some that sounds kind of dumb. Not to me. It is, actually, one of the most painful and important lessons every young man needs to learn, and one he’ll ignore at his peril.
Anyone familiar with the work of Bruce Hornsby, who had a couple of hits in the 80s, will immediately recognize his playing on the piano accompaniment.