Garth Brooks – “The Ulitmate Hits” (Pearl Records)
For about 10 years Garth Brooks was an undeniable force. He went to places few, if any, country music artists went before. He topped the Billboard album charts, he had songs cross-over without remixes; he sold out concert after concerts. Even if ‘traditionalists’ didn’t much like his brand of post-(Merle)Haggard country mixed with a heavy dose of 70’s pop/rock, Brooks brought country music into the mainstream in a way it has yet to leave. Sure, it’s not pop but the genre certainly still has a firm grip on Garth’s style. Garth ‘pioneered’ it and artists like Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney continue to do remarkably well with it. So, with that said, the ‘retired’ Garth Brooks has returned with his first career-spanning greatest hits package. The phrase “career-spanning” is an apt description because, ever the marketing juggernaut, Garth has re-released all of his previous releases in various incarnations about a dozen times. However, his lone retrospective, “The Hits” was a limited-release of 10 million albums that were sold between 1994 and 1997 or so. Garth even buried the ‘masters’ of that record underneath his Hollywood walk-of-fame star to ensure that his label at the time, Capital Records, wouldn’t continue to repackage his stuff.
At 33 tracks, “The Ultimate Hits” certainly touches on The majority of Garth’s biggest hits. “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up)” leads off the package and it immediately shows that Garth decided that chronological sequencing of hits was not what he wanted (He does, after all, control all of his music and it is released through his own label Pearl Records). It’s a great song that sounds as vibrant and fresh today as it did in 1994 when Garth released it on the “In Pieces” record. If there was a song that everyone in the world knows from Garth Brooks it would be “Friends In Low Places.” From Garth’s seminal “No Fences” record, the song is still played at many bars while many people love to Karaoke the hell out of the song.Garth never covered many songs but Billy Joel was one of his biggest influences so the cover and release of “Shameless” was a nice surprise in 1991. 1995’s “Fresh Horses” was considered a let-down upon release but there was still quite a few hits from it. The biggest hit happened to be a somber song about a rodeo man and his wife on “The Beaches of Cheyenne.” “More Than A Memory” is the first of four new tracks recorded for the project and it broke records when released to radio. debuting at Number 1 on the R&R/Billboard airplay chart, “Memory” fits in well with the rest of the hits here. Currently rising back up the charts to have another go at the top spot (“earning it this time,” in Garth’s own words), the song finds a man wondering how he can live his life now that his woman has left, especially since his memories of her are very vivid. Previously only available on Wal-Mart exclusive releases (“The Lost Sessions” and “The Limited Series II“), “Good Ride Cowboy” is another recent Number One hit. From 2005/2006, the song is a fun, country/western/rock song in remembrance of the late Chris LeDoux. Garth Brooks’ fascination with Trisha Yearwood is so well-documented that many speculated 16 years ago that the two would eventually get married (and, in 2005, they did). What some fail to realize is how well the duo sing together. While she obviously has the better of voices, Garth isn’t exactly William Hung. “In Another’s Eyes” may be the lone “duet” between the pair but her voice can be heard on well over a half of these recordings.
The new “Midnight Sun” is a surprisingly twangy little track that recalls some of the hits found here. It’s about a guy who decides to ‘go off the wagon’ and ‘into the land of the midnight sun.’ It’s a cute song with twin fiddles (from Rob Hajacos, a longtime collaborator), punchy guitars, a two-step beat and crying steel guitars. If Brad Paisley can have hits with songs like this these days, there’s no reason Garth can’t follow up “Memory” with this.
Garth always has been a very good ballad singer and almost all of my favorite songs from him are ballads. “Learning To Live Again” is one of his oft-overlooked ones. It is a soft, fiddle and strings backed song that still gets to me. Recorded for the film “Hope Floats” in 1998, Bob Dylan‘s poetic ballad “To Make You Feel My Love” is one of the most romantic, simple pieces of music that Garth’s ever done. Many people overlook what Garth was trying to do when he released “We Shall Be Free.” The gospel-ish track still hits home as much today as it did back then. The politically charged lyrics are especially more poignant in an era of War and closeted Republicans getting into trouble. As he’s done previously, Garth closes the first disc with “The Dance.” Tony Arata‘s masterclass in songwriting is given light strings from producer Allen Reynolds (who’s produced every Garth Brooks album) but the song really is focused on the lyrics and Garth’s simple reading of them. It’s a song for weddings and funerals. It’s a classic that is truly a touchstone of the 1990’s (It was released in 1990).
The second disc starts off with the bluegrass cover “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” If anyone ‘championed’ starting off discs/albums with a ‘rocker’ before ballads, it was Garth. He really set the formula that many on Music row continue to follow today, with the “every other track should have tempo” philosophy. Anyone who’s been down and wants to escape, if only for a couple of minutes, will certainly love “Two Pina Coladas.” While Kenny Chesney has built his career with ‘beach’ songs, Garth can always say he ‘did it first.’
Before Garth got gutsy with “We Shall Be Free,” he tackled the tough subjects of adultery and spousal abuse with “The Thunder Rolls.” It’s a story song that first appeared on 1990’s “No Fences” record. The first big hit for Garth back in 1989 was “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” While Garth once said the songs was a ‘bad original,’ it would go on to become his biggest hit. One of the new songs on the record is “Workin’ For A Livn’.” The idea of a country guy doing the song isn’t new since Phil Vassar has also covered it. Huey Lewis also guested on that song but he’s given a verse and harmonica solo here. It’s a song that I can see country radio latching onto. It’s at least a fun remake of the song.
“Standing Outside The Fire” is an important and personal song for me. It helped me to come to terms with who I am and why I’m here on Earth. The video of a boy with Down Syndrome competing in the Special Olympics is also very touching and inspiring. This is a song that’s for anyone who has ever been told to ‘walk the line’ or ‘follow the herd’ but refuses to do so, or for those who have the courage not to hide behind ‘images’ and ‘just be who they be.’ Another song about taking a risk and helping people (or ourselves) is “The Chance” and the stellar Billy Joel-ish ballad from 1995 (which Phil Stacey sang on the “Idol Gives Back” Telethon show) still sounds great. The soft “Leave A Light On” is the only song on the album that doesn’t have a video on the DVD that came with the 2 CD package. It’s considered a ‘bonus track’ but this song has one of Garth’s most passionate vocals that I’ve ever heard. A slowly building ballad, “Light” finds Garth singing to someone (perhaps even God) and giving thanks to those who have helped him along the way.
The song is a fitting end to a remarkable collection of Garth’s biggest and best hits. There are, of course, a few gripes that one can present to Garth about this ‘ultimate’ hits collection. The main one being that he’s missing “all” of his biggest charting hits in lieu of more well-known stuff. Sure, “She’s Every Woman” (a number one hit) and a couple #2 hits are missing but that’s a given when an artist like Garth (who was almost bigger than the Beatles) is presenting a “Hits” retrospective. What does that final gripe mean? Well, in Garth’s world that means there likely be a “More Ultimate Hits” package in the pipeline.
While most fans will have all of the songs, many of them having bought them two to four different times (me included), there are those who never went to Wal-Mart to buy Garth’s 2 ‘exclusive releases.’ There are also people out there who simply didn’t ever feel the need to buy most of the man’s music. If they wish to fill a gap in their collection, they now have the perfect album to do it. Add the DVD of videos on top of that and you’ve got a winning collection. The biggest cherry on top of it all is Garth’s demand that retailers sell “The Ultimate Hits” for a price of 12-16 bucks. That, my friends, is one good deal.