With Ropin’ the Wind, Garth Brooks Drew a New Map for Country Music Superstardom

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The post With Ropin’ the Wind, Garth Brooks Drew a New Map for Country Music Superstardom appeared first on Consequence.

Our series Dusting ‘Em Off looks at how classic albums across genres found an enduring place in pop culture. Today, we spend some time with Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind.


In his 1999 book The Nashville Family Album: A Country Music Scrapbook, photographer Alan Mayor reflects on what it felt like working a Garth Brooks show. “Shooting a Garth concert was like shooting a basketball game,” he writes. “He went around the stage like a player at full court press. I learned to let him come to me rather than try to chase him… No other concert I’ve seen before or since had such electricity — except for other Garth concerts.”

Mayor was specifically recalling the energy during Garth Brooks’ “Ropin’ the Wind” tour, which took place from February 1991 to December 1992. Brooks’ first major headlining tour arrived in support of his 1991 LP of the same name, his third studio album, which will always be remembered as the project that turned expectations of country music upside-down.

It’s not that Brooks’ first two albums, a 1989 self-titled effort and 1990’s No Fences, were flops. Far from it; Garth Brooks was a critical and chart success, leaning into fiddle flourishes and dependable country music song structures. No Fences hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country charts, and also peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. The latter included two of Brooks’ most beloved tracks — “The Thunder Rolls,” and “Friends in Low Places” — but when Ropin’ the Wind arrived in 1991, it surpassed all expectations.

In a book written to accompany his musical box set, Garth Brooks: The Anthology Part I, Brooks reflects on the vision for Ropin’ the Wind, explaining that he wanted the project to sound like a live show, wanting to distill the “rollercoaster” energy of a performance into the record. “It can’t be all ballads, can’t be all story songs, can’t be all up-tempo swing kind of stuff, just like it can’t be all humor – but you damn sure need all that stuff in its moment,” he writes.

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On that front, Ropin’ the Wind unequivocally succeeds. It begins with the toe-tapping, almost frantic energy of “Against the Grain” before settling in with the project’s highly visual first single, “Rodeo.” Over the next 12 songs, Brooks keeps that ebb and flow, spending time in ballad territory with the mournful “What She’s Doing Now” and equally regretful “Burning Bridges.” The pace picks back up by the time the playful “We Bury the Hatchett” rolls around — but his enduring “The River” is undoubtedly the emotional cornerstone of the album. Brooks co-wrote seven of the songs on the album by teaming up with a rotation of songwriters, while “Shameless” is a cover of a Billy Joel track. It wasn’t any longer than his first two projects, yet it somehow felt bigger.

Audiences responded with enormous enthusiasm. Ropin’ the Wind debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and appeared in that spot for 18 non-consecutive weeks from the time of its September release through the following February. Despite that, not everyone was thrilled with the bigger direction Ropin’ the Wind displayed — critics at the time at Entertainment Weekly and LA Times saw the project as uneven, with the former writing, “Uh-oh — sounds like ol’ Garth is starting to believe his hype.”

Despite detractors, demand was clearly in place for a tour, and Garth and his team delivered. Country music tours weren’t synonymous with summer the way they might be today for some people, and the genre was often relegated to its own box. Brooks’ contemporaries (like George Strait) and predecessors (like Kenny Rogers) had pull, to be sure, but concerts typically consisted of some great musicians playing the music, and maybe a bit of friendly crowd work.

The “Ropin’ the Wind” tour, by contrast, was laid out more akin to a rock show, while also incorporating the spectacle of top-selling pop performers. Featuring pyrotechnics and lifting the energy to wild levels made a Garth Brooks tour a must-see event. His popularity answered a question people hadn’t even bothered to ask before: Is there a world where a country musician could compete with the mainstream acts on the road?

In the 30 years that have passed since that tour, it’s easy to trace present-day country music staging back to Garth’s blueprint. From Eric Church committing to concerts that often surpass three hours to Zach Bryan being able to map out a trek with over 60 dates, the reason country music can work on equal footing with other parts of the music industry is because Garth Brooks proved it was possible. He wasn’t the first artist of the genre to make the leap to stadiums, but he did bring that rock star attitude to the stage — Peter Cooper of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum once credited that to Brooks’ admiration of ’70s frontmen, or, later, bands like Aerosmith.

In the streaming age, it’s hard to imagine artists pushing out sales on physical albums like country stars did in the ’90s — and even the streaming-resistant Brooks, who famously teamed up with McDonalds to sell records, has continued to employ more creative methods to move units. As genre lines continue to blur and many country artists lean into the idea of making their shows bigger and better, it’s worth remembering that, in so many ways, Garth did it first.

With Ropin’ the Wind, Garth Brooks Drew a New Map for Country Music Superstardom
Mary Siroky

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