Song Review: Garth Brooks, “That’s What Cowboys Do”

We’ll see how long this lasts on YouTube…

It seems a little awkward to put this track on an album called Fun, but as a wise man once said, “life ain’t always beautiful.”

With millions of albums sold and several shelves full of awards, Garth Brooks seems to be challenging his last unconquered opponent: Time itself (aka Eddy Arnold). Despite being on the backside of fifty and in his fifth decade on the mainstream country scene, Brooks continues to pack stadiums and release singles that are at least semi-viable commercially (his latest, a cover of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born that featured Brooks’s wife Trisha Yearwood, reached the low twenties on Billboard’s airplay chart, and probably could have gotten farther if it hadn’t gotten a quick hook). Despite being known for rock-infused sounds and high-flying theatrics, Brooks could always sing the heck out of a more-traditional country tune when he needed to, and that’s what we get on his latest release “That’s What Cowboys Do,” a song that does a really nice job capturing the highs, lows, and ultimately melancholy existence of a drifting wanderer. Despite being an old man in a young man’s town, Brooks shows here that he’s still got a thing or two he could teach some of Nashville’s newer acts.

The production here is probably the closest we’ve come to a 90s-era neotraditionalist mix since Dierks Bentley’s parody band, and it does a nice job providing proper support for the subject matter. Much like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, everyone is here: The fiddle, the steel guitar, the guitars, the real drums, the classic piano (there’s no banjo or harmonica, but let’s not get greedy here). Each of these pieces gets plenty of screen time, and despite the many moving parts, each one maintains their individual texture and sounds disinct (i.e., they don’t run together and create an indistinguishable wall of noise). From an atmospheric perspective, the instrument tones feel strangely contradictory: They’re bright, but there’s a mournful twinge to them as well, and the frequent minor chords only add to the mix’s sense of unease. However, this looming darkness fits the song well: The narrator finds their cowboy duties forever coming into conflict with their heart’s desire, and the sound really drives home the image of a burdened wanderer unhappily setting their feelings aside when duty calls. (This arrangement also passes the context test: If you’re going to sing about being a cowboy, you’d better have some classical instruments in your wagon.) Overall, this is a well-executed mix that helps the song make the point that being a cowboy isn’t always sunshine and rainbows.

It might be hard to picture Garth Brooks as an old-school cowboy after watching some of his concert theatrics back in the day, but he’s actually got a lot going for him in this regard: His age, tenure, and penchant for Chris LeDoux give him a cover of experience and perspective (very few current artists could fill this role credibly), and most importantly, he’s Garth freaking Brooks—the man was Thanos before Thanos, and he oozes populist charm out of every pore. I’m actually more impressed by his technical performance than his charisma: Even in his mid-fifties, the man still has solid range, a smooth flow, and some incredible vocal tone (seriously, put this back-to-back with “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” and he sound almost the exact same). Much like the production, Brooks uses a measured delivery to signal the narrator’s true feelings: Despite the late-night rendevous and the exciting rodeo ride, his performance is matter-of-fact and muted: He’s seen and done all this a million times before, and it’s not worth getting worked up over because the cowboy rides away every time. Basically, Brooks lets the audience share in his utter lack of feelings, and uses the resulting paradox to make the point that unlike the stereotypical image, the cowboy’s life is a grind and they are more of a tragic figure than anything else. It’s the sort of understated performance that harder to pull off than it sounds, and the fact that Brooks makes it look easy speaks volumes about his skill as an artist.

Cowboy songs have been such a staple of country music that they’re sometimes given their own subcategory (country and western), but they’ve become increasingly rare over the last few decades, so it’s nice to get a throwback song like this one once in a while. However, novelty alone doesn’t make a song good; it’s the execution that matters, and this one is a great example of a story song done right. Each of the verses bring the listener along for the ride, providing the sort of detail and vivid imagery to let them both picture the scene and see the narrator’s train of thought throughout them both. The double whammy of the narrator’s decision to not follow their heart and the realization of how cold and monotonous the cowboy life is give the song an extra dose of meaning and sadness, and it makes the narrator a sympathetic and even pitiable character. (I have to highlight a great example of the lack of detail as well: The song mentions that “Whenever you’re in Texas, the cowboy’s gonna always win,” but it never actually tells us if the narrator succeeds or fails in their rodeo ride. The implication is that it doesn’t matter if they win or lose; the empty feeling of leaving is the same regardless.) The writing does a great job pulling back the curtain and giving folks a taste of the isolation and sorrow inherent in the drifting cowboy’s way of life, and provide plenty of hooks for the singer and sound to bring the story to life.

“That’s What Cowboys Do” is…well, in a sense it’s exactly what a cowboy would do in this situation. They’d gather up some traditional instrumentation, they’d tell the truth even when it hurts, and they’d put enough feeling behind it so that the audience could ride alongside them on their journey. Garth Brooks isn’t an old-school cowboy by any stretch of the imagination, but he was a genre-defining artist back in the day and can still throw down a darn good song when he wants to, especially when his material and production are strong enough to support him. No matter what the radio ends up doing with the track (they’re on board so far, but that could change in an instant), Brooks will continue to do things his way and persevere in the face of time and trends. After all, “that’s what cowboys do,” and the airwaves are better for it.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.