Most people think that Garth Brooks' secret is that he plays country music as if it were rock and roll.
That's different from playing country music like rock and roll, cranking the guitars until the band sounds more like Lynyrd Skynyrd than Lester Flatt. The rock and roll element in Brooks' music is more a matter of attitude than instrumentation, a sort of go-crazy delivery that's miles away from the well-mannered reserve most country stars convey. That's one of the reasons Brooks seems so at home on the arena circuit -- his performance is built around oversized gestures.
There's plenty of that on "Fresh Horses" (Capitol 32080), Brooks' eighth and latest album. From the Billy Joel-ish sweep of "The Change" to the throat-rending intensity of "The Fever" (check the Steven Tyler-style scream at the end), Brooks "rocks out" without ever losing his twang or straying from the Nashville tradition.
Or so it seems on the surface. But if you dig beneath the surface of these songs, a different picture emerges. Because even though he takes pains to sound like a country singer, the truth is that Garth Brooks thinks like a rock and roller.
Take his attitude toward sex. Most country songs can't even approach the bedroom without dredging up some kind of guilt or regret, as if pleasure were inextricably linked with pain. Brooks, on the other hand, acts like the folks in his songs are headed for the greatest amusement park in creation.
First there's the lady truck driver in "Rollin'," who tells her man, "if you're tired get on the sofa/'Cause the bed's no place to sleep."
Then there's the heroine of "She's Every Woman," whom Brooks describes as "everything I want to do again." Shall we even go into the double-entendres sprinkled through "It's Midnight Cinderella"?
Guilt-free sex isn't the only non-Nashville value extolled here, either. There's a life-on-the-edge undercurrent to "The Fever" that lifts it out of its rodeo-rider conventions so completely you'd think Brooks was talking not about busting broncos but some kind of rock-and-roll craziness. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the tune was co-written by Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, but even the fiddle break manages to scream like an electric guitar.
Of course, Brooks is only interested in pushing the envelope, not busting it open entirely, so there's a fair amount of traditional fare as well. "Cowboys and Angels" is a predictably sappy ode to the mystery of what makes women love men, which Brooks sings with the sort of high, lonesome yelp expected of romantic legends, while "The Beaches of Cheyenne" is a lovelorn ghost story he plays for maximum melodrama. And, of course, there's the obligatory lost-lover lament, "That Ol' Wind," which departs from the norm only by waiting 24 bars before bringing in the pedal steel. What would country music be without the comfort of cliche?
But Garth Brooks did not get to the top of the charts by turning country music on its head. His kind of revolution is far more subtle, and "Fresh Horses" is perhaps his most subversive release yet.
Hoofbeats To hear excerpts from Garth Brooks' new release, "Fresh Horses," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6103. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.