They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Garth Brooks was my first musical hero. Looking back now, it feels a little weird saying that. I didn’t have a great love for music as a young kid. The few albums I owned when I was 10 were Beach Boys cassettes. I think I only liked them because they reminded me of being on vacation when I was stuck in a winter fog. So why Garth?
It started slowly. The songs from his self-titled first album were always on the radio. I must have heard “The Dance” a thousand times. Things cranked up a little when No Fences came out in 1990. “Friends in Low Places” was everywhere. Ropin’ the Wind took things to another level not too long after. All the kids at school in Bean Station, Tennessee were going crazy over Garth. Heck, everybody everywhere was going crazy over Garth. Rolling Stone put him on their cover; he was crossing over into the mainstream. This Is Garth Brooks played on TV, and I watched it with my dad. He was mad that Garth smashed a guitar. I was thrilled that Garth changed the words to “Friends in Low Places” and told some lady she could kiss his ass. I was in.
I begged my dad to take me to Walmart and get The Chase before any of my friends. He did. I was that kid. The Garth Brooks kid. The superfan. I got every album on release day. I listened to CDs on repeat, memorizing the songs so I’d know them by heart before anybody else at school even heard them.
The first time I ever realized my headphones were kind of crappy was when I got In Pieces. Things were fuzzy-sounding. I got that fixed pretty quickly, and have never again underestimated the power of a good pair of headphones. The first time I ever waited in the music department of a store for an album to be put out was when Fresh Horses was released. The lady at Walmart pulled one off the pallet for me. I have rarely been so happy.
Later in the ‘90s, Garth put out his first box set. I already had all the CD’s, but I needed those new songs. It was the first time I ever preordered any kind of music. Garth’s Double Live was the both the first live album and the first double album I’d ever purchased. I learned how to program my VCR, recorded both his Central Park concert and his Ireland and Back shows, and wore out the tapes. I counted down the days to the release of Sevens with as much relish as I would later count down the days to the release of The Force Unleashed.
When Garth decided to try his hand at being Chris Gaines, I followed along for the ride. It was a strange one, but I got a few good songs out of it. When he retired for a while to raise his kids, I listened to Scarecrow on repeat for years. I picked up The Lost Sessions because I needed a fix during the long years he was gone. I bought Blame It All On My Roots, his all-cover box set, and listened to it religiously. I’ve watched the DVD of his Vegas live show at least a half-dozen times. When he released Man Against Machine, I felt kind of like a kid again. I’d been here before, I knew what I was getting, and I knew I’d like it.
It took me a long time to figure out exactly why I loved Garth so much. He didn’t have the best voice. He wasn’t a great guitar player. He was a good, but not great, songwriter (many of his best songs are either covers or were written by someone else). What I slowly came to realize was this: Garth loved music. He loved listening to it. He loved performing it. I went through a cynical phase at one point when I thought he was only in it for the record sales and the money, but I got to see one of his benefit shows in Nashville after the floods there and it hit me hard. You can’t fake passion. You can use passion, put in service of money and fame and success, but you can’t fake it. You don’t sell over a hundred million albums by accident, or by lying to the fans. Garth never claimed to be anything he wasn’t. He’s a guy making music and making people feel things by singing to them, and he’s had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.
I credit Garth with my love of music. Looking through his liner notes and reading interviews, hearing him talk about his influences, made it very clear that he was drawing his show and his slant on country from a great number of sources. Back in high school, every time I’d find out Garth covered a song, I’d go looking for the original. Each time, I found an artist to start learning about and enjoying. I found Billy Joel through “Shameless.” I spent a good week learning all the lyrics to “American Pie” because Garth sang it with Don McLean in the Central Park concert. To my great embarrassment, I never really liked Bob Dylan until Garth covered “To Make You Feel My Love.” It blew my mind when I realized “The Fever,” one of my favorite rodeo songs, was a reworked Aerosmith tune. I couldn’t ignore other types of music, because Garth was singing them too. They had to be good. I remembered that as I got older and have always used covers as a way to learn about new musicians. It’s what led me to write here.
Here’s the thing about Garth: he’s had a similar effect on a huge number of people. For over 25 years now, he’s made people love music. He is, according to some measures, the highest-selling solo artist of all time. He’s never been shy about giving credit to the artists that influenced him. He brought artists like Billy Joel and Don McLean on stage with him. He performed with KISS on the Tonight Show. He sang with James Taylor on VH1. He passed along the Artist of the Decade award, which he won for the ‘90s, to George Strait the following decade. When all is said and done, Garth Brooks will be able to look back and say that he sang the hell out of his songs, he toured hard and gave people a show worth seeing, and he made sure people felt something every time they heard him. You can’t ask for a better legacy than that.
Artists from all genres have covered Garth Brooks songs. Perhaps that’s due in part to his crossover success, but it also speaks to the quality of those songs. Today we’re celebrating Garth’s 54th birthday by sharing some of the better covers of his work.
Me First and the Gimme Gimmes – Much Too Young (Garth Brooks cover)
This is a great cover of Garth’s first single. “Much Too Young” is about a cowboy regretting all the time spent out on the road, but it’s well-suited for traveling life of a musician, too. The punk cover band takes it easy on the first verse, but when they tear into it and express their disgust for just how old they feel at the end of the chorus, it’s reminiscent of Garth’s live version of “Friends in Low Places.” Sometimes well-placed profanity can add a level of disgust that’s necessary in order to show true honesty. Garth would approve.
Reverant Skye – The Thunder Rolls (Garth Brooks cover)
The story of “Thunder Rolls” is a dark one: a marriage has been crumbling, and it’s about to be torn apart. The hard rock of Reverant Skye suits the material well. They even sing the third verse Garth uses in concert, where the woman gets a pistol to ensure her husband never cheats again. The heavier sound just emphasizes the turmoil already present in the song. Congratulations to this young West Virginia band for cranking out such a good take on a Garth classic.
Alison Krauss and Union Station – Maybe (Garth Brooks cover)
The Chris Gaines album might have been a relative failure, but looking at this list, it’s clear it had at least a couple of high points. “Maybe” is one of them, but one listen makes clear that it suits Alison Krauss much better than Garth. He strains to hit the high notes to sound so fragile after this breakup; Krauss is already there. Her delicate strength is perfect to show someone who’s just beginning to think there might be life after the end of a relationship.
Don Henley featuring Stevie Nicks – It Don’t Matter to the Sun (Garth Brooks cover)
When two rock legends like Don Henley and Stevie Nicks, who made some of the best breakup songs of all time with their bands, cover one of your songs on the same subject, you know you’ve done a good job choosing your tunes. This version of “It Don’t Matter to the Sun” keeps the organ from the Garth version, giving it the same somber tone. Henley takes the first verse; when Nicks comes in on the second, you can feel it in your gut. Garth’s version is less restrained and more desperate, like an appeal to come home; Don and Stevie, with the age of wisdom, know that sometimes no amount of begging will bring someone home. They’re just stating it how it is. The duet almost makes it seem like they’re on opposite sides of the same relationship, both wishing it wasn’t over.
Bonus Video: Justin Timberlake and Garth Brooks – Friends in Low Places (Garth Brooks cover)
Finally, proving that even members of the Mickey Mouse club grew up listening to Garth, we have this duet version of “Friends in Low Places.” This is, perhaps, the ultimate ’90s country song. He loved her, he lost her, he showed up at her wedding and told her he was better off with his friends at the bar than he ever was with her. Doesn’t everybody want to be able to tell an ex something like that? Justin performs this song in Nashville, and the crowd goes wild; just hearing those opening notes on a guitar is enough to make anybody who knows anything about country music get more than a little excited and ready to sing along. He doesn’t stray far from the original version, knowing the he’s got everybody in the place eating out of the palm of his hand. When he brings Garth out for the second verse, it’s a great example of the influence Garth has had on those who grew up listening to him, the respect he shows for other artists, and the way he can make a crowd go wild. And yeah, that third verse will get the audience to sing along every single time. Whoever that lady is, she’s still kissing the whole arena’s ass decades later. Justin closes it out by perfectly hitting the low notes at the end of the final chorus, earning a bow from Garth and giving one right back. He then falls to the stage in joy. It’s a great tribute to Garth, and fits especially well on his birthday.