For Garth Brooks, it’s all about the song.
That’s the first takeaway from “The Anthology Part One: The First Five Years,” a five-CD/book package that looks at nearly every song on the country superstar’s first five albums, discussing in the text how, where and why the song was written while presenting “day writes,” demos and the finished versions of some of the songs on the discs.
Brooks wrote the introduction to the 240-page book and kicks off the discussion of each year, starting in 1989. In doing so he tells some of his story of moving to Nashville from Oklahoma to be a songwriter, landing a record deal, making the albums, selling millions and watching his live shows explode.
Then writer Warren Zanes, Tom Petty’s biographer, interviewed Brooks and those involved in making the albums to compile a song-by-song oral history of each record.
“Try to remember it’s the same seven musicians that made the first five records, the same engineer, the same producer, the same studio,” Brooks told me last month. “So all you’ve got to do is line up those guys up. What shocked me, Kent, more than anything was how well the stories all lined up. I know me, I’ll embellish things and it’ll be 10 times better than it really was. So I was really floored to see what you remembered those guys remembered.”
In addition to the players, producer Allen Reynolds, engineers and backing vocalists, including Brooks's wife, Trisha Yearwood, Zanes talked to the songwriters who wrote with Brooks or had their songs on one of the albums.
Their contributions, Brooks said, are the key to his success.
“We can talk about artists all day, the reason why we’ve been lucky enough to make a living is because of songwriters,” he said. “They give you that setlist. I look down and there’s not one song on that I’m the only writer on. If I’m on there, there are two or three others who are carrying me. There’s a lot of songs on there that have one writer on it. They ain’t one of mine. These guys are the reason why we get to do what we do.”
The anthology, the first of a five-part series that is expected to take five years to complete, includes 19 previously unheard songs -- “day writes,” the initial versions of songs quickly recorded by songwriters, and “demos,” better-produced records sung by aspiring young artists that are pitched to producers and artists in hopes of being chosen for an album.
“The first time I ever got to hear Trisha Yearwood sing is in there,” Brooks said. “She was doing a demo for our publishing company. Everybody was talking about this new girl from Georgia that was in town. I got to hear her for the first time and kept that tape.”
That approach makes for some enlightening listening as Brooks and the band transform the early versions of songs into master takes with producer Reynolds encouraging the musicians to add to the basic ideas.
Those transformations include a dramatic change in “The Dance” from songwriter Tony Arata’s day write to the maste; the female-to-male shift of “Miss Rodeo,” sung by Joanne Stephen on the demo; the hit “Rodeo” and a stumbling first take of “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” turned into the propulsive final version.
Not every song on the five albums that begin with 1989’s “Garth Brooks” and end with 1993’s “In Pieces” is included among the 52 on the five discs.
Interestingly, some of Brooks’s biggest hits aren’t in the package. Looking for “Friends in Low Places”? You won’t find it on “The Anthology Part 1.” The same holds true for “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” “Ain’t Goin’ Down” and “Papa Loved Mama.”
But the stories behind those songs -- like writing and recording of “Papa Loved Mama” during a single session -- are in the book, as are revelations of a couple of hits that aspiring songwriter Brooks gave to other artists, who then decided not to record them, allowing Brooks to put them on his records.
Takeaway No. 2 from a week’s listening to “The Anthology” is that Brooks, contrary to perception at the time, was not the ruination of country music. In fact, all five discs contain plenty of straight-up country -- Oklahoma swing numbers, cowboy songs, ballads and honky tonk rave-ups.
That said Brooks talks about bringing his influences into the music -- from using the Rockman equipment invented by Boston’s Tom Scholz and the songwriting of Dan Fogelberg, to The Eagles and ‘70s and ‘80s rock.
In doing so, Brooks, over the five years, invented modern country. But crucially he always brought it “back home” to real country -- something many of today’s artists need to learn.
Takeaway No. 3 is just how good the recordings sound and, especially, what a good singer Brooks is. And his voice and Yearwood’s together are something special.
“The Anthology Part 1” could have been done as a book only with the music available via a streaming service. But it was important to Brooks to include the CDs so the people behind the songs get paid as well.
“Physical and digital download is the only thing left where songwriters make any kind of money,” he said. “The anthology has physical in it because it has to be that way. It can’t have streaming. For it to count as music, it has to be a music package. ‘Is it a book or music?’ It’s both. This way the songwriters get paid. I like the way that works out.”
That’s more than appropriate. After all, for Brooks it’s all about the song.