25 Years Later, “Wind” Still A Breath Of Fresh Air
September 30, 2016
“When I heard ‘Ropin'’ was 25 years old, I had to go look in the mirror.”
That was longtime label executive Bill Catino, reacting to this week’s 25th anniversary of Garth Brooks’ landmark album, “Ropin’ The Wind,” topping the Billboard Top 200 album charts – the first Country album to do so. Catino remembers it well, having served as VP/Promotion for Garth’s label home at the time, Capitol Nashville.
“Those were incredible days for all of us in the format,” Catino recalls.
This won’t come as a shock to him: there’s a long list of former and present radio/label pros this week, glancing in the mirror and collectively asking with our inside voices, “Holy crap, where did the years go?” I talked to several of them to get their recollections and perspective on just how monumental Brooks’ third studio album was for Country music – and music overall.
“I knew when I heard it the first time, it was going to be the biggest album ever and blow the roof off the format,” remembers WYCD/Detroit PD Tim Roberts. “Garth had just played my market (KHAK-AM/FM Cedar Rapids, IA) weeks before this release, and we were playing his music every hour, all day long; it was a no brainer.”
No kidding. However, before we continue our stroll down memory lane with “Ropin’ The Wind,” it’s worthwhile to note that – while it spent 18 total weeks at #1 on that Top 200 chart, yielding three #1s and two other top three singles, and has sold north of 14 million copies to date – the album that was launched with a single called “Rodeo” wasn’t Brooks’ first rodeo when it came to massive success. Not by any means.
His previous effort, “No Fences,” remains Brooks’ biggest seller – somewhere north of 17 million – with the iconic, ultimate live sing-a-long and career record for the ages, “Friends In Low Places,” catapulting Brooks into superstardom. “Friends” was the lead single and an instant classic. Three more #1s followed: “Unanswered Prayers;” “Two Of A Kind, Workin’ On A Full House;” and the equally iconic “The Thunder Rolls.”
Released in August of 1990, “No Fences” was perfectly timed, as it followed the breakthrough success of “The Dance,” Brooks’ final single from his self-titled debut album, and which became his first momentum-building career record. Thus, the table was set for “Friends,” and soon after, the full album, “No Fences.” It didn’t kick-start the famous ‘90s Country boom – that honor will always belong to Clint Black’s 1989 collection, “Killin’ Time” – but “No Fences” accelerated the already-fast-growing format into hyperspace. Brooks quickly passed, then lapped Black, as the face of Country music, driving its new look and sound.
Three Things I Think
Then, “Ropin’ The Wind” arrived in September of 1991. And today, with 25 years of hindsight and perspective on that album, this special artist, and that time, I offer some observations. First, it’s a stronger album than “No Fences.” And that’s saying a lot, because “No Fences” is effin’ amazing. But “Ropin’” is the deeper, more complete package of the two, and the best album Brooks has ever made so far. All ten original tracks (an eleventh, “Which One Of Them,” was later added) could have been legitimate, viable singles for radio. In fact, when I returned to Los Angeles in 1993 to program KZLA, I soon added “We Bury The Hatchet,” “Burning Bridges,” and “In Lonesome Dove” to the library. And we could have added every song, to be honest. Yes, Garth was red-hot, and people simply couldn’t get enough – but most importantly, the songs were all A+ material.
Second, at the time of the release of “Ropin.’” Country was already booming fast and furious, due to the aforementioned game-changing success of “No Fences.” That, in turn, opened the door for other ground-breaking new Country acts such as Brooks & Dunn, who exploded on to the scene in mid-1991. But riding that momentum, “Ropin’ The Wind” served as Country music’s bat-hitting-the-ball moment. And when I say that, I mean the absolute sweet spot of the bat, where the ball flies completely – and rapidly – out of the stadium. Yes, “Ropin’” was THAT impactful. Country was the hottest of all music genres, and Garth Brooks was the biggest music star on the planet. Think Beyonce. Think Taylor Swift. Think Adele. Think anybody. Garth was bigger.
Country programmers certainly felt that way, but so did PDs outside the format. KBEQ/Kansas City was a Top 40 station in 1991, programmed by Mike Kennedy, who had not yet flipped it to the Country powerhouse it soon became. So he had a sideline seat to Country’s boom and its driver, Garth Brooks. The PD of KBEQ since its 1993 flip and now a Country Radio Hall of Famer, Kennedy recalls, “It’s easy to say Garth kicked the boom into overdrive. We could feel the size of the Country format in Kansas City at the time, but it took Garth, in my humble opinion, to make it cool.”
Likewise, KEEY/Minneapolis PD Gregg Swedberg – also not yet programming Country in ’91, but in the market as a Pop PD – remembers the enormity of “Ropin,’” saying, “I don’t think there’s been an artist to release a bigger CD at a hotter time for our format.” Hearing the album through a Pop PD’s ears at the time, Swedberg describes his reaction then: “Amazed. ‘The River’ was a spiritual song, ‘Papa Loved Mama’ was a clever take on homicidal driving, and ‘What She’s Doin’ Now’ remains an almost perfect Country song. I also remember how quickly the songs blasted up the chart, even if back then we didn’t exactly treat the songs like we do now.”
Additionally – and, hear me out on this point – the one-two punch of “No Fences” and “Ropin’ The Wind” can, and should be, compared to another sequence of two consecutive iconic albums with seismic consequences: “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” from the Beatles.
Yup, I just went there.
And yes, I realize the Beatles occupy an untouchable category of their own; there’s no question about that. They’re my favorite all-time artists. Maybe they’re yours, too. (By the way, pardon this totally random sidebar, but I just don’t get people who say they “don’t get” the Beatles. That’s near blasphemy to me. But, I digress.) Beatles music remains timeless and appealing to all generations, 50 years after those albums were originally released, and it seems no matter how many ways their 212-something total song catalog has been repackaged, they always sell a ton. But, so does Garth. He’s a selling machine. In fact, as of this week when the RIAA awarded Brooks his seventh career Diamond certification – which recognizes 10 million in album sales – for his “Ultimate Hits” collection, he moved ahead of the Beatles, who have six Diamond certifications. That said, it should be noted that the Beatles remain the greatest selling artists in music in history, moving an estimated 270 million units.
And, leaving sales data out of the equation, like the Beatles for Rock & Roll, Brooks’ long-lasting impact on Country music as a genre is beyond question. As I said earlier, while he was exploding as an artist, it helped others break through, as well. He raised the bar for all other artists musically – and for radio, when it came to taking ownership of the bullet train Country music had become. Suddenly, Country radio had to think bigger, more creatively, to align itself with the biggest star in all of music. And Garth arrived at the perfect time, too, as radio consultant and Glasco Media President Bob Glasco explains: “Brooks’ music was fresh at a time when 18-34s were feeling abandoned by Top 40, and Country radio’s presentation began to display more energy and showbiz, making it palatable for the disenfranchised life group.”
Unabashed, Gawl-Dern Country Music
What “The Dance” was to Brooks’ debut album, and “Friends” was to “No Fences,” “Shameless was to “Ropin’ The Wind.” The album’s second single, a Billy Joel cover, was a monster, and remains an important moment at Garth’s live shows. Brooks has called cutting it a risky move, one which he was fully aware of at the time. But he had already built enough equity to cover a pure Pop song, and he stuck the landing. Kennedy told me even at the time, he believed Garth’s version was better than Joel’s, which peaked at #40 on the AC chart in 1989. It may have been a Pop song originally, but Brooks’ version prominently featured steel guitar. Even so, there were mutterings about Brooks’ supposed desire to shift into Pop stardom; that seems insane, when you look at the album cover for “Ropin,’” which features Brooks in starched western shirt and the ever-present cowboy hat. With the exception of “Shameless,” the entire “Ropin’” album is straight ahead, unabashed, gawl-dern Country music. Glasco agrees. “If you listen to those songs, there is no doubt they’re Country. Unlike today’s music, there was no borrowing from Pop and, in some cases, Hip Hop. It mixed well with what was popular at the time in the format.”
Asks Catino, rhetorically, “As far as ‘Shameless’ being risky, what wasn’t? Yes, it was a Pop cover hit – HIT being the key word. But, Garth was bringing over a lot of first-timers to the format and wanted songs that were familiar for the [live] show. They were also new songs to Country, and as radio would always say, ‘we need to play hits.’” Catino adds that Brooks never pushed to move in a Pop direction. “If anything, he pushed to bring them to our format. Remember, he always refused to take off the hat. MTV asked him to make a video without it, and then they would run it. He refused.”
As a Top 40 PD, Kennedy didn’t see “Shameless” as risky. “And, I didn’t perceive it as him trying to be a Pop guy at all,” he adds. “I was familiar with the Billy Joel version that had little exposure, and I just thought it was a cool thing to play. Hell, we were struggling for great product at the time.” Swedberg – somewhat sarcastically – recalls that any small amount of pushback on the song, “only amounted to research on ‘Shameless’ coming in around a 95 instead of the standard 98 for Garth.”
Becoming A Bucket Lister
Here’s another interesting side-by-side Beatles/Garth theory for you. We know that what “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” did for The Fab Four was make them realize they could never convey the brilliance of those albums to a live show. The hysteria surrounding their concerts was a big part of the band’s ultimate disdain for playing live, but the musical and engineering genius of those two albums could never be duplicated on stage. As we know, they stopped touring all together, stayed in the studio, and created the most imaginative, enduring music of all time.
Conversely, I believe what “No Fences” and “Ropin’ The Wind” did for Garth was to reinforce the infinite possibilities of what he COULD do in a live show. For one thing, it created a catalog of epic, familiar, hit songs to build a show of nonstop big moments around. Even when Garth was still playing clubs, his concerts were special events, the likes of which this format had never seen. Now, with an arena – or, say, The Dallas Cowboys’ Texas Stadium – as his personal playground, Brooks took the music of those two albums and created an unforgettable Hi-Def, 3-D, IMAX-like experience for fans. It’s very similar to seeing an NHL or NBA game live for the first time after only watching it on TV. In person, it’s like 10 times better than the TV version. That’s what live editions of songs from “No Fences,” “Ropin’ The Wind,” and the rest of Brooks’ catalog became. Or, put another way, an un-effing-believable spectacle of nearly indescribable proportions.
“I saw the record sales, but the Top 40 world looked down on Country (they still do, by the way) and assumed it was just a bunch of overeager bumpkins,” says Swedberg. “But you cannot see Garth play live and not be affected. I saw how the audience sang along with every song – and trust me, coming from Pop, that was amazing, especially since Pop artists would use their tour to push their new stuff all the time. But these people were locked onto Garth, and the whole thing was like everybody – Garth, the band, the audience – everyone was like ONE.”
Glasco's alma mater, KMLE/Phoenix scored a coup by recognizing Brooks’ live dynamics early, booking him a year in advance for its third annual July 4th concert. Already a superstar and commanding huge booking fees, Brooks honored the date for KMLE on July 4th, 1991, between the “No Fences” and “Ropin’"albums. Serendipitously, when Brooks began singing “The Thunder Rolls,” one of Arizona’s famous, summer monsoon thunderstorms rolled in and the skies opened up. If you’ve ever experienced one, a monsoon pretty much feels like the world is about to end. But Brooks and his band played through it. Somewhere along the way, Brooks may or may not have climbed a rigging ladder and swung on a rope or two, among other antics. For Phoenix Country fans that night, Brooks’ legend as a bucket list concert destination was secured. But it wasn’t limited to the Phoenix market. For Brooks, that display of spontaneous combustion was a typical day at the office. “Country fans were used to going to concerts where the artists stood in front of the mic and sang the hits for 90 minutes. That changed with Garth,” says Glasco.
Since then, nothing has changed in terms of the return on investment Brooks delivers to concert-goers. During his current world tour, which kicked off in 2014, Brooks has continued to sell tickets at a dizzying rate, with multiple dates in most markets and often, playing two shows in one night – in a 20,000 seat arena. During the Presidential debate this week, Donald Trump kept repeating the word “Stamina,” saying he had more of it than Hillary. Well, sorry Donald, you’ve got nothing on Garth when it comes to endurance. In January of 2008, Brooks came out of retirement to play five shows at Staples Center in Los Angeles, benefitting those impacted by Southern California wildfires the year before. I should clarify: five (5) shows in two (2) days. I saw the fifth and final show – incredibly, Garth’s third in one (1) day. The man was fresh as a daisy, in full voice, with the boundless energy of a kid at recess. Stamina? It was a damn clinic on stamina. #GarthForPresident.
Brooks remains a bucket list live act, easily in the same league with The Rolling Stones, Springsteen, Madonna, Elton John, U2, Billy Joel, Beyonce, or Adele. Like Springsteen, Garth has fans who go to multiple shows and who travel well, following him around the country when possible. Unlike Madonna, Garth shows begin promptly at the time listed on his tickets – which are always priced lower than most shows. Admittedly, I’m biased, having seen dozens of his shows in multiple sized venues over the years, but I don’t think there’s anyone who connects with an audience better, no matter the location: Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, Yankee Stadium, or New York’s Central Park.
None of that is possible, however, without a set list packed with hits, and boy, did Garth Brooks tee himself up for life with a rich body of work spanning 27 years. But “Ropin’ The Wind” will always be a crowning achievement, both for him and the Country format. A return listen today proved that to still be true, as this album holds up just fine, thank you. Unlike some music from two decades ago, “Ropin’ The Wind” isn’t a prisoner of a specific era, but rather, still vibrant, fun, and relevant 25 years after first making history.