If I ever get a record deal, I want to do that song.” How many songwriters have heard that phrase but never heard back from the artist who said it?
That was not the case with Tony Arata and Garth Brooks. The two moved to town about the same time and met at Douglas Corner one cold winter night.
“I snuck in the back door for the open mic night,” Arata tells Sounds Like Nashville. “It was the winter of 1986, and there was a young man on stage wearing a cowboy shirt and hat. The first song he sang was I‘’ve Got A Good Thing.’ I thought ‘He’s really good.’”
After Brooks came off stage, Arata went over and introduced himself and they started talking. “I’m blessed to say we’ve been friends ever since.”
Brooks and Arata did a few writers’ shows at the Bluebird Cafe, a mecca for songwriters to play. That is where Brooks heard “The Dance.”
“I had written the song just before I moved here. Garth loved it the first time he heard it, and he said he wanted to record if he ever got a deal. At the time, neither of us had anything going on.”
It was three years before Garth signed with Capitol Records. The day after he signed, Brooks called Arata to see if the song was still available.
“Garth is many things … he is as loyal as they come, and he is a man of his word,” Arata says. “Ironically, the song had been pitched and turned down several times. It became my first cut after moving to Nashville, and my first number one.”
Arata went on to say that Brooks got the song right away. “He had a vision for it that I never had. When he played the album for me, I listened to all 10 cuts and thought to myself, ‘Well I guess it didn’t make it.’ It was the last cut on the album, and I didn’t recognize my own song. That proves what a great artist he is, and what a great producer Allen Reynolds is, and also the musicians who were involved with the recording of the song. Garth made it his song, he didn’t just copy the demo. He heard it in his heart and he and Allen were able to explain it to the musicians. My demo starts on a major chord, no piano, so you can imagine the first time I heard it and it was a dramatic minor chord that opens the song!
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“After I handed him the demo I had nothing to do with anything that transpired with that song afterwards. As a songwriter, you are charged with writing the best song you can and then you hope it finds the right home. In this case there were a world of elements that came into play that I had nothing to do with. I was fortunate to be there at the time.”
“The Dance” was on Brooks’ first album released in 1989. The song made its first appearance on the country charts May 5, 1990. It was Brooks’ second number one. The release of the song was an oddity at the time because it was the fourth single released from the album. Capitol seldom went beyond three singles from one album. The story goes that producer Allen Reynolds invited Capitol label head Jimmy Bowen to Brooks’ show in Knoxville, Tennessee. When Bowen saw the response the audience had to “The Dance,” he knew it had to be released as a single.
The idea for the song came from a scene in the movie Peggy Sue Got Married, where Kathleen Turner as Peggy Sue goes back in time and makes a decision not to marry her husband because their marriage turned out to be not so good. When she makes that decision, the pictures of her kids disappear from her locket and everything is changed.
“Something about that scene struck me so powerfully,” Arata says. “The next day I wrote the lyrics to ‘The Dance’ in about half an hour. A lot of people passed on the song because it doesn’t have a bridge. Being a new kid in town, I tried to write a bridge, but they all seemed totally out of place and unnecessary. I decided it was going to just to have to exist as it I had written it.”
When Brooks finished the video for the song, he called Arata in to see it. “He called me to come over to Scene 3 Productions to watch it. He said he wanted me to see it before he shipped it. I sat in a huge screening room, just me and Garth, and I was so shaken at the vision he and producer John Lloyd Miller had come up with for the song –I literally was speechless. I stood up and just hugged him and walked out. I called Bob Doyle (Brooks’ manager) 30 minutes later and he said, ‘Garth thinks you hate the video.’ I said, “No way, I just couldn’t talked after seeing it.’”
By fate or luck, Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood played the Opry on the 30th anniversary of “The Dance,” so Brooks had the honor of performing the song on its 30th anniversary. To many people the song is about love that did not last, but Brooks sees it in a different way. He sees it as a song about life and how, if people had a choice, most of them would not change anything because they would have missed that important part of their life. In fact, Brooks was quoted in a Playboy interview in 1994, saying, “‘The Dance’ will be the greatest success as a song we will ever do. I’ll go to my grave with ‘The Dance.’ It will probably always be my favorite song.”
Arata will be forever grateful for his chance meeting with Brooks at Douglas Corner, a meeting he can’t really explain. “For some reason my mama’s prayers and my wife’s urging put me in Douglas Corner on that cold winter evening, and life changed. The song has been a blessing and a friend and through it I’ve met so many people. This 30-year anniversary really puts in perspective how long we’ve been in Nashville and how fortunate I am to be a part of something like this song.”
“The Dance” was number one for three straight weeks on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts. It was named the 1991 Song of the Year and Video of the Year by the Academy of Country Music. The Country Music Association named it the 1991 Music Video of the Year. Others who have recorded the song include Jazz musician Dave Koz (Bebe Wynans sang vocals on it), Michael Ball, Westlife, the late Mindy McCready, Janell Arthur, Haystack and Filipino singer Jules Rancher. “The Dance” was performed by Brooks on the final episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on NBC.