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11-14-2013, 05:39 PM

Garth Brooks' possible return to touring would be a much-needed boost for country music (Commentary)

If Garth Brooks can return to the concert touring world with the energy and style of 1992, he can give country music a much-needed shove away from the sameness that is beginning to permeate the ranks.

Chuck Yarborough, The Plain Dealer By Chuck Yarborough, The Plain Dealer

November 14, 2013 at 9:00 AM

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Garth Brooks may be ready to end his self-imposed semi-retirement.

The country music icon’s two TV specials this month – one on Nov. 9 on the cable channel GAC and the other on CBS on Nov. 29 – and the announcement of a monster boxed set have led to speculation that the country music icon could be ready to hit the studio and the road again.

Not since 2001 has Brooks toured, and while it may seem a little sacrilegious in Cleveland to compare his stepping out of the limelight when he did to Browns legend Jim Brown’s premature retirement, there are parallels.

Both were at the top of their respective games (although to his credit, Brown never did a Chris Gaines album) and left their fans wanting more.

Or at least some fans. And I am among them, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

When I posted news about the specials and a huge eight-disc boxed set that will feature every album and 33 videos, the hue and cry when I shared the post on my Facebook page went both ways.

“Oy … let’s hope not,’’ said John Hardy, who fronts the country cover group the John Hardy Band and was frontman for one of Cleveland’s most popular – and now defunct – country bands, Lawless.

“Favorite artist of all time,’’ said Karen Sobolewski. “A lyric from ‘The Dance’ is engraved on my son’s headstone.’’

“Giant yawn inducing headline,’’ said John Dobeck, a former morning drive team member on country station WGAR FM/99.5.

“Garth Brooks is a legend. It’s about time he came back,’’ said Tom Christopher. “His songs are great. Can’t wait to see him sing again.’’

Clearly, Brooks elicits visceral and polar reactions. I have some of that myself. When his last studio album, “Scarecrow,’’ came out, I did a telephone interview with him that ended, shall we say, abruptly.

Brooks has – or at least had – a reputation for being somewhat egotistical. Some of it was probably born out of his tendency to refer to himself in the third person. “We have to do what’s best for Garth,’’ etc.

When advance copies of “Scarecrow’’ showed up in the mail, the disc had no liner notes, no names of musicians or songwriters. It had only one name: Garth Brooks.

My question to him was this: “Garth, you already have a reputation for being a tad egotistical. Why not share some of the credit by including the names of others in the release of the new album? Aren’t you worried that this adds fuel to those rumors?’’


In a way, I don’t blame him. It WAS a difficult question that you might call rude, with some justification. But it was an honest question. More than that, it was a question that gave him a public forum to answer his critics.

Honestly, there are a lot of other points of view about that.

My brother, Jim, and his family lived in Brooks’ hometown, Owasso, Okla., during the singer’s heyday. Here’s what Jim had to say:

“As you know, my kids went to school with his kids in Oklahoma. Seeing him around town at the Walmart or the local ice cream parlor or at a school functions, he was the nicest guy.

“What impressed me the most was, he tried to keep everything low-key. He didn't make a whole big fuss about himself, didn't want to be the center of attention. There was no big entourage, it was just him and his wife there to watch the school function.’’

Melinda Mantel, the wife of former WGAR morning drive guy Jim Mantel, called him “the nicest guy I ever met in the business.’’

So let’s skip all that ego/nice-guy debate. Fact is, it’s not relevant.

When Brooks burst on the scene with his self-titled debut album in 1989, country music was not exactly setting the world on fire. It was in a state of transition. George Strait, who just won his third CMA entertainer of the year, took home his first that year, and he was considered young country.

Hair metal and what would later be called grunge were winning the audiences, and it looked like country was going to die a painful death.

Then came Garth Brooks. All of a sudden, the stage was dominated by this hulking former track star who met his first wife, Sandi, when he was a bouncer at a bar and had to throw her out for fighting.

He turned the concert light trees into jungle gyms, and probably ran five miles a night across the stage, whooping and hollering and singing. His vocal phrasing had a distinctive hiccup that was not the glug-glug of brown jug country. He paid homage to country traditionalists, but his was a country that had more in common with Eddie Van Halen than Eddy Arnold.

He was young, exciting and NEW. His live shows were events, and his music was truly something special. We can call him the forerunner of the hunks in hats, as derogatory a term as there is, but what he was – and could be again – is a savior.

Today, as then, the genre is suffering from an epidemic of sameness. Blake Shelton has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, and there’s no band better than the Zac Brown Band in terms of musicianship and harmonies.

But if Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Jake Owen and Eric Church were a poker hand, you could bet the farm on four of a kind.

Country music NEEDS Garth Brooks again. I say that firmly, but with a caveat. He needs to be the Garth he was, the guy behind such songs as “Shameless,’’ “The Dance,’’ “Much Too Young (to Feel This Damn Old),’’ “Rodeo,” “Beaches of Cheyenne,’’ “Two Pina Coladas’’ and yes, even “Friends in Low Places.’’

But this Garth is 51, and will be 52 in February. It’s unrealistic to expect he can be the maniacal stage performer he was in 1998, when he became the first artist to win four CMA entertainer of the year awards. (Kenny Chesney also has four, and his last was in 2008.)

Frankly, I think Brooks can do it BECAUSE of his ego. He’s already taken off the weight he put on in semi-retirement – most of it, anyway. His voice has a bit of rust from age and disuse, but that can be overcome, or even used to his advantage.

He’s a former athlete, and I have no doubt that he knows what it will take to work himself into the best possible shape a 51-year-old can be, and again, that ego will ensure it.

What he cannot do is become a legacy act – one of those guys singing the old songs in the country equivalent of Moondog Coronation Balls (no offense intended). If that happens, it’ll tarnish both his legacy and the genre.

But that’s just my dream. And you know what Garth says:

You know a dream is like a river
Ever changin' as it flows
And a dreamer's just a vessel 

That must follow where it goes.
Trying to learn from what's behind you
And never knowing what's in store
Makes each day a constant battle
Just to stay between the shores.

11-15-2013, 12:44 PM
Nice editorial!!!