Scars and Songs in the Soul: Garth Brooks and a Tribute to Songwriters
Garth Brooks once told an interviewer that if a culture wants to consistently produce good music, its creative and financial infrastructure must place the songwriters first, the performers second, and the marketers responsible for selling the music, third.
“Without the songwriters, there are no songs,” Brooks said, stating the obvious, before indicting the rapidly shifting and sinking music industry for reversing the sequence. Sale considerations come first, elevating the slickest salespeople above the truest artists and performers.
In an act of subtle subversion, Brooks has recently released a massive documentation of the first five years of his career. “The Anthology: Part One” includes a 240 page oral history of Brooks’ early years and records, along with five discs of music from the same period.
Given that Brooks is a co-writer on most of the songs from his first five records, it is slightly self-congratulatory for him to call the book, “a tribute to songwriters,” but he certainly deserves it, and the glossy pages of interviews about record breaking hits, like “The Thunder Rolls” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” succeeds in framing the focus of a musician’s life on music.
Nostalgic hymns to the lost era of record stores and record collections, for better and for worse, will fall on deaf ears, but as music, and music consumption, have become more ephemeral, the songs themselves seem to have become the subject of less reverence. My generation was the last to come of age when buying physical media, and spending nights reading along with the lyrics in the liner notes, was a fun and enriching way to pass the time. As music fades into the digital background, so does appreciation for the creators Brooks encourages his audience to admire.
Garth Brooks became the biggest star of the end of the CD-era, selling over one hundred million records, breaking country music attendance records on an annual basis as he toured the world, and winning enough awards to fill a museum. His stardom became the battering ram that knocked over the door, and enabled country music to fully enter the pop cultural mainstream. He had several NBC television concert specials in the 1990s, and HBO broadcasted his 1997 performance from Central Park.
He not only transformed country music, but also helped change pop music by projecting a crossover model Shania Twain, and most especially Taylor Swift, would more fully execute. Brooks always remained a country artist, only flirting with pop and rock, while Swift has all but abandoned her country origins, enjoying much greater popularity as a purveyor of pop.
It is impossible to imagine the mainstream presence of country music, and the careers of entertainers like Twain and Swift, without the ambition and accomplishments of Garth Brooks.
“The Anthology: Part One” tells the story of how the songwriter and cowboy boot store manager from Oklahoma became one of the most consequential musicians of his generation.
Brooks and his first band, Santa Fe, attracted a large and loyal following, playing honky tonks, bars, barn dances, rodeos, and roadhouses in Oklahoma and West Texas when he was a college student at Oklahoma State University.
“I want us to be America’s band,” Brooks said once while they were driving home from a late night show, and they moved to Nashville. All but one band member left Brooks and Nashville, returning to Oklahoma, when every record label on Music Row rejected them. Feeling discouraged himself, Brooks thought that his best hope for a career in music was not as a performer and recording artist, but as one of many Nashville studio songwriters. Brooks dreamed of George Strait, one of his musical heroes, recording the song that would eventually become his own first hit single, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).”
An executive from Capitol Records had other ideas after seeing Brooks perform during a songwriters showcase at the famous Bluebird Café. They signed a deal that week. Brooks’ self-titled debut record, released in 1989, launched his career into stratospheric heights with two number one singles – “The Dance” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes” – and an additional two top ten singles.
It was Brooks’ second record, the aptly-titled No Fences, that would transform not only his career, but all of country music. The sophomore offering has sold 17 million copies, and introduced the world to the unmistakable, signature songs, “Friends in Low Places” and “The Thunder Rolls.”
The unprecedented success of No Fences leads Brooks to remark in “The Anthology” that, at the time, he recalled the old joke about the Garden of Eden when Adam tells Eve, “Be careful, I don’t know how big this thing gets.”
It is easy to get distracted by the unique run of musical dominance Brooks enjoyed in the 1990s, but the real beauty and value of “The Anthology” is, despite Brooks’ borrowing from KISS to make his live shows more theatrical and energetic, and despite the sophisticated marketing strategies he used to help him sell tens of millions of records every year, the simplicity of the stories behind the songs: Not the television moments or the escalating fame, but the light of inspiration that shines when talented people with the right creative chemistry, make music.
Brooks’ songs begin with an acoustic guitar, a pen, and pad of paper. There aren’t any tales of computer programming, digital enhancements, or autotuning.
Instead, there are fond recollections of inspiration, the diligent process of revising and rewriting, and happy accidents. Garth Brooks and Stephanie Davis began writing “We Shall Be Free” on the phone, both inspired to use their artistic talents to provide an antidote to the hatred and hostility visible on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1992 riots.
“That Summer” went through several different versions in the adept hands of Brooks and Pat Alger, transforming from a song of pure physical ecstasy about an adulterous affair to the masterpiece it became – the story of a May-September romance between a teenage field worker and a “lovely widow woman.”
One day driving home for Christmas, Brooks saw a truck driver broken down on the side of the highway. Imagining the man frustrated in the freezing temperatures, and lonely on the road while dreaming of a holiday with his wife, he and Kent Blazy wrote “Cold Shoulder,” a devastating country ballad about a man a million miles away from the destination in his daydreams.
Brooks and the other participants in the oral history also take readers inside the studio, giving their best memories of Trisha Yearwood, Brooks’ current wife, coming into the session for “Shameless” and putting the song over the top with her scorching and wailing vocal. “The Thunder Rolls” seemed in alignment with the universe when Brooks and company discovered an old tape of storm sound effects, paired it with the song, and were astonished to discover that there was a crash of thunder at the perfect moment every time he sang the words, “the thunder rolls.”
The brilliance of Garth Brooks’ career extends beyond his own sizable talent and songwriting excellence, and includes his ability to assemble a team of co-writers who complement his own skills with miraculous perfection. A few of the relationships Brooks describes were born of Brooks’ admiration. He saw Tony Arata, co-writer of “The Dance,” perform the song in a Nashville bar. He met Stephanie Davis, who made invaluable contributions to many of Brooks’ best songs, under similar circumstances. He and Victoria Shaw enjoyed instant chemistry. The first song they wrote together became “The River.” Anyone who has ever attempted to compose original music and lyrics should find that nearly instantaneous inspiration and creation breathtaking to the point of indescribable envy.
“The Anthology Part 1” leaves the deep impression that Brooks’ success is not only a story of the triumph of the creative spirit, but the demolition of the ego. Charlie Rose once asked Brooks why he, periodically, refers to himself in the third person. The singer-songwriter explained that what the world knows as “Garth Brooks” – the man behind the songs and shows – is actually the work of a team. Without the other writers, the band members, harmony singers like Trisha Yearwood, the manager, who himself is a songwriter, and the producer, “Garth Brooks” would exist as something entirely different, and perhaps, less powerful.
Like no other release, “The Anthology” introduces fans to the team of “Garth Brooks,” demonstrating not only the brilliance of its eponymous leader, but also the strength and scale of its diverse and dynamic co-contributors.
Most of the music on the five discs of “The Anthology” is familiar to anyone who has followed Brooks’ career, but one of the true gifts of this package is the opportunity to hear the songs in progress.
Many people, in reaction to talent, suffer under the misperception that art is magic. It often takes work, dedication, and persistence. “Somewhere Other Than the Night,” a masterclass in songwriting from Brooks and , began as “Sometimes You Need the Rain to See the Light.” The early demo is on The Anthology, and while it is a good song, it was not yet the great song that made it onto The Chase. There were too many lyrics, and too many clever one liners that bordered on gimmickry. Simplification enabled the song to become extraordinary.
“That Summer” is the exact opposite. The first take on The Anthology provides a promising skeleton of the full body that it would eventually become. It was only after more detail, and more exploration of the story, that song became one of Brooks’ best. It wasn’t until the final version that Brooks included one of his most evocative lyrics, “Then I watched her hands of leather turn to velvet in a touch.” Comparison between the early and official versions also reveals the essentiality of Trisha Yearwood’s harmony vocal. It is her presence on the chorus, noticeably lacking on the demo, that puts the song into overdrive.
The music of “The Anthology” often presents fans with a choice in which there is no right or wrong answer. On a recent episode of “Studio G” – Brooks’ Facebook live program – a commenter expressed her preference for the acoustic, day-write version of “What She’s Doing Now.” To my ears, the full band version is much richer, especially given Brooks’ deeper vocal performance. My preference is for the day-write rendition of “Unanswered Prayers,” an acoustic performance, featuring one of Brooks’ best vocal deliveries, that tears apart your chest, and grasps tightly onto your heart. Undoubtedly, other fans will prefer the official version, with its lush orchestration.
The first song that I ever loved was “Standing Outside the Fire.” I was 12-years-old, and the country-rock song served as the opening flirtation in the my lifelong love affair with music. When I saw Brooks perform it in 2014, it brought me back to my childhood bedroom, and offered the realization that I still believe in its principle tenet: “Life is not tried; it is merely survived if you’re standing outside the fire.”
In the chapter on “Burning Bridges,” a song Brooks co-wrote with Stephanie C. Brown, he says, “Songs do something in our lives that’s unlike anything else. They have in mine, that’s for sure. I know there are so many things that I fear that Dan Fogelberg touched on so beautifully, so when I’d listen to his records I’d live in that fear with him, and it made me feel a little less scared because someone’s in the boat with me. That’s a wonderful thing.”
“The Anthology” is a wonderful thing because it acts an exhibition of not only Brooks’ important contribution to American music, but also the eternal benevolence of great music – music that is pure, deep, and true.
Flipping through pages, and listening to the songs, allows one to take measurement of the indelible mark that songs make on our spirits. Those marks cut as quick and wide as scars, both for the creator and the listener.
David Masciotra is the author of five books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky), Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Press), and the forthcoming, Half-Lights at Evening: Essays On Hope (Agate Publishing).