Country Jukebox Jury: Garth Brooks – Fun

(All music is available on Amazon Music)

As Chris Molanphy points out in this month’s Hit Parade podcast, no Garth Brooks means no McGraw, no Shania, no Chesney and, I would add, no Country2Country jamborees. I’d love for Garth to headline a C2C of the future. Indeed, I find it tough to believe he hasn’t been in talks with the O2 for a multi-date run for his next tour. He’d probably be supported by Ashley McBryde – he covered Girl Goin Nowhere on tour – and one of his acolytes like Mitch Rossell or Randall King.

Troyal Garth Brooks remains the biggest country star in the world (just surpassing Dolly Parton) and has finally allowed Fun to be released into the world. I am delighted that I am able to review fun as it’s only on Amazon Music and I borrowed a friend’s login.

It has been in the works for years, and we’ve heard a lot of it before. In June 2018 the wild and loud All Day Long (with its ‘somebody’ repetition) hit radio, then he premiered the none-more-Garth ballad Stronger Than Me at the 2018 CMAs at which he won Entertainer of the Year. After a massive concert tour in 2019 he won the same award for a seventh time; in 2020, he recused himself and told the CMA voters to pick someone else.

Also last year he released a fun duet with Blake Shelton called Dive Bar into the world, which climbed to six at radio. I replayed it about eight times when I first heard it because it’s a fun tale of spending ‘the weekend in the deep end of a dive bar’. I still love the line ‘Crank that jukebox up and Hank it’. Blake and Garth sound great together, as befitting the Oklahoman master and one of his many heirs. The track’s rise was helped by the first music video Garth had made since 2013, where the pair and the band were immersed in a CGI fish tank.

Just before Fun came out, Garth and Miss Trisha Yearwood put out their popular take on Shallow, from A Star is Born. A shrewd move, this generation’s Big Karaoke Duet gets the Garth treatment, with some stellar vocals. Indeed, it’s a measure of how terrific Lady Gaga is that Trisha doesn’t outclass her original too much. Lukas Nelson, who wrote Shallow, will benefit from this version until the day he dies, much as Bob Dylan will from Garth’s superior version of Make You Feel My Love, which was the basis for Adele’s almighty pop version.

We know Garth’s many moods by now, because he was a human algorithm before algorithms were cool. Album opener The Road I’m On is Rock Star Garth, a chugger which paints a picture: ‘bluebirds’, ‘steel belts’ and ‘neon’. If anything, it sounds like Bruce Springsteen with a steel guitar, except it’s about Garth going out and being Garth. (A Hard Way To Make An) Easy Livin’ looks back to his early days as a performer, with ‘half-naked hotties’ and groupies popping up in verse two. First world problems, courtesy of one of the biggest singer-songwriter performers in the recorded music era.

Coincidentally, the Triple Live set with recordings from his stadium dates in recent years is reissued with three bonus tracks on the same day as Fun.

The Courage of Love is Global Messiah Garth and it’s better than his last one of these, People Loving People. Over bluesy guitar and an orchestra, he sings of how ‘anyone can start a fight but to love is so much bigger’. Veterans, farmers and ‘our children’ are the targets for a song which could be a charity single. There’s a proper middle eight too which will encourage the waving of mobile phones or lighters in Garth’s next stadium tour. Perhaps stadium tours will never take place again in our lifetime. (Did you know that Triple Live is available now?)

Message in a Bottle unites Rock Star Garth and Messiah Garth: love, ‘children laughing’, dancing and world peace over horns and keys. There is a key change which Westlife would stand up to sing and an ad-libbed outro.

Then we get Okie Garth, the singer who grew up in the country. That’s What Cowboys Do outlines that, ‘when it came to the leaving part’, a cowboy will always move town ‘chasing sunsets down’. This is a song I would expect a Texan star like Garth’s beloved apostle Randall King to write. Garth, even more than George Strait, brought the Texan-Oklahoma Red Dirt sound to Nashville, and ran away with the millions.

Amen is Gospel Garth, with an RnB groove that underlines how much he loves his life: ‘It feels too good to be a sin’. This sounds like five years of the Rolling Stones’ career condensed into one track, and proves he can reach beyond his core country constituency.

Like Dive Bar, Party Gras is a good time tune with plenty of Cajun fiddle, ‘gumbo’ and ‘jambalaya’; it might as well be subtitled ‘Visit New Orleans’. Like Stronger Than Me, I Can Be Me With You is Garth’s attempt at sending a love letter in song to his wife from ‘Prince Charmer, Knight in shining armour’. His listeners will both appreciate the lyric and the music, which is swaytastic. As a songwriter, I appreciate the tight structure of the song, which sounds like a smash.

As well as Party Garth and Gentleman Garth, he cannot resist bringing out Healer Garth. The album’s most emotional moment comes on Where The Cross Don’t Burn. Garth’s ‘only black friend’ is, rather hilariously, played by the surprise guest on the album, Charley Pride, who literally played the role of country music’s only black friend in the 1970s. Back in the 1960s ‘when change came slow’, Garth had a chat with the ‘black old man…walking hand in hand’: Charley imparts a lot of wisdom in the role of ‘wise old man’ that I am sure will get some pushback because this is a trope. It doesn’t make the song any less emotional and, released in a country music and American environment today, it sounds quaint and twee. Good on Garth for trying.

The album’s final track is (Sometimes You’ve Got To Die To) Live Again, which I think places Garth at Dolly level. We know Dolly likes to dispense wisdom to her listeners which is rooted in Bible teachings and Garth reaches, with the help of a falsetto chorus, to preaching the message of reconciliation with a loved one or, when necessary, leaving them behind. Relationship Counsellor Garth? Vicar Garth? Moneymaking Garth with an exclusive Amazon deal?

Nobody was crying out for Fun, Garth’s 14th studio album and only his fourth since he returned from a hiatus in 2014. He releases new product to keep the setlist fresh but, like his friend Billy Joel whose last non-instrumental material came out back in 1993, Garth doesn’t need to add to his catalogue, as his Triple Live album suggests. Still, there’s plenty of fun on this album – it fulfils the brief – but also a reminder of what a good interpreter of song Garth is.

He swallowed up the era thanks to his rock-inspired stadium shows and marketed himself outside the American South without abandoning them. Even his Chris Gaines project (aka Garth Goes Pop) sold 2m copies. Fun won’t sell anywhere near that, let alone his Diamond-sellers from the 1990s, but albums no longer give Garth a pension. Garth On Tour is the big earner but in an era where his live earnings will take a hit – will he produce televised concerts for Amazon? – this sets up Garth’s fourth decade in music very nicely. 4/5

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