During the ’90s, there was only Garth, and He was everything. The original pop-country superstar brought his genre, formerly consigned to its own radio formats and charts, blundering into the full spotlight. When Ropin’ The Wind came out in 1991 it was the first album to ever debut at No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, and the following year, The Chase became the second one. The world we live in now, one of Taylor Swift revenge anthems, Luke Bryan party songs and Florida Georgia Line‘s hip-hop references, is one Garth Brooks created.
What set Brooks apart, from his ’90s country peers was his own tendency to push the genre in new, complex directions. He synthesized a tremendous number of styles without feeling slipshod or confused. “For me, it’s ‘Garth music,’ ” Brooks said during his recent comeback press conference, reiterating the power of his personality. “I was the guy that wasn’t country in the ’90s.” “That guy” packaged arena-rock posturing, singer/songwriter vulnerability, and catchy pop hooks inside a likable, country-ready drawl. All this, spiked with a fiddle here, a pedal steel here, fed the “Every Man” image that drove Garth’s success. He was Garth, but he was just like you. It’s the same naïve-superstar, “who me?” pose, masking a calculating, creative mind, that Taylor Swift wields today.
In fact, it was only when Brooks assumed the invented personality of “rock star” Chris Gaines for 1999′s In the Life of Chris Gaines that he truly failed. And even then, the failure wasn’t commercial — the album had a No. 2 debut on the Bilbooard 200 charts and went double platinum. It simply didn’t have the synergy that Garth expected it would — it didn’t tie his every man image into the idea of major rock icon. 2001′s Scarecrow proved that Garth-as-Garth was still a surefire success, but the myth of Chris Gaines seemed to have seeped into its creator’s skin. His 14-year marriage to his high school sweetheart disintegrated in a cloud of self-admitted and very public infidelity. After this, Garth vowed to stay in retirement until his youngest daughter went to college, and quietly married fellow country superstar Trisha Yearwood.
So now suddenly, over a decade later, Garth Brooks is back. He’s launching a comeback tour. Man Against the Machine comes out this week, and it’s been prefaced by the slow-rolling single “People Loving People.” How the album fares, critically and commercially, remains to be seen, but now that country is pop, it’s worth looking back at the measure of his achievements. Here are the ten songs that will help you navigate Planet Garth.
10. “She’s Every Woman” (Fresh Horses, 1995)
Garth’s hat-tip to James Taylor — from the opening line “She’s sun and rain / fire and ice” to the finger-picked chord progression — it’s hard to imagine an earnest, down-tempo song like this hitting number one on the country charts anymore, which lately favor party anthems over everything. Co-written with Victoria Shaw (who also co-wrote “The River“), it’s the strongest example of why Brooks is such a beloved lyricist: ostensibly about loving one woman, the song reaches toward describing the magnificence of womankind as a whole.
9. “Wrapped Up In You” (Scarecrow, 2001)
This is late-career Garth, and it is decidedly a pop song. Garth didn’t write it, but it’s arguable that no one else in the country landscape could’ve finessed it into a bubblegum-Zydeco hit. It’s the kind of track that Garth detractors and “real” country nay-sayers have always hated — an earworm melody and an ode to love that flips the classic country trope of “wrapped around her finger” into a more even-keeled infatuation. It’s not about power dynamics or lack of agency, but a gleeful, total adoration. The nod to Shakespeare ain’t too shabby either.
8. “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” (Garth Brooks, 1989)
Though it’s the first single that Garth ever released, this song is actually not representative of the sound that he ended up pursuing. He’s doing his best George Strait impression here, and while it helped establish him as a solo artist, it was by veering away from the previous generation’s tendency toward nostalgia that Brooks became a superstar. Still, this is an excellent country song — the long days on the road, the woman who finally gets fed up, the malaise that’s only soothed by a worn out tape of Chris LeDoux — and the fact that that last reference boosted the careers of both Brooks and LeDoux. If there’s anything a country audience loves, it’s the play-within-a-play country song that features the singer seeking solace in… another country song. (See: Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw.”)
7. “That Summer” (The Chase, 1992)
“That Summer” might be the male-oriented coming-of-age equivalent to “Strawberry Wine,” and the attention to detail in the lyrics boosted it to the iconic status. Brooks has an affinity for using thunderstorms to represent passion, anger and transformative moments, but he uses them most often to personify women. In his capable hands, the metaphor works fairly well. Brooks writes his female characters with respect and a sense of awe that is almost completely absent from modern personifications. The trick of this song is that the lonely widow steals the show, eclipsing even the protagonist’s memories of her with the force of her unbridled, reckless desire. Lonely widows don’t often get commemorated in a thunderclap of sexual prowess, but songwriters like Brooks don’t come along often either.
6. “Two Piña Coladas” (Sevens, 1997)
Garth Brooks might have inadvertently invented double-fisting with this seaside drinking anthem. That whole island escape thing Kenny Chesney has been pursuing for the last few years? It started right here. “Two Piña Coladas” falls into that special category of songs are about being sad that musically feel happy. If you go to the right sort of bar and this song comes on the jukebox, everyone will erupt into the chorus. And while there’s no scientific proof to back up this claim, this song has likely left an indelible impact on the sale of the Piña Colada itself.
5. “The Thunder Rolls” (No Fences, 1990)
One of the most controversial songs Brooks ever released, “Thunder” was slated to be given to Tanya Tucker before she dropped it from her album. Eventually, Brooks released it himself — sans the contentious third verse that suggests the betrayed wife murdered her husband after learning of his infidelity. Brooks added to the song’s controversy by making a video that addressed issues of domestic violence. The video was banned for a period, but many women’s rights groups praised the video, and it eventually won CMA Music Video of the Year. You can tell it was the ’90s because it still seemed like a good idea to include samples of actual rain and thunderstorms. Luckily, the story is powerful enough to override the waterlogged sound effects.
4. “Rodeo”(Ropin’ The Wind, 1991)
Garth wrote a lot of songs about the cowboy lifestyle and the rodeo circuit. Rodeos have mostly disappeared from country radio, mirroring their decline in culture as a whole. “Rodeo” appears on his album Ropin’ the Wind, the title of which is probably the best metaphor for the desperation and impossibility of rodeo practices themselves. This song is something of a condemnation of the sport: the combination of traveling, danger, financial instability and addictive gambling behavior it fosters ruined any chance at lasting romance or family. The storyline of a woman who can’t compete with the rival for her man’s heart is always a strong foundation — when that rival isn’t even another woman is when a song gets wild.
3. “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Til The Sun Comes Up)” (In Pieces, 1993)
Garth Brooks didn’t attempt rip-roaring rockers like this often, but when he did, he nailed it. He usually settles comfortably into mid-tempo, but the tire-squealing tempo of “Aint Goin’ Down” matches the song’s rebellious streak. Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinkin’” owes a major debt to this song, as do a lot of the hook-up-pick-up truck anthems of the last few years. But this song is still miles ahead of any of the knock-offs, and the way that last minute unfurls into an out-of-control guitar solo embodies the defiance of the song.
2. “The Dance” (Garth Brooks, 1989)
Good luck getting through this song without crying. It’s easily the most poignant song Garth has ever written, and the one that comes the closest to grappling with the question of whether the loves that break our hearts were worth the pain. While most of Garth’s greatest songs hinge on their sharp attention to detail, the power of “The Dance” resides in its vagueness. It’s a song about loss in the multitude of forms that we’re bound to encounter as we stumble blindly through life. Is this chaotic universe built on random chance, or do the partners we embrace along the way have a predetermined place in our eventual fate? It doesn’t try to reconcile these impossible questions with stock answers, but amidst the nudging piano and grandiose strings, there is a sense of peace.
1. “Friends In Low Places” (No Fences, 1990)
With a wink and a nod to honky-tonk, Garth juxtaposes his own shortcomings with the elegance of a lost love’s wedding reception, before flipping those very characteristics into something he uses to define his own strength. He’s underdressed for the wedding, sure, but later tonight at The Oasis, it’s his boots that’ll earn him admittance. Losing a beloved romantic partner is one of the darkest moments in the human experience, but the comfort of a cohort — of returning to a place where you don’t have to put on any airs to fit in — that’s an irreplaceable triumph.
The call back to “my roots” in the opening line also shifts some of the blame for the relationship’s failure off his shoulders, and onto that age-old enemy of love: the class system. By glorying in his own “lowness” Brooks establishes a liminal space that no amount of privilege will get you into — the dive bar as a sacred space of community that literally won’t open its doors to those who don’t understand its necessity. On “Friends In Low Places,” After the exhausting work of trying to scale “the ivory tower” Brooks ironically salutes in the song, odds are you need a drink. So go ahead and hit rock bottom, there’s plenty of us down here.