Just like Santa Claus can be counted on to come to the home of all good little boys and girls in the month of December, November for country music fans since the 1990’s usually means something new from Garth Brooks. Whether it be a studio album, box set or Yuletide album (last year, it was all three), Brooks makes a release week special – like nobody before him or since. Well, it’s November, and Brooks has done it again with a five CD collection that showcases his career from 1989-1993. The country superstar offers more than a few unheard versions of some songs that fans have come to know, a beautifully-illustrated and detailed account of the how his career was built and the story behind the recording of each song in the first part of the anthology. It’s the first set in a multi-package plan to showcase Brooks and his music as never before. And, as usual, he hits the mark – right between the eyes.
Disc one takes us back to what we know as the beginnings of Brooks’ career ride, his 1989 self-titled debut album. “Not Counting You,” one of his first singles, and the traditional ballad, “I’ve Got A Good Thing Going,” are presented in the same form as you know them from that first album, as are several of the cuts that introduced Brooks to the country music world. But, what makes the disc – and the set – impressive is the “day write” / demo versions of many of the songs that became classics. “If Tomorrow Never Comes” is one of those songs from the first set, which vocally doesn’t sound much different. If anything, Brooks’ voice is perhaps a step rawer than on the hit version, which became his first number one hit in December of 1989. He also gives fans a taste of the makings of “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” which broke him earlier that year. It’s an elementary statement to make, but hearing the demos makes one realize the genius of Allen Reynolds in the production chair – as well as the circle of musicians that made gave Brooks’ recordings a signature sound, especially the fiddle work of Rob Hajacos. Listeners will also get to hear what Brooks heard when he became enamored with Tony Arata’s “The Dance” – the writer’s stark version. It’s a bit of country music history that is well worth the listen.
Disc two takes us inside the making of No Fences, the 1990 album that set Brooks apart from the pack. The day-write of “The Thunder Rolls” sets the tempo for the disc, followed by the brilliantly-executed production of the studio version. The master versions of such Brooks stalwarts as “Victim Of The Game” are included, as well as Arata’s version of “Same Old Story.” Brooks also includes the day-write version of “Unanswered Prayers” as well as a demo of the stone-country “Which One Of Them,” a song that wasn’t heard by the masses until its’ inclusion on a 1998 box set, The Limited Series.
Ropin’ The Wind – the commercial and artistic explosion heard around the world – comes into the spotlight on disc three, kicking off with the energetic album cut “Against The Grain.” Most of the album – arguably Brooks’ crowning moment – is included here, but there are a few unheard nuggets – a demo version of “The River,” a slightly faster take on “What She’s Doin’ Now,” which showcases his James Taylor influence. But the most interesting aspect of the disc is the original demo version of “Rodeo,” by a female singer named Joanne Stephens. The song is basically the same, except for a few changes in the narrative – and the title, “Miss Rodeo,” – but it makes you wonder what might have happened if a female vocalist had gotten ahold of the song and how well would Ropin’ have performed without it as the lead single. Hearing the story about the album set up in the book truly makes you see how vital it was/is in the Garth Brooks story.
Perhaps the best example of Brooks’ artistry at work comes on disc four, which kicks off with “Sometimes You Need The Rain,” a song that will be very familiar. It turned out to be the original version of what would become “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” a hit single from The Chase. The message of the song remains the same, but I don’t know if I don’t prefer the song in its original version. He also gives fans another taste of “Mr. Right,” and offers the first take of the 1993 hit, “This Summer,” a song that proves that persistence pays off. According to the detailed book that accompanies the music, producer Allen Reynolds wasn’t too keen on the first version, so another version was written. The producer didn’t care for the second attempt either. But the third one proved to be one of Brooks’ most memorable hits. Arata also makes another appearance on the set, with his day-write version of “Face To Face,” one of the most underrated lyrics of Brooks’ career.
The closing disc in the set – disc five – is the one that Brooks fans will no doubt gravitate to when it comes to rarities. An Arata performance of “Kickin’ And Screamin’” from In Pieces is included, but there are quite a few songs here that have only been heard by a select few, such as the tender “Leon,” the pre-Nashville Garth of “Tomorrow and Today” and a pair of cuts that show the influence that Trisha Yearwood has had on his life and career, even back in the early 1990s. The never-before-heard demo of Yearwood singing his “I Guess You Had To Be There” is totally jaw-dropping – this is an early demo, for crying out loud, and Yearwood sounds as if she’s in mid-career mode. “Like We Never Had A Broken Heart,” her second single, is performed by Brooks (who penned the tune with Pat Alger).
The Anthology, Part 1 stands tall as a celebration of the producers, writers, and of course, that Garth guy, who made this era of time the classic one that it became. And, as Brooks the showman always does, he simply leaves you wanting more. So, bring on The Anthology, Part 2, Mr. Brooks, I know one fan that will be waiting!