Rediscovering Garth Brooks: Ropin’ The Wind Is Garth’s Transitional Album
Editor’s Note: In Rediscovering Garth Brooks, former punk rock die-hard and The 9513 contributing writer Stephen M. Deusner documents the experience of hearing the seminal country icon for the first time–more than two decades after the singer’s debut.
It’s telling that Ropin’ the Wind is the first Garth album that has not reached my reluctant ears until now. Even though I once studiously avoided him, songs like “The Dance” and “Friends in Low Places” sounded familiar once I listened to them for this project, which suggests that perhaps I’d heard them somehow: on the radio in a friend’s car, blasting from someone’s stereo, played at a school dance. These were hits that sank into my psyche somehow, that made their way from country radio to my brain.
But nothing on Ropin’ sounds even vaguely recognizable, which seems strange. There were, after all, six singles from the album, including three #1s, and it did sell remarkably well: 14 million copies. So why weren’t those songs as pervasive as previous hits? Was it because this was his third album in three years, a pace that outstripped most other artists at the time and perhaps exhausted the young star? Was it because it simply isn’t as good as previous albums?
Nineteen years later, it strikes me that Ropin’ is Garth’s first album as a real celebrity. He had already established himself as not merely a country star, but the country star—the kind of phenomenon that Nashville hadn’t seen in years and probably will never see again. Musically, Ropin’ may be the weakest of his first three albums, but professionally, it may be his most interesting, as it blurs the lines between styles and motivations and attempts to follow through on his crossover ambitions. It is, in that regard, a transitional album, marking the link between Garth the up-and-coming country singer to Garth the face of country music.
Hardly an overnight sensation, Garth nevertheless experienced a rise to fame that might be described as meteoric. By the time he released Ropin’, his debut album was just a little more than two years old, and the guy who sang about staying true to your roots despite success found himself in the position of having to live up to his own advice. So these songs represent two very different sides of the artist: On one hand, he is trying to remain the uptown downhome good ol’ boy, and on the other, he is the artist whose ambitions transcend genre, style, and radio format.
It’s no accident that Ropin’ kicks off with “Against the Grain,” a defensive, upbeat number that preempts criticisms that hadn’t become all that vocal yet. It might be laughable if the album didn’t actually go against the grain. You can hear him stretching here as he figures out just what he can do and still be country. Can he indulge that 70s singer-songwriter vibe that was reportedly an enormous influence on him? “Which One of Them” proves he can, even if it’s suspiciously similar in melody and mood to James Taylor’s “Shower the People.” Does that mean he can cover a Billy Joel song? Well, yes and no.
“Shameless” was a huge hit and one of his first to flirt with mainstream chart success, but it may be Garth’s most awkward moment to date. The song itself is not from one of Joel’s albums from the 1970s, which are considered by many (although not by me) to be classics and which contain his most popular and enduring compositions. Instead, “Shameless” comes from Storm Front, released the same year as Garth’s debut. Showing none of the restraint and interpretive nuance that made his first album such a surprise, this cover lives up to its title, as Garth oversings every note. When that leaves him nowhere else to go, he gets a choir to go even further. It only makes me think of his version of the Fleetwoods’ “Mr. Blue,” another countrified cover of a non-country song, and how effortless Garth made such a dramatic reinterpretation sound. Much less popular than “Shameless”—it wasn’t even released as a single—that deep album cut shows just how artful he can be, not simply inhabiting the lyrics but re-imagining the song so completely that it sounds both natural and inevitable. “Shameless,” on the other hand, sounds like a gesture to the rock crowd, and not a very good one at that.
Elsewhere, Ropin’ sounds like Garth’s lyrical themes are beginning to crystallize. There’s another song about the rodeo as mistress (“Rodeo”), another sympathetic song about barroom denizens (“Which One of Them”), another nostalgic ballad about an old lover and how much the two of them have changed (“What’s She Doing Now”). That these songs cover previously trod territory doesn’t make them bad necessarily, but it does make the album pat and predictable.
Reportedly, Garth wrote and recorded most of Ropin’ during the successful tour for No Fences, which may explain the similarities between the two albums. The success of that tour may owe something to his hit song “The Thunder Rolls,” which became an award-winning video about domestic abuse. Originally, the clip was banned by CMT as too violent and dark, but Garth stood his ground—he not only performed in the video, but played the role of the abusive husband—and found new ways to promote the video. It was not just a single, but a cause. It’s strange, then, to hear him discuss the same issue in such cavalier terms in “Mama Loved Papa,” about a truck-driving man who kills his adulterous wife. The incident, related from the point of view of the all-but-orphaned son, is played almost for a laugh, an impression supported by the runaway momentum of the music. It’s a breezy, catchy single, but can this really be the same artist who bravely stood up for abused women the previous year?
Ultimately, Ropin’ sounds like a conflicted album by an artist trying to live up to his own and everyone else’s expectations—trying to keep his loyal fans while gaining new one listeners who would never give a country singer the time of day. Ironically, as Garth becomes a distinctive celebrity, he becomes a less distinctive artist. But his subsequent popularity—which continues to grow despite his reclusive 2000s—suggests that he will find a means of integrating these two sides of himself into one compelling figure.
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