How a Homeless Tennessean Inspired the World’s Saddest Love Song
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there's hard truth at the bottom of the bottle.
In a trashed-up empty lot in Nashville, Big John sat. Clean-shaven and looking sharp, he proceeded to drink about three bottles of Thunderbird — and change music forever.
“I lay up there in that damn bed and if I’m not drunk, she’s on my mind every minute,” Big John says to his companions. His wife had left him, his utilities at home were off, and he had just gotten back from finalizing his divorce. “We both sat there and cried in the courtroom,” he lamented.
That’s when an unnamed Vietnam veteran — who also had taken refuge in the abandoned lot — uttered words of wisdom so plain, so poetic, that just a few years later everyone would know a variation on them.
“You can’t make a damn woman love you, if she don’t.”
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” became one of the most iconic ballads of all time. If you’re unfamiliar with Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 original, off Luck Of The Draw, chances are you’ve heard one of the many covers — from Prince, Bon Iver and Boyz II Men, among others. After debuting at No. 87 on the U.S. Billboard charts, it lingered there for 20 weeks, eventually peaking at No. 18. At the time, it was eclipsed by the sexy, playful “Something To Talk About” off the same album, which hit No. 5 on the charts and won Raitt a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Still, it’s the sad ballad that’s had more staying power. In August 2000, Mojo magazine voted “I Can’t Make You Love Me” the eighth-best track on its list of the 100 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song made it onto Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. And it’s the only Raitt single to have been inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame.
The real question is how one of the most soul-gripping, moving songs of all time got from the mouth of a down-on-his-luck alcoholic to the Grammys.
For that you’d have to thank Anne Paine — the reporter who, in 1989, profiled Big John and his buddies for a series on homelessness in The Tennessean. Paine, who retired in 2013 and lives in Nashville, says she had seen a couple of guys drinking and went down and hung out with them for two days.
“They were just passing the bottle around,” she tells me. Big John drew her attention because of his clean-shaven face, evidence that he’d just come from speaking his piece before a judge. “He’s the one who should get credit,” she says of Big John when speaking of the now bigger-than-life record. “[He] had just been in court that day, so he was talking about it. I try and be a fly on the wall with these sorts of things.”
The piece ran on the front page of The Tennessean, under the title “Winos Sleep It Off … Wherever.” The money quote was buried on Page 8, but still caught the eye of country songwriter Mike Reid, an ex-NFL athlete turned country artist living in Nashville and working with fellow songwriter Allen Shamblin.
Reid and Shamblin have, in the years since, spoken of the article as their inspiration. However, the details they recalled never add up. Reid told Stereogum in 2016 that the article was about a higher-up local politician’s brother shooting up a car after getting drunk on moonshine. He remembered the now-famous quote and song title being said to a judge. Shamblin had a different story: ‘The way I remember what was said in the story, there was a guy living under a bridge, somewhere close to downtown Nashville, and in the story, he said his wife came to pick him up, under the bridge and took him down to the courthouse to get a divorce.”
But what ended up mattering was Big John’s despair, and how Reid, Shamblin and Raitt passed it down to the listeners.
Reid and Shamblin worked and reworked the song tirelessly, first as an up-tempo bluegrass number and finally as the ballad it became. Reid sent a demo on cassette to Raitt, who’d gone sober herself a few years earlier. Raitt recorded the song in a single take, though producer Don Was later remembered that they had to fix a few places where she’d started crying. “If [something like that] comes along once a decade, you’re lucky,” Was said in 2016.
For her part, Paine didn’t even know the song existed until a music-writer friend shared an article about the song in October 2016. “That’s what amazed me,” she says. “All these people were going, ‘You’re my hero.’ And I go: It’s not me, it’s that guy.’”
We may never hear from that guy — Big John — again. We don’t know if he got back together with his wife, or if he put down the bottle. But there’s one thing for certain: It’s that we all caught a glimpse of his pain, and will continue to feel it as long as the song lives on.