Garth Brooks loves big things: big hits, big sales, big concerts, and it seems, big surprises. He recently surprised Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe with a visit and a cozy performance as a kickoff to his new book release. Joined by four of his writers, they had some stories to tell.
Monday night at the Bluebird Cafe is generally open mic night, but no one was fussing about a private show with the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year.
Brooks, who is releasing the The Anthology Part 1: The First 5 Years later this year, decided to promote the project by revealing (and reliving) some music history. The book is the first in a multivolume memoir of his life and career.
As Rolling Stone recalls, it was at the Bluebird Cafe where he signed his first record deal. That was back in the 1980s.
Four writers of some of his biggest hits joined him. There was Pat Alger who wrote “The Thunder Rolls” and “What She’s Doing Now.” Kent Blazy takes credit for “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up).” Victoria Shaw wrote “The River.” Then there was Tony Arata, who wrote one of Brooks’ most famous hits, “The Dance.”
The writers took the opportunity to share some insight into the songs, as well as give Brooks some friendly teasing. Brooks replied with smiles and even with some tears.
CMT reported one notable comment by Arata about how much Brooks has remained true to himself and his roots. Arata observed that Brooks hasn’t changed a bit and “would still come pick you up if you were ever stranded on the side of the road.”
Several times during the 90-minute acoustic performance, Brooks closed his eyes, leaned on his guitar, and smiled at a fond memory.
“If Tomorrow Never Comes”
Written by Kent Blazy, this track was the second single released by Brooks. The 1989 release went straight to the top and was Brooks’ first No. 1 hit.
During their Bluebird Cafe rendezvous, Blazy recalled that “If Tomorrow Never Comes” was Brooks’ idea, but that it wasn’t popular. Brooks acknowledged that more than twenty other songwriters had refused the idea. Luckily for both men, Blazy saw its potential.
Victoria Shaw revealed that several people tried to talk Brooks out of using the word “vessel” in the 1992 hit song, “The River.” Brooks decided to keep it in anyway.
Think of the lyrics of the track: “I will sail my vessel / ‘Til the river runs dry. Replace them with “boat” and you get, “I will sail my boat / ‘Til the river runs dry.” He’s right. Boat doesn’t work.
Shaw also said that she remembers Brooks’ vision for the song. He told her he thought thousands of people would sing along with it, holding up lighters (of course, this was before cell phones, which have taken the place of lighters).
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s so delusional,’ ” Shaw recalled. “Because, nobody in country music had done that.”
“The Thunder Rolls”
It turns out that “The Thunder Rolls” was based on a Kathy Mattea song, “Hurricane” (also written by Pat Alger).
“Day dawned bright in the Shenandoah / The sky’s a cool clear mountain blue / But in my heart there’s a thunder rollin’ / Storm of love that was untrue,” were the lyrics that inspired Brooks.
Tanya Tucker was initially going to record it and it was her producer that suggested a third verse in which the unfaithful husband is killed. That third verse became both popular and controversial.
Tucker ultimately did cut the song. However, Brooks released it, and with much success.
Interestingly, “The Dance” was the first song cut by Tony Arata. He recalled that he was loading trucks at UPS and Brooks was working construction when they did the song.
The track originally appeared on the superstar’s 1989 self-titled debut album. A ballad that praises love and mourns loss, it debuted on the country charts on May 5th, 1990. It took Brooks to the No. 1 spot for the second time.
Rolling Stone recalled Brooks’ words about the song in a 2015 article about its popularity: “‘The Dance’ will be the greatest success as a song we will ever do. I’ll go to my grave with ‘The Dance.’ It’ll probably always be my favorite song.”
“Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
Apparently, “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up),” the 1993 No. 1 hit, revealed a bit of a problem in one of the writer’s homes.
It seems that Blazy, Brooks, and Williams were building the track using a drum machine. The three men were in Blazy’s basement putting the song together when termites began pouring out of the floors, walls, and ceilings. Taste of Country reported Blazy’s hypothesis about the event: “I guess the drum machine pissed ’em off.”
It seems this track produced another concern, this one for Williams. He was so afraid of Brooks’ ability to sing the rapid lyrics that he took an oxygen mask to the studio to help. Turns out, it wasn’t needed because Brooks recorded it in one take.
Chasing a Dream
As part of the Bluebird Cafe event, Brooks announced a free concert as a “thank you” to Tennesseans.
“I can’t thank Tennessee enough for taking me in as if I was one of their own and allowing me to chase a dream,” Brooks said. “I couldn’t be more proud to bring this back to the home of country music.”
The Bluebird Cafe performance was about more than just music and fans. It was also about the friendships that created the music.
With the release of his multivolume, autobiographical anthology, the life and times of Garth Brooks are just beginning to unfold. Perhaps the best medium for these stories is through the oral history of the men and women who lived them. The telling of stories in intimate spaces is what makes them endure.
Whether or not the stories live on, it’s likely that the music will. As Brooks commented, “These songs, good Lord willing, will last forever.”