By Denise Torenbeek
“Music has always been a reflection of where mankind is at the time. For 14 years, I have watched heart and soul, dreams and individualism, fighting for their very existence in a world of increasing technology. This album is a reminder to all those who dream, work, and fight for what they believe; do not give up your vision” Garth Brooks
In June 1993, I attended a Nashville function hosted by Capitol Records to present Garth Brooks with his first Gold record for Australian sales. It was a ‘right place right time’ scenario, as my travel partner that trip was the EMI Australia rep delegated to make the presentation, and I had recently had a little hit with ‘Time On His Hands’ through Liberty on James Blundell’s US released album Hand It Down. Capitol Nashville changed to Liberty in 1992 and back to Capitol in 1995, hence the name confusion. The entire Liberty/Capitol roster was assembled in the room including Tanya Tucker, Ronnie Milsap, Sawyer Brown, Travis Tritt and a bunch more, yet Garth was spectacularly hospitable and went out of his way to make us welcome and included, spending a lot of time chatting, giving us on-stage seating for his CMA festival shows, and again when he came to Australia, front row seats and many more wonderful Garth moments.
(One tragic omission at Liberty that day was Conway Twitty who had died a week earlier, the day I arrived in LA – which is also how I got to see Don Williams in concert with only a handful of other people… but that is another story.)
Famed music critic Lester Bangs wrote in a 1994 commentary for L.A. Weekly. “The emotion Brooks puts into his singing, an emotion that compounds Hank Williams and George Jones not just with Dan Fogelberg and Gregg Allman but with Julio Iglesias and Michael Bolton, is rooted in something more than his own not inconsiderable accomplishments as a performer. It’s rooted in his faith that five million purchasers of his album are singing along.”
Make that 135 million, and today, the enduring nature of that fan base is something to marvel at. Having “retired” from the music industry in 2000, Brooks returns full force to an industry overrun with chart-topping crossover artists. Yet Brooks again defuses anyone who even resembles a competitor, smashing attendance records (many still standing that he himself set) by multiples of x to apparently insatiable demand.
At a recent press conference when asked would the UK be on his World Tour, Brooks answered thus. “I have seen the tour schedule through to the end of 2017 and right now it is this side of the planet, not the other side of the planet – so we’re talking Canada, North America, South America. So far, because Chicago turned from one show into thirteen shows, Minniapolis also went from one to eleven, and because of this staying in cities longer than we ever have, its making sure we’re gonna see less cities on a world tour than we ever have, so I think just those will take up the next three years of touring for us, and THEN, yes of course you will see us in the UK.”
Ditto for Australia no doubt, waiting till at least 2018 takes a bit of gloss off the Garthmania for his many fans here, whose hopes have been high that he’d do a run of US shows interspersed with international dates.
Brooks is ecstatic to be back centre-stage and launching his first studio record in over 13 years. “It is a remarkable feeling to be making music again,” he said, “I guess I really didn’t realize how much I missed it!” “There’ll be a bunch of music,” the ten-time Entertainer of the Year grinned, “We’ve been gone a long time, so there is a lot to sing about!”
So let’s talk about the new album Man Against Machine … in fact, let’s let Garth talk about it himself.
“Opening track ‘Man Against Machine’ is a raw kickass detonator that is a great way to start an album and a great way to start a concert. It gets everything up and running, sets the tone with a mountain of muscle. It’s like starting a workout and working out really, really hard and then settling in to it. It is the introductory song on the album and it’s there for good reason and it kills it.
“‘She’s Tired of Boys’ harks back to the days of Seger and Mellencamp. The guitar solo takes me back to the old twin guitar days and it doesn’t matter what era, what year, or what album… I would cut this song any time I found it. It’s just a killer tune for all seasons.
“‘Cold Like That’ is just a monster so much weighted power below the whole cold opening and then when the downbeat hits and those guitars catch fire to capture the lightening in a bottle magic and carry the theatre of it – it explodes.
“‘All American Kid’ is the perfect GB song. We’re lucky enough to travel around the globe playing music but first and foremost I’m American and I’ll tell anyone that, okay? So I’m not gonna change to fit your format and we’re not gonna lose any steels or fiddles and this song is just that, just Garth Brooks country music with a hell of a lot of kickass.
“The thing about this song called ‘Mom’ it’s an amazing song, unbelievably written, I didn’t have anything to do with the writing of it, oh but I sure wish I did; and it is a colossal song in every respect. It’s a cool little take on life about this conversation between God and an unborn child getting ready to go down to earth to begin life, and when God describes what a Mom is, I weep uncontrollably, it hacks me in two every time I hear it. (Indeed, it reduced the tender hearted Brooks and a good portion of the audience to tears at a record company in-house showcase just with him and an acoustic guitar) I think about my Mum, I see other friend’s Moms, I see my daughters and I just see everything with this song, and is there anything more beautiful than a Mom to pay tribute to?
“‘Wrong About You’ is everything that is right about music! From the musicians playing on this thing to the lyric, this thing gets in, gets it done and gets out. Fun, fun tune! I mean I’m 52 but trust me you’ll want to push Repeat on this!
“‘Rodeo and Juliet’ the title says it all. It’s a cowboy’s look at Shakespeare and his work, and it’s a love story between a young lady and the sport she loves, Rodeo, and I gotta tell you… Man, you talk about swing! I haven’t heard swing in a million years and it feels so fresh on this record.
“‘Midnight Train’ is all the cool things brought into one area – the mood, the feel, the whole way the gut-string guitar starts this thing out with the train sound, it drives the rhythm like a locomotive and the train never stops and this thing just takes you with it, day in day out, because this guy never settles from struggling with the pain of losing ‘the one.’
“Talk about your anthem – ‘Cowboys Forever’ is everybody’s anthem and I love this song and how it all came together and where it stands. If you know GB and his music you will know that at some point on every record we are going to pay tribute to the men and women in the hats – they fed us from the beginning and took care of us from the get go and they’ve been with us through the whole ride. ‘Cowboys and Cowgirls’ is for all the modern day cowboys and cowgirls, the great ones of the past and the ones to come in the future.
“‘People Lovin People’… What a wonderful statement! We talk all the time in the live show about how it’s getting to where I can only watch the news for two or three minutes and I have to turn it off I get so upset it ruins the rest of my day. I tell people I don’t think one song can change the world but I think this message can. We can try everything, do everything the smart people tell us to do, but nothing is going to work better than this one simple thing – people loving people; that is all it takes. If I had to pick a statement that I wanted to lead with on radio after an absence of thirteen years away from music, it is this statement.
“In ‘Send ‘Em On Down The Road’ there’s a great lyric about pick em up, dust them off, hold them close and you pray a lot, and anyone who’s ever reared children knows that’s exactly what you do every day, whether its sending them to first grade, high school to college, getting married. It is every parents’ anthem and any parent knows it comes from someone who’s just gone through it and what a beautiful song!
“I believe every album should have the song where you get to breathe and ‘Fish’ would be that song on this record. I don’t know what I love most, the lyric, the melody, the groove, the feel – it’s all there and it paints a picture about one day this one guy who works way too much is on a little vacation out on the Gulf Coast where he meets a guy who just sits and fishes all day-and he tries to “fix” him. And what he learns in the transition I think is a lesson we all need to learn.
“There are instrumental licks that define a song – for us ‘The Dance’; for us that acoustic guitar intro – and on ‘You Wreck Me’ the piano lick in is a piano lick for the ages and it is just this beautiful masochistic song about a guy who loves a girl for how bad she treats him, and I can’t tell you how many relationships, guys or girls, where I’ve seen that happen. It’s moody and it fits.
“‘Tacoma’ sits at the end of this record and if you’ve been with me a while and know Garth Brooks, you’ll know my favourite song is always at the end of the record, and it’s there because simply, there is nothing that can possibly follow it. This song feels more like a real out of time track; like it should have been written fifty years ago, like an old R&B classic… that the lyrics paint this dank and darkness of Tacoma while trying to run from a memory that just can’t be outrun. The background singers on this had so much fun and it shows – just great lyric, instrumentation and treatment and a great great song.”
I heard the album and thought it exceeded all expectations, with all anyone might anticipate from a Garth album; excellent songs of story and substance (one or two a tad on the treacly side, but I’m sure the fans will adore them) and wonderful to hear the twang of twin fiddles and pedal steel used ala GB. Unadulterated ear-candy for me! There will be tracks – for my money ‘Tacoma’ and ‘Cowboys Forever’ at least, – which will become beloved anthems like ‘The Dance’ and ‘Friends in Low Places.’
Satisfyingly, nor is there any wild departure from the Garth we knew, and he put any doubts re straying from his roots to rest in saying, “Everybody wants to be loved. We all do, but one of the problems with social media is we all want to be liked. The truth is, and if there is anything you hear today that I really want you to hear, and take home, it’s this – you gotta like yourself. It’s that person in the mirror looking back at you that is the most important to please. You gotta like yourself, so the hardest thing for me is, as I get older, trying to fit in with what’s been happening since I been gone – but the truth is if I chase it, it is just gonna make a fool of me, so you just continue to be yourself for however long God or the people allow you to do this – and the day it’s over, all your money aint gonna be able to buy you another day. Trust me if I could be anybody I’d love to be somebody else! But this is what I got so this is what I’m ridin.’”
Footnote: The July 1994 first edition of Country Update magazine featured Garth Brooks on the cover and it is fitting he returns to the role 20 years on for this, Issue 75 – although how he got to take 13 years off while we work harder than ever is a conundrum!