Imagining the modern country music landscape had Garth Brooks never existed is almost impossible. Would the hair be bigger, the gestures more grand? Would the rock tendencies be muted? Would bro-country be a thing, or would acoustics and pedal steels rule the roster?
Brooks showed the mainstream music industry that Nashville could flex serious commercial muscle, producing acts at the level of Guns N' Roses and U2. He also shoved country's love of big-tent arena rock ahead. His cover of Billy Joel's "Shameless" preserved the piano man's New York state of mind while making it palatable to country audiences, too. On the 1994 Kiss tribute Kiss My Ass, he covered "Hard Luck Woman" alongside the painted metallers themselves. He was faithful to the form.
During Brooks's temporary retirement, which began in 2000 and lasted until a 2009 Las Vegas run, his omnivorous take on country started to dig deep roots. The original version of his domestic-violence tale "The Thunder Rolls," whose third verse focused on gun-fueled revenge and was deemed too hot for 1991 audiences, foreshadowed Miranda Lambert's 2008 hit, "Gunpowder and Lead." The thrust of "Two Piña Coladas" should be familiar to anyone who's raised a toast to the tune of Dierks Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane."
But the country music industry, like the wider system itself, didn't stay the same without Brooks. It's become both leaner and larger since the days he moved millions, with stars like Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney filling stadiums with the sounds and sights of beer-soaked bacchanalias. Brooks titled his 2014 return to recording Man Against Machine. Its backstory focused on how the industry had changed since the release of his five-times-platinum Scarecrow in 2001. He didn't shuttle it to iTunes or Spotify, preferring instead to issue the digital version through his self-made digital music platform, GhostTunes. Interviews surrounding the album focused on how Brooks felt music had been lost in the technology-focused clamor of the twenty-first century. "This is where I take my stand/'Cause I can't stand it anymore... lately I swear the machines are living the American dream," he sings at one point. Coming from someone who helped build that very machine, his perspective is a peculiar one.
In the past, the release of Brooks's albums had been events. By the time he returned, though, music's middle class had flattened out, resulting in record sales a far cry from the days when his Chris Gaines grunge experiment could manage double-platinum status. The news cycle, too, was more focused on releases from an increasingly small batch of artists. The album itself mattered less than the overall image. To wit, ask a randomly selected attendee at a Chesney concert the name of the breezy beachcomber's latest album, and your odds are even between shrugs and almost-correct responses.
Man Against Machine did manage to go platinum, a long way from Brooks's numbers during the go-go nineties. Still, he remains a huge star. His three-night stint at PNC Arena, which expanded from two nights minutes after tickets went on sale, cements that fact, as do his numbers in an era where streaming and diminished floor space are just a few of the factors taking a big bite out of people's platinum stats. His days of selling enough newly minted albums to justify an imprint's entire roster of up-and-comers might be over, but any kid who still has a chance to become a star in country owes much of it to Brooks.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lower Places"