“I Can’t Make You Love Me” seems to find everyone eventually. I was 17, going through my first breakup, and the Bonnie Raitt song hit me hard, its weary resignation a kind of comfort: If she could accept that relationships don’t always work out, then maybe I could, too. Songs come from somewhere — usually from someone’s specific experience, which they translate into music that the whole world latches onto — but what’s remarkable about “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is that it started as a line in a news story, eventually becoming a widely covered tune that’s endured for more than 30 years, younger artists finding ways to keep it alive. And if the song makes you cry, don’t worry: It made the people who originally recorded it cry, too.
The song was the brainstorm of Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, writers who found their way to music in unconventional ways. Reid had played football in college at Penn State, becoming an All-Pro with the Cincinnati Bengals. “I had no gifts or natural abilities in music,” he once said. “[My gifts] were in sports. But the music was something that got in there. I just enjoyed trying things. Fortunately, my [Penn State] coach Joe Paterno loved that he had a guy on the team that majored in music.” But injuries cut short his career, and he found his way to songwriting. “There was no discernible talent in me, but I do think following your heart sometimes requires overcoming common sense,” he observed.
Meanwhile, Shamblin was a real estate appraiser, a job he came to realize he didn’t love. “I remember one morning driving into work in Austin and I was miserable,” Shamblin recalled. “I was pounding on my dash in my car just saying, ‘No! This can’t be my life.’ About that time, I started asking myself, ‘What am I passionate about?’ And the answer kept coming back: ‘Music. Music.’ I remember one night I went for a walk, and I said, ‘God, I’ve never asked You this before, but would you help me be a songwriter?’” Soon, he was writing smashes for, among others, Randy Travis.
The two men hit it off in Nashville, with Shamblin co-writing several songs on Reid’s debut, 1991’s Turning for Home. But their most fruitful collaboration took place when they happened across a 1989 story in The Tennessean. The article was about a homeless man named Big John, who was drinking as a way of coping with an impending divorce. “I lay up there in that damn bed and if I’m not drunk, she’s on my mind every minute,” Big John said in the piece, written by Anne Paine. Lamenting the demise of his marriage, Big John was consoled by a Vietnam vet, who was also homeless, telling him, “You can’t make a damn woman love you, if she don’t.”
That comment struck the two songwriters, who came up with two lines: “I can’t make you love me if you don’t / You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.” But after that, inspiration faded. “[N]o matter what we did, we couldn’t get it any further than that,” Reid told Stereogum in an oral history of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” “So we would stop and move on to another song. But we would always come back to it.” A bit later, Reid was screwing around on the piano when more lyrics started to form in his head. “I’m not a very fast writer. I’m very slow,” he admitted. “But sometimes you get chunks of things. … I was kind of in that zone, out of my own way, when the line ‘Don’t patronize me’ came out. And I immediately thought, ‘Oh, you can’t say that in a song.’ And the minute I thought, ‘You can’t say that,’ I came out of that zone and I was back into my own stupid songwriting self. So that’s as much as I had.”
Reid and Shamblin went through a lot of trial and error on the track — at an early stage, it was going to be an uptempo bluegrass number — before finally landing on a beautiful, piano-driven version, a sad-eyed ballad sung by Reid. Excited by the song’s possibilities, they narrowed down the possibilities of who could bring it to life. Their first choice was Bonnie Raitt. “I knew immediately when Mike Reid sent me the song that it was absolutely one of the most honest and original heartache songs I had ever heard,” Raitt said. “It was a point of view that I had been on both sides of, and it struck me deeply; I knew immediately I wanted to sing it.”
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” couldn’t have come at a more ideal time for her. In the 1970s, she released a series of superb, blues-soaked records like Bonnie Raitt, Give It Up and Home Plate that showed off her rich, warm voice and rugged soulfulness. But she battled alcoholism, and by the mid-1980s, her career seemed in free fall. “I don’t discount the first nine or 10 records that I’ve made,” she said in 2016, “it’s just that I got heavy, and I wasn’t recovering from colds, I wasn’t thinking as clearly. I just went, ‘This don’t look as good or feel as good at 37 as it did at 27.’ And I looked around at friends of mine who got their lives changed. When I saw my friends play sober, I went, ‘Oh Christ.’ I thought I was owing it to the world to be the last of the red hot blues mamas, but I wasn’t kidding anyone but myself. And the first gigs I did that first year being sober, I didn’t miss it at all.”
Sobriety, and a new record label after her longtime home Warner Bros. dropped her, paid immediate dividends. Nick of Time, which was released March of 1989, was hailed as a comeback, with Raitt (who had recently turned 40) taking home the Grammy for Album of the Year — the first time a woman had won the award outright since Carole King’s Tapestry. “In many ways, this is like a first album. … And it’s my first sober album,” Raitt said when Nick of Time came out, later adding, “Being this age and being straight — it’s been the greatest time.”
So what would she do for her follow-up? Reuniting with Don Was, who had produced Nick of Time, Raitt once again looked for quality material. Throughout her career, she’d written a few keepers on each album but then drew from writers like Randy Newman or Jackson Browne — or blues standards from legends such as Robert Johnson — to supplement her recordings. She’s always had a knack for singing other people’s material, transforming old friend John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” into a classic. And although she had penned some winners for what would be titled Luck of the Draw — including the crushing finale, “All at Once,” about a disillusioned mother — she sought songs that spoke to her vision for the record.
“I named the record Luck of the Draw because I’ve been brokenhearted and downhearted in the past about the possibilities of political and emotional and professional renewal,” she said around its release. The album was dedicated to Stevie Ray Vaughn, the exciting blues guitarist who had his own struggles with addiction and died in a helicopter crash in 1990. “I turn around and see friends of mine, they’re still lonely and brokenhearted,” Raitt continued. “Why did I get through and Stevie not get through? It’s just that life is an amazing bit of fate and luck.”
Hard-earned wisdom is all over Luck of the Draw — the love songs are often grown-up and wary, populated by people who have been around the block a time or two, negotiating romance in the light of past disappointment. (The twilit ballad “One Part Be My Lover,” which Raitt co-wrote with her new husband Michael O’Keefe, had a chorus that went “They’re not forever / Just for today / One part be my lover / One part go away.”) So it made sense that Reid’s demo of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” would strike a chord. As Raitt would later observe, “Every night when I sing [‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’] I go back to my younger self when my heart was broken and I was so desperate to have the person just give me that one more night. I mean, that is devastating. And I’ve also left somebody and stayed with them longer than I should have because they begged me to not leave yet.” The song wasn’t directly connected to anything she’d gone through, but she understood.
The recording session came together quickly, with Raitt asking friend Bruce Hornsby to play piano. “I wasn’t there for long,” Hornsby told Stereogum. “We did a few takes with the trio, Bonnie singing and I did a take or two on the piano.” The idea was to keep everything simple, and Raitt nailed her vocal in one take. “I think that there were a couple of lines where she started crying so those were the only things that we had to go back and [redo],” Was said in that same oral history. “Everything else was live as it happened.”
Raitt wasn’t the only one who got emotional during the session. In the Stereogum piece, engineer Ed Cherney (who’d also been part of Nick of Time) remembered, “I fucking cried. I’ll tell you, I was in the control room. Don Was was in the control room, and I think her manager, Ron Stone, was in the control room. I think it was just the three of us. And the first time we ran it down and she sang it live like that … my heart went up to my throat and my eyes filled up with tears. It was so convincing, it was so real. I didn’t want Don and Ron to see me being such a schmuck, crying like that.” He needn’t have felt sheepish since he’s pretty sure they were weepy, too. “I got really choked up because I didn’t want Bonnie to suffer like that,” Was said. “It was like real life. It was like I was seeing something happen to the person I loved. It’s really weird, isn’t it? It’s like not being able to separate an actor from a role that they’re in.”
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” is a marvel of minimal scene-setting. Over the course of two verses and a chorus that’s sung twice, we get the bare outline of a relationship fizzling out. A woman and man are going to sleep, with the woman realizing that this can’t continue — and that she’ll have to be the one to walk away, even though she doesn’t want to.
Turn down the lights
Turn down the bed
Turn down these voices inside my head
Lay down with me
Tell me no lies
Just hold me close
Don’t patronize me
‘Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t
Here in the dark in these final hours
I will lay down my heart
And I’ll feel the power
But you won’t
No, you won’t
‘Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t
Much as the song’s musical bed is subdued but mournful, Raitt’s vocal is melancholy without becoming mawkish. It’s a performance where you feel the obvious emotion she’s resisting letting out — appropriate for the song’s narrator, who has to face some cold, hard facts before she can make herself leave an inequitable relationship. As its title suggests, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” isn’t self-pitying but, rather, practical, with Raitt singing about how “Morning will come / And I’ll do what’s right / Just give me ‘til then to give up this fight / And I will give up this fight.”
One of the reasons bad relationships continue is that the person who really loves the other person can’t accept that her love isn’t being reciprocated — she keeps telling herself that maybe, just maybe, if she sticks it out, things will change. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” captures the moment when that person finally has an awakening — things will never change. The real pain will come later, and the narrator knows that — but right now, she’s just got to steel herself to say goodbye.
Just as Raitt’s comeback in the late 1980s and early 1990s was unexpected, so too was her suddenly finding herself among the pop firmament. Luck of the Draw came out in June of 1991, just a couple months before Nevermind, but even so this was an era of acts like Bryan Adams, Mariah Carey, Madonna, C+C Music Factory and Boyz II Men. The big rock bands were U2, R.E.M., Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. Hip-hop was starting to dominate radio. And yet, Raitt found her place, with Luck of the Draw’s first single, the sexy, slightly blues-y “Something to Talk About” (written by Canadian artist Shirley Eikhard), becoming her first (and only) Top 10 hit.
Raitt didn’t see her chart breakthrough as such an anomaly, though. In a 2016 Pitchfork interview, she pointed out, “At the end of the 1980s, people like Tracy Chapman and Edie Brickell and Robert Cray all had big hits records, and that’s the kind of roots Americana music I do. … [Nick of Time’s success] was a wonderful thing to happen, but if it had never happened, it wouldn’t have bugged me, because I already had my fans. My fans don’t care if I have a hit record.”
That may be true, but Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw allowed her to cultivate a much larger fan base. Raitt hadn’t had huge expectations for “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” but it was Luck of the Draw’s second single, and it cracked the Top 20. Luck of the Draw ultimately outsold Nick of Time and like its predecessor got nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, losing to Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable…With Love. (Raitt’s subsequent record, Longing in Their Hearts, also got nominated, although Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged took home the prize that year.) Her more mainstream period — or, more accurately, the period when the mainstream paid attention to her — concluded around then, but she kept recording and touring, playing to an audience that’s loved her for years. The hit records stopped, but she didn’t.
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” hasn’t slowed down, either. This deceptively modest torch song’s tentacles have reached everywhere, seemingly affecting everyone who’s heard the original or the many covers it’s inspired. Phil Collins talked once about turning on the television back in the early 1990s, flipping around the channels and seeing “this shadowy figure playing piano, and straightaway I recognized it as Bruce Hornsby.” (I’m guessing he saw the music video, where Hornsby is seen in silhouette.) Collins hadn’t heard “I Can’t Make You Love Me” before, but “I just melted,” he said of Raitt’s performance, then later added, “The lyrics of that song … if you’re going through something, that is the perfect way of putting it.” As it just so happened, he was going through a divorce at the time, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” spoke to him. “A lot of emotional stuff was going on, and I just played that song over and over and over and over again,” Collins said. “Because, you know, there’s no talking your way back. ‘I feel the love and you won’t’ — I mean that’s the way it is. It’s an unbelievable lyric.”
Artists who have done their own versions of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” have an intense relationship with Raitt’s original as well. Adele introduced her cover in concert by saying, “This is one of my favorite songs ever. It makes me really, really happy and really, really devastated and depressed at the same time. But it makes me think of my fondest and best times in my life, and it makes me think of the worst as well, and combined probably is a recipe for disaster. But I do love this song — it’s just fucking stunning.”
Reid has estimated that there are over 500 covers of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Prince turned the song into a seduction. George Michael made it feel like a nightclub soliloquy. Kenny Rogers, Bon Iver, Boyz II Men and Ruben Studdard all did their versions. Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves performed a duet on CMT Crossroads. The mistake most of them make is they underline the emotion, they overdo the poignancy, wanting to make sure that you know that they know how moving the song is. Even the live versions I’ve heard Raitt do subsequently fail to match the original’s restraint and humility. What makes “I Can’t Make You Love Me” so beautiful is that it’s so unassuming — it doesn’t know that it’s going to break so many hearts of people who understand what she’s singing about. In the studio, Raitt only needed one take because doing it again would have lost that something special. You can’t repeat that intimacy and presence.
When Raitt is no longer with us — hopefully many, many years from now — she’ll be remembered for her activism, her musicianship and her creative longevity. But she’ll also be lauded for her power as an interpretive singer, for locating the spiritual essence in other people’s songs and personalizing it in a way that made it feel like she wrote every one of those tunes herself, that she lived them all.
Pitchfork asked Raitt how she did this so well. “I come from the storytelling tradition of my dad’s music,” she replied, referencing her father John, a famous musical-theater performer. (Her mom Marge was a pianist.) “Being a Broadway singer, I watched him inhabit the characters that he sang to the point that you cannot believe that he’s not that guy. And when I sing those ballads … whether I wrote it or not, by the time I pick it, I’m living it when I’m singing.”
Ed Cherney and the other guys in the control room were embarrassed to be seen getting so teary when Raitt recorded “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” but the song has had that power over men ever since. In a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she remarked, “I’ve been told by women I meet backstage at a reception or something, they’ll say, ‘My husband never cries, and because of you singing that song, he’s able to get in touch with things. I look over when you sing that and see him respond, and it really brings us together.’”
Just then, Raitt added, “I’m choking up just talking about it,” which is funny because, in the Stereogum piece, the same thing happened to Don Was while reminiscing about the recording session. “I get choked up thinking about it,” he admitted. “It was so emotional on such a myriad of levels but it has to do with something that is very hard to describe in the tone of her voice. I mean the song could go to the morose really quickly, right? But there is a strength combined with a vulnerability. There’s still a sweetness in her voice. That is how I think of Bonnie, too.”
The people who made “I Can’t Make You Love Me” get teary thinking about the song, so what chance do the rest of us have of keeping our composure when we hear it?
For me, it always happens in the same place. It’s during the second time she sings the chorus, after she holds “fight” in “And I will give up this fight” for so long that it feels like it’s the last ember of a relationship that she never wanted to see die. That second chorus is filled with such hurt but not a trace of malice — there’s sorrow but also such graciousness as she admits defeat, her voice eventually fading away, Hornsby’s piano crying for her. The same year that Luck of the Draw came out, Steve Martin made a melancholy romantic comedy called L.A. Story, and in it his character observes, “Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins, but we always know when it ends?” “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is what that moment sounds like.