(No YouTube video here because, well, you know how much Garth loves YouTube.)
“Garth Brooks is destroying country music.” It was a common refrain back in the early 1990s, as Brooks was tearing up the charts, lighting up the radio, and delivering a massive shot of energy through his live shows. Looking back, the critique feels a little misplaced, and not just because recent trends like Bro-Country feel like they’ve done far more damage than anything Brooks done. Going through his early single releases, his songs were pretty standard fare, ranging from the Western swing of “Not Counting You” to the barroom rancor of “Friends In Low Places” to the darker drama of “Papa Loved Mama” and “The Thunder Rolls.” Even the Bill Joel cover “Shameless” didn’t stray all that far from the meta of the time: The guitars may have been a little louder and little more prominent, but not egregiously so. So what was the catalyst for the Brooks backlash?
Brooks’s lively (and widely-televised) stage antics certainly played a role in this sentiment (my dad never truly forgave Brooks for smashing a guitar on stage), but I’d argue that there was one song in particular that turned many purists against him: “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up),” the 1993 #1 leadoff single from his In Pieces album. This was a very different sort of song than people in Nashville were used to, and it was not shy about letting you know. Different,’ however, does not necessarily mean bad, and while I wouldn’t rank it among Brooks’s best work, it’s a solid, well-executed effort that might be one of the best showcases of Brooks’s talents within his discography.
From a production standpoint, this thing hits you in the face with a hard-charging electric guitar stolen from a rock band, and it doesn’t let up until the song is over. There really isn’t a ton to the mix beyond that: The drum line is constant but not elaborate, a keyboard floats around in the background, and a harmonica jumps in to share the lead duties with the guitar, but that’s pretty much all you get from the arrangement. What it lacks in quantity, however, it makes up for in sheer energy: When an instrument has the spotlight, it gives it everything it’s got, giving the song a ton of momentum that will bowl you over if you’re not ready for it. (This sort of approach would normally overwhelm the lyrics as well, but the producer tones things down a bit when Brooks is singing to allow the listener to follow along.) It’s this energy and momentum that allows to connect with its audience, letting you feel the power behind the track even if you’re not a fan of the sound. This sort of kinda-sorta sex jam doesn’t usually get some heavy-handed approach, but the tones are generally bright and the vibes are positive, which at least gives the relationship a ‘fun’ feel that most love songs seem to avoid these days.) It’s an interesting approach, and I kind of wish there a little bit more to it, but it certainly gets your attention and stands out from its peers.
I don’t feel like Brooks gets a ton of credit for his singing abilities (I usually highlight his everyman charisma in my own reviews), but this is one of the most impressive vocal performances on a technical level that I’ve ever heard. This thing is as close to rapping as country music got in the 90s—it’s rapid-fire from start to finish (especially on the verses and bridge), and Brooks flies through the entire thing without missing a syllable. (I’d be really interested in knowing how many takes it took to record this.) The narrator serves as a neutral third-party storyteller, but Brooks cranks up the energy on this performance, combining an upbeat performance with his usual charm to make sure the audience knows that he finds the story important (and thus they should to). Old-school country fans might be put off by this delivery, but honestly I’d argue it helps cover for the song by glossing over what’s going on in the lyrics—there’s some hot steamy sex going on here, but you don’t have time to catch your breath with this song, much less ruminate over the writing. Brooks’s speed and skill help elevate this beyond a standard night out on the country, and that’s the mark of a great artist.
The writing…well, there isn’t a whole lot to the writing, either figuratively or literally. There may be two verses, three choruses, and a bridge, but when pared with this kind of tempo, the song is basically over by the two-minute mark (it’s perfect for the streaming era!). There’s enough space here to tell a story, and the song goes into great detail as to what’s going on, but the story isn’t all that interesting in the end (a couple takes a nighttime drive in a truck and makes love for half the night? This thing really would fit into today’s meta). I do like that you can really visualize each scene, but I also wonder if that contributed to the Brooks backlash, as the truck-rocking “hard romancin'” probably alienated a lot of folks in a genre that’s always had a strong prudish streak. Like everything else about this song, the writing pulled no punches and told you exactly what was going on, and while its construction was ahead of its time (and honestly might still be; Bro-Country tracks tended to be slower and more-deliberate, and country songs in general rarely run at this speed), it was overly-reliant on the other pieces of the song to make it interesting.
I think “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up)” stands as the most polarizing entry in Garth Brooks’s discography (and that’s saying something given that, you know, Chris Gaines exists). With its blazing fast sound, plainspoken-yet-detailed writing, and Brooks fighting through the chaos to hold the whole thing together, everything about this track is raw, bold, and in your face, and while it energized a lot of his fanbase, it also cemented him as a supervillain in the eyes of many listeners as well. I’m not a massive fan of the song’s limp story, but the sound and singer are so on point that you can’t help but get taken in by the whole package. My main issue is that the song cast a long shadow over an artist who was so much more than the guy who smashes guitars and flies through the air, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s part of the reason why a guy who sold hundreds of millions of albums doesn’t seem to have the strong legacy that people like George Strait and Alan Jackson do. Garth was a darn good country singer, and while it’s darn hard to prove it without YouTube, Spotify, or iTunes, I’m more than happy to preach his gospel a little.
Rating: 7/10. Check this one out, and then check out more of his stuff too! Provided you can find it…