35: I Can’t Make You Love Me

35: I Can’t Make You Love Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

I Can’t Make You Love Me

Story by Mike Reid

Song written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin

Recorded by Bonnie Raitt and others

I was at home reading the Nashville Banner one morning and there was a story in there about a relative of a local politician — sort of the “black sheep of the family” type — who got all tanked up on moonshine and shot up his girlfriend’s car tires. I seem to remember the article quoting the judge, who, I think, was about to send him to jail. The judge said something along the lines of “I hope you learned something from this experience.” And the guy said, “Yeah, I learned that I can’t make her love me if she don’t.”

That’s where the idea for this song came from. Seeing as how we had a guy tanked up on moonshine, angry at his girlfriend and shooting at inanimate objects with high-powered weaponry — I thought that’s a country song if I’ve ever heard one! Ricky Skaggs was having a lot of hits then, and I thought we should write this for him, as a country song with a touch of bluegrass to it. So Allen Shamblin and I got together and banged around on it for probably six months. But something was stopping us. We couldn’t get any further than those first two lines.

A few years before that, I had a hit with a song by Alabama called “Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go.” I had always loved Irish music and I had in my mind doing something similar. My kids were little then and, one morning, I drove them to school and came home and sat down at the piano and the whole first verse just popped out. At that time, I was at the best place a writer can be, and that’s “out of my head.” It’s always to my advantage to lose myself in whatever idea I have at the time. How you do that is the trick.

One of my faults is I tend to be an over-analyzer, but I wasn’t thinking of anything when I started writing those lines, except when I wrote the line, “Don’t patronize me.” Then I came out of it and said, “Can I say ‘don’t patronize me’ in a song? Can I use that word?” The minute I said that to myself, I knew that I was brought out of the moment. I still wasn’t aware that it was going to be related to the other idea we had for the bluegrass song. So I thought of the title that Allen and I had been banging around for six months and I wondered if they could be related. I called Allen and said, “Are you doing anything right now? Why don’t you come over?” I played for him what I had, and we probably took another two days to finish the song.

When we finished it, I didn’t sit back and say, “That’s a great song.” But I did think, “That’s finished. That’s exactly what I mean. There’s really nothing more we can do with this.” I’ve never been good at making judgments about whether a song is good or not, but I know when it’s done. I had a little four-track Fostex mixer that a friend had given me, because he didn’t know how to work it. I started pushing buttons. Actually, the first two song demos I did on that were “Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go,” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

When I used to teach musical theater to the kids at NYU, I was constantly asking them, “Is this what you mean? Is that what you mean?” And that’s all a writer can do as a songwriter — spend enough time with a piece of work to know it’s what you meant to say. Everyone knows what it’s like to want someone who doesn’t want you, and that’s what we were trying to get at with this song.

I had a song on Bonnie Raitt’s album Nick of Time called “Too Soon to Tell.” And as soon as Allen and I finished this song, we both agreed there were only a few places we could go with this. I recall thinking of Linda Ronstadt, Bette Midler, or Bonnie Raitt. Bonnie loved it.

The piano lick at the beginning of the song was mine but Bruce Hornsby played on her session and he did a lot of those leads in the middle. That was all his. He really made that song his own. There are probably about 40 or 50 covers of this. Prince recorded it. It’s been on a George Michael album. There are probably 15 or 20 jazz versions of it. The great jazz singer Nancy Wilson did a splendid version and so did Will Downing, the R&B singer. Boyz II Men released it as a single a while ago.

It’s been recorded in every single format but country. Considering it started out as a potential bluegrass song, that’s pretty interesting. A number of artists have come up to me and said, “Write me another ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me,’” and I never say what I’m really thinking, which is “If I do, you probably won’t record it!”

I Can’t Make You Love Me

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

Don’t patronize me

CHORUS:

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 if you won’t

No you won’t

’cause I can’t make you love me

If you don’t

I’ll close my eyes

Then I won’t see

The love you don’t feel

When you’re holdin’ me

Morning will come

and I’ll do what’s right

Just give me till then

To give up this fight

Then I will give up this fight

CHORUS

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