If you take a second to step back and analyze it, Garth Brooks has a lot of competition for concert tickets and radio airplay these days. Of course, competing with the likes of Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban are nothing new, as he vied with fellow Hall of Famers George Strait and Reba McEntire for attention back in the 1990s. So, he’s used to that. But, perhaps Brooks’ biggest competition is his own legacy, sewn in iconic fashion with hits such as “The Dance” and “Friends In Low Places,” which still get plenty of play on Country radio. How does one compete with that? Do you stick with what made you a legend – or try to appeal to the younger demo? A tough question to answer, for sure.
In 2014, Brooks returned to the music scene with Man Against Machine. A fine album in parts, “She’s Tired Of Boys” and “Tacoma” being two obvious highlights, the album failed to light any fires at radio. There are many reasons for this, but at times Brooks sounded on the fence – debating whether to adapt his sound to the current audience, or stay true to what brought him to the dance initially.
There are no doubts that Brooks hit that stride successfully with Gunslinger. From the start, you can tell that the singer is simply in a zone he’s comfortable with. “Honky Tonk Somewhere” brings to mind some of George Jones’ Musicor work. It’s by far the most traditional song we’ve heard from the CMA Entertainer of the Year, and it’s not making any social statement. It’s just fun – and the musicianship is as stellar as Brooks’ vocal approach. That traditional element is all over the disc.
“Whiskey To Wine,” a duet with wife Trisha Yearwood, might very well be the best pure Country performance that the singer has ever turned in. Of course, having Yearwood by his side doesn’t hurt. Earlier this month, the two performed versions of several classic duets on the CMA Awards. I have a feeling this one might get such treatment in about thirty years. “Cowboys and Friends” also scores with a down home approach. When he’s singing in that vein, there are few better.
But, he also has a way with ballads. “Ask Me How I Know” oozes with pain and regret about how pride can get in the way of making a relationship work. Brooks makes it work with one of his deepest performances. This has radio – but also that Brooks sound – written all over it. He also hits the right emotional chord with the stunning “He Really Loves You,” about a man who has trouble admitting just how deep his feelings go – until he thinks it might be too late. It’s one of those compositions that you have to listen to until the end, as the song’s climax features somewhat of a twist.
Of course, Brooks is already riding high on the charts with the first single, “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance,” and the song has been a sonic treat on the airwaves this fall. Bottom line, it’s just fun. He also goes for the same feeling – and succeeds with the fiery “Bang Bang,” which is three minutes of pure thrills.
I don’t know, maybe I got Man Against Machine wrong. But, with Gunslinger, I think it’s evident that Garth has got his groove back. I think any of these tracks could work on The Chase, In Pieces, or Sevens, three of his finest albums of the 1990s, while also giving him a strong chance at picking up some more steam at radio to add to his already impressive résumé.