Garth Brooks is often criticized (wrongly, in this writer’s opinion) for driving country music away from its roots and towards a more pop or rock oriented sound. While it’s true that Brooks’ massive popularity catapulted him to heights unseen be any country artist before or since, throughout his career he was a steadfast purveyor of various incarnations of traditional country music. Few of those songs made in onto country radio, or course, but in his catalog you will find a consistent and long line of examples which prove that his commitment to the genre was more than a marketing ploy.
One such example is Brooks’ love of cowboy songs, a style that was, even in the early 1990s, all but forsaken by mainstream country music. Few of Brooks’ peers or followers have gone as far as to record one such song, but Brooks included at least one on every of his multi-platinum albums (except Sevens). That fact means that while radio was playing “Shameless” and “That Summer,” tens of millions of fans were being exposed to a form of country music that few other modern mainstream artists have been willing to embrace.
He sang ‘em well, too. Here’s a countdown of Garth Brooks’ top ten cowboy songs.
- 10. “Night Rider’s Lament” – from The Chase (1992)
One night a cowboy is working the graveyard shift, when, by the light of the full moon, he reads a letter from a friend back home. “Why do you ride for your money,” the letter asks. “Why do you rope for short pay?” His friend goes on to tell him about the beautiful lover he could have won, but the cowboy feels no regret, answering the charges by reminding us, “They’ve never seen the Northern Lights/They’ve never seen a hawk on the wing/They’ve never spent spring on the Great Divide/And they’ve never heard ole’ camp cookie sing.”
Written by real-life cowboy Michael Burton, the song is a tribute to those restless souls who would rather search for peace out on the open range than in a boardroom or a factory.
- 9. “Wild Horses” – from No Fences (1990)
“Wild Horses” first appeared on Brooks’ 1990 album No Fences, but wasn’t released as a single until ten years later, when it peaked at #7. A fairly typical take on a fairly typical cowboy’s struggle between his addiction to the rodeo and the wishes of the woman he loves, Brooks’ brilliant vocal is a genuine treat when placed on top of the song’s staunchly country, fiddle-driven track.
- 8. “Good Ride Cowboy” – From The Lost Sessions (2005)
In 2000, when rodeo champion Chris LeDoux needed a liver transplant, Brooks offered to donate a part of his own to the man who he credited for teaching him how to perform. Brooks’ liver was incompatible, but LeDoux did receive a new organ and lived for five more years, until his death in 2005 from complications of cholangiocarcinoma. Brooks may not have been able to give his mentor a part of himself, but in the wake of LeDoux’s passing he released a touching, up-beat tribute titled “Good Ride Cowboy.” The song–written by Jerrod Niemann, Richie Brown, Bryan Kennedy and Bob Doyle–rose to #3 on the country charts despite the fact that Brooks hadn’t scored a Top 10 single in four years, and the fact that surely only a portion of country radio listeners understood the tribute’s context or intended recipient.
LeDoux, most famous for being name-checked in Brooks’ debut single “Much Too Young,” charted only a single Top 10 hit–1992’s duet with brooks called “Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy.” He was, nonetheless, instrumental in the development of the artist who would become among one of the world’s most significant musical icons.
- 7. “Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy” – from Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy (1992)
This LeDoux/Brooks duet is a lively romp that finds the mentor and pupil sounding giddy as they ask one important question: “Whatcha gonna do with a cowboy when he don’t saddle up and ride away?” It’s a jovial but poignant take on the difference between the iconic cowboy figure and the reality of the cowboy lifestyle.
- 6. “Cowboys and Angels” – from Fresh Horses (1995)
One of two entries on this list from 1995’s vastly underrated Fresh Horses, you won’t find many more traditional-sounding country songs from the 1990s than “Cowboys and Angels.”
The scenario: On the eighth day, God realized he hadn’t given the cowboy a companion who could set his soul at ease. “Stubborn and proud, reckless and loud, God knew he’d never make it alone.”
So, God looked over what he had made, listened to the cowboy’s prayers, and sent down angels. “Only heaven above him knows why she loves him,” Brooks’ sings. “But he must be the reason she don’t fly away.”
- 5. “The Cowboy Song” – from In Pieces (1993)
Our shared infatuation with cowboys is based on perception more than it’s based on reality. With “The Cowboy Song” (written by Roy Robinson), Brooks reminds us that life out on the range is hard, painful and a lot less glamorous than movies and pop culture make it seem.
“So when you see the cowboy, he’s not ragged by his choice/He never meant to bow them legs or put that gravel in his voice/He’s just chasin’ what he really loves, and what’s burnin’ in his soul/Wishin’ to God that he’d been born a hundred years ago.“
- 4. “Rodeo” – from Ropin’ The Wind (1991)
One of Brooks’ most enduring hits (even though it peaked at #3, amid a string #1s), “Rodeo” requires little introduction or description. The song embraces a higher degree of his rock side than the others on this list, but serves as a prime example of the showmanship that made him a legend: Brooks’ powerful delivery makes us feel the bruises from the bull’s kick and taste the blood from the cuts on our face.
- 3. “The Beaches of Cheyenne” – from Fresh Horses (1995)
“The Beaches of Cheyenne” tells the story of a rodeo cowboy who “drew a bull no man could ride.” His lover begs him not to saddle up, but he refuses and is killed.
So distraught is she when she gets the call that he died, she drowns herself on a California beach. The singer reveals in the second verse that it wasn’t just the cowboy’s death that left his lover grief-stricken, but guilt. “When he told her he was riding, she said then I don’t give a damn if you never come back from Cheyenne.”
One of country music’s greatest ghost-stories, they never found the woman’s body–but every night her footprints appear in the sand along the water’s edge.
- 2. “Cowboy Bill” – from Garth Brooks (1989)
Old Cowboy Bill may have been telling lies to the kids who would gather around to hear his stories of Rangers and banditos, but in their eyes he was a hero. From his 1989 debut, “Cowboy Bill” remembers a storyteller so gifted that when he spoke, “You could almost hear those prairie winds blowin’/His saddle a creakin’, ‘neath his old faded jeans/You could taste the dry dirt, from the trail he was ridin’/As he sat there and painted those West Texas scenes.”
Of course, the kids’ parents don’t like the old man, who they think is filling the kids’ young minds with fanciful exaggerations in order to boost his own spirits. In fact, no one in the town seemed to pay much mind to Bill, until one day the kids couldn’t find him. In a gripping twist, Bill had passed away without anyone noticing; the kids walk in on his body, which was “Clutching a badge that said Texas Rangers/And an old yellow letter that said ‘Texas is Proud’.”
In the end, the town finally admits what the kids knew all along, as Brooks’ subtly reminds us that the hearts of our young ones are often a lot more pure generous than our own.
- 1. “Wolves” – from No Fences (1990)
It’s been a rough winter for this cowboy, and when we find him on “Wolves,” he’s just coming in from a long night of “Drivin’ heifers closer in to higher ground.” It’s morning now and he’s consumed with thoughts about “The ones the wolves pulled down.”
Of course, it’s not just the defenseless heifers that the wolves are pulling down–songwriter Stephanie Davis’ cowboy has watched his friends fall on hard times and lose everything. And what we thought was just another story song about life on the range reveals itself to be a prayer.
“Lord please shine a light of hope on those of us who fall behind/And we stumble in the snow, could you help us up while there’s still time.“