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Garth Brooks: the essentials

Holly Gordon

You probably know more Garth Brooks songs than you think.

From 1989 to 1997, the Oklahoma native ruled music channels and charts, stomping his country twang through rock and pop boundaries and collaborating with everyone from Bela Fleck to (future wife) Trisha Yearwood. He has more than 50 singles under his name, tens of millions of records sold and more fans and forced friends of fans who can sing “Friends in Low Places” than you can imagine.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, as of last year Brooks was the second best-selling artist in the States behind the Beatles, sometimes vying for that place with Elvis Presley. Releasing the glut of his nine-disc studio catalogue in the '90s, Brooks benefitted from a time when albums sold and, much later on, a strategy that includes taking down nearly every upload of his music on YouTube — and never uploading the official videos.

After his eighth album release in 2001 (Scarecrow), Brooks went on a 13-year hiatus to spend time with his family, only otherwise releasing new music on Man Against Machine in 2014 (aside from a few compliations). Nothing has packed the punch that the '90s handed him.

Humble. Heartfelt. Family man. Brooks has always had one hell of a knack for hit singles. And nearly three decades after starting his career, he remains one of the biggest country music artists the States has ever produced.

On the anniversary of his second and best-selling album, 1990’s No Fences, we look past karaoke favourites “Friends in Low Places” and “Two Pina Coladas” for 10 tracks that are essential listening from the country star.

Side note: we also look past Chris Gaines.

Song: “The Dance”
Album: Garth Brooks (1989)

The final track on Brooks’s debut, self-titled album, “The Dance” has been one of the singer’s biggest hits, as well as one of the most played in his catalogue. The antithesis to barroom banger “Friends in Low Places,” “The Dance” is a piano ballad that has closed out many a thing, including the last episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2014. “I'll go to my grave with ‘The Dance.’ It'll probably always be my favourite song,” Brooks once said in an interview.

Song: “The Thunder Rolls”
Album: No Fences (1990)

Brooks isn’t known for his subtlety (you can hear thunder actually rolling on the track), but for someone who ruled the country genre during the ’90s, he wasn’t afraid to rock the money-making boat. Another down-tempo hit, “The Thunder Rolls” was co-written by Brooks and originally cut by Tanya Tucker, though she wouldn’t release it on an album until 1995. The song can be taken as revenge fantasy, but its video depicts domestic abuse within a marriage, with the wife eventually killing her husband (played by Brooks) in self-defense. Because of its apparent graphic nature, it was pulled off the air by CMT and TNN after its first day of release. TNN asked Brooks to add a script to the end, which he refused to do. But the fans — including women’s and domestic violence support groups — rallied. The fall after its release, the video for “The Thunder Rolls” won the Country Music Association Award for video of the year. Unfortunately, the only videos we can find today are all fan-shot ones from concerts; this one has the least amount of next-to-the-camera yelling.

Song: “Two of a Kind Working on a Full House”
Album: No Fences (1990)

Co-written by Dennis Robbins, Bobby Boyd and Warren Dale Haynes, this song was originally released by Robbins in 1987 via MCA Records. It didn’t go very far. Brooks covered it three years later, making it his fifth consecutive No. 1 hit. “Two of a Kind” is classic honky-tonk Brooks, and a perfect line-dance number.

Song: “Papa Loved Mama”
Album: Ropin’ the Wind (1991)

Brooks can nail both a slow piano ballad and a blistering barn burner, and this song is one of his best of the latter. A signature of his live show, Brooks growls his way through a fiddle tune about a marriage that ends real quick. “Papa loved mama; mama loved men” will never lead a country song to happily ever after.

Song: “The River”
Album: Ropin’ the Wind (1991)

On his ninth No. 1 hit, Brooks straddles the country-pop line, with Trisha Yearwood on backup vocals. Brooks’s voice can perfectly carry a country ballad, which is what you’ll find in this more overtly religious hit (though the bongos seem a bit much).

Song: “Rodeo”
Album: Ropin’ the Wind (1991)

Brooks has a great voice all around, but let’s be honest: he’s never more compelling than when the honky tonk creeps in, and “Rodeo” brings out some of his best drawls. This track didn’t do as well in the States as his other singles, peaking at No. 3 on the charts, but it did hit No. 1 in Canada. If you can find a real video of this song, please, help a girl out. Until then, enjoy all the actual horse noises.

Song: “Ain’t Goin’ Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)”
Album: In Pieces (1993)

You can sing all the renditions of “Friends in Low Places” that you want, but “Ain’t Goin’ Down” is arguably the better song for peak country Brooks. He expertly races his way through the lyrics while his band tightly winds its way with him. Onstage, Brooks is all boot-stomping and stage-climbing, giving it his all. If you stay seated for this one, you’ll likely be trampled by a crowd collectively losing its mind. Bonus: this is the real music video!

Song: “Standing Outside the Fire”
Album: In Pieces (1993)

Again, not with the subtle. But it’s hard for anyone to deny the inspirational power of “Standing Outside the Fire” — or its fiddle. The song was a hit in the States, and reached the top 30 of the U.K. singles chart. I wish I could find the original music video, which was a heavy-handed story about a teenager with Down syndrome turning down the Special Olympics to compete in his school’s regular sporting event. Alas, here is a video of fire.

Song: “Callin’ Baton Rouge”
Album: In Pieces (1993)

That fiddle! When Brooks yells “Louisiana!,” it doesn’t matter if you’re from the state — everyone is on board for his cover of this 1978 Oak Ridge Boys song. The original recording has Bela Fleck on banjo, with other members of New Grass Revival also backing him up (Patt Flynn on guitar and Sam Bush on fiddle/mandolin). It’s not one of Brooks’s best-known singles, but it has all the makings of a classic Brooks song: love, hard work and a whole lot of heart.

Song: “Longneck Bottle”
Album: Sevens (1997)

Forget “Two Pina Coladas”: “Longneck Bottle” is the better drink sing-along on 1997’s Sevens — even if it has everything to do with a woman and nothing to do with a drink. This track got a lot of love in Canada, though Shania Twain’s “Don’t be Stupid (You Know I Love You)” ended up kicking it out of its No. 1 spot.