Some of Garth Brooks’ Best Weren’t Even His Biggest

Garth Brooks, the most successful country artist of all time, is opening and closing Rodeo Houston 2018.
Garth Brooks, the most successful country artist of all time, is opening and closing Rodeo Houston 2018. Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Garth Brooks is opening (February 27) and closing (March 18) this year’s Rodeo Houston concert lineup, and you are no doubt aware of this because, well, Garth Brooks is unequivocally the most successful and noteworthy artist in country music history. Because of that, tickets for both of Garth’s Rodeo Houston shows sold out long ago, though some are available on the secondhand market.

Now, how did Garth Brooks become not only the king of country music, but one of the most successful acts in music history? Simple, by creating catchy tunes that fit right into country radio, one of the few terrestrial radio formats that still thrives today. Those tunes, in turn, led to millions upon millions of albums sold and No. 1 hits aplenty (a live version of one of these hits is featured below, as Brooks is notoriously anti-YouTube and streaming services, so finding pretty much anything from his catalog online is a fool’s errand).

Some of Brooks’ best tunes certainly thrived on country and pop radio. “The Dance” is one of the best country songs of all time. Same for hits like “Friends in Low Places,” “The Thunder Rolls” and “Rodeo.” The list goes on. Of course, not all of Brooks’ best thrived on radio. Whether unreleased or simply not on par with other singles in terms of commercial relevance, some of Garth’s best music wasn’t his most successful.

(Usually, each of these songs would be accompanied by a YouTube video, but again, the aforementioned note regarding Brooks’ thoughts on video and streaming sites).

From Brooks’ self-titled debut, this song was recorded before Brooks was a star, and it sounds like it. Whereas some of his later material was glossed in pop sheen, “Alabama Clay” is an old-school country song about leaving behind a life, only to realize the grass on the other side wasn’t nearly as green. The track was never released to radio, though one imagines it might have fared well had it followed a hit like “The Dance.”

By the time The Chase dropped in 1992, Brooks was not only the biggest star in country music, but an artist who rivaled Michael Jackson for the label of biggest pop star in America. And while The Chase echoed the standing – complete with more pop-oriented fare like “We Shall Be Free” – it also features fun country tracks like “Dixie Chicken.” The track, which details a courtship that can safely be described as whirlwind, wasn’t designed to be a radio hit. Rather, it was designed to complement an album full of radio hits.

Ever deal with the aftermath of the one that got away? You know, the love of your life who, for whatever reason, didn’t quite work out? Well, if you’re not over said person, best to avoid this track from The Chase. Our protagonist has moved on with another, and he’s happy for the most part with another, but he can’t help but wonder what became of a lost love. For those who have let love slip away, this track burns.

Before it was cool for pop stars to get serious with their lyrics, Brooks was already doing just that. Take “Face to Face,” for instance, also from The Chase. It closes out the album and doesn’t exactly do so on the lightest notes. From bullying to sexual assault, “Face to Face” is arguably the darkest track Brooks ever recorded, one that would certainly be a talking point in today’s climate, particularly if released by an artist of Brooks’ commercial standing.

The best country songs tell a story, as evidenced by this non-single from the 1991 smash, Ropin’ the Wind. Girl’s wagon breaks down in the Old West. Girl meets boy and elects to stay with said boy in some small town. Boy gets shot by a gang of outlaws. Years down the road, she avenges her man’s death with the aid of a gun. “In Lonesome Dove,” despite its violent overtones, is a love song at its core and one of the better tracks Brooks ever wrote.

This was the first Garth Brooks single released to radio, and in that regard, it was a hit, peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Country charts. However, given the heights to which he would soon rise, and coupled with the fact that Brooks’ follow-up single (“If Tomorrow Never Comes”) is the one that really vaulted him into the country mainstream, this track feels just obscure enough to count. It’s also among the most tried-and-true country tunes Brooks ever released, a real honky-tonk crowd pleaser.

This track, from In Pieces, wasn’t really a hit in the United States, but did manage to chart in a number of international markets. That probably stems from the fact that while Brooks is certainly a country artist, “The Red Strokes” is not really a country song. Rather, it’s a pop song recorded by a country artist, which probably explains its appeal in non-country radio markets.

By the time Brooks dropped The Chase in 1992, he was country royalty, one who could have released hit after hit and collected millions in the process. Rather, he got a bit political with “We Shall Be Free,” which tackles everything from same-sex marriage to poverty to religious freedom. As the Dixie Chicks later learned, getting political doesn’t always work out commercially, and “We Shall Be Free” wasn’t exactly a country hit (it peaked at No. 12 on country radio). However, it was pioneering for its time and one of many reasons no one has – or likely will – move the needle in country music like Garth Brooks.

“Wild Horses,” from the juggernaut that was No Fences, is an interesting case, in that it wasn’t released to radio until 10 years after No Fences hit shelves. The song fared well on the charts – peaking at No. 7 on the country charts and No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 – but it’s certainly not regarded among Brooks’ most noteworthy work. It is, however, regarded among his best, a single that uses the rodeo as a metaphor for a man who just can’t get his relationship right.

Garth Brooks often ended his albums with dark, metaphorical tracks, and No Fences was no exception. At its core, “Wolves” is the story of those who get left behind, of those who simply lose the fight. It’s also the tale of a man begging for a higher power to help him through, to help him avoid being one of the ”ones the wolves pull down.” For an artist who always did pop sheen oh so well, Brooks was equally adept at doing dark, haunting tracks.
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Clint Hale enjoys music and writing, so that kinda works out. He likes small dogs and the Dallas Cowboys, as you can probably tell. Clint has been writing for the Houston Press since April 2016.
Contact: Clint Hale