When the message came down a few months ago that “the sevens have aligned” on Garth Brooks’ website, I was over the moon excited for his return to country music, in any form. He’s the precursor to the country-rock of today and the main reason country artists in his wake have been so lucrative on the road. But he’s also the only one who got it right. At his core, Brooks is a song man. If you stripped away his mesmerizing stage show, put aside his never-before-seen album sales, and listened to the music, you’ll find a legacy of incredible songs. I cannot say that about any genre superstar (Kenny Chesney, mostly) who’s risen to similar levels since he retired.
But even more then his ear for great songs, I was far more interested in seeing how the new generation (those born after 1997/1998) would respond to Brooks’ return. Without the ability to digitally download or stream his music and no memory of a live Brooks’ special on TV (let alone seeing him in person with his full band), would they care? Time will be the ultimate judge, but the ‘Garth Brooks magic’ remains as strong as ever. His Black Friday concert special was watched by an estimated 10 million people and the accompanying boxed set has just surpassed One Direction as the #1 album in the country, all-genre.
Blame It All On My Roots – Five Decades of Influence is more then just an 8-disc set; it’s a celebration of Brooks’ residency in Las Vegas. For the past four years, he’s been performing weekends in the Encore Theatre at Steve Wynn’s Hotel & Casino. But instead of bringing his legendary live act, Brooks performs a one-man show where he tells his life story though the music that built him – just his voice, a guitar, and a hooded sweatshirt. The boxed set extends that idea to four CDs, 11 songs each, with Brooks covering a handful of these songs in full broken down as Country Classics, Classic Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot.
The most obvious disc is Country Classics, where Brooks covers everyone from Conway & Loretta to George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Keith Whitley. He’s trying to fill some big shoes here and the results are far more underwhelming then they should be. Opener “Great Balls of Fire” and closer “Jambalaya” comes off as cheesy karaoke while he isn’t quite convincing as a hillbilly on “White Lightnin’.” I really wanted to love “After The Fire Is Gone,” his sole duet with Trisha Yearwood, but the pair didn’t bring any ache to their vocals, merely turning in gorgeous performances that fail to convey the sense they’re a couple on the outs. He’s better on the more traditional numbers like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Act Naturally,” and I really enjoyed his take on “Unwound.” But my favorite track by a mile is “Good ‘Ol Boys Like Me.” I’ve always thought Brooks’ does a wonderful job on more tender songs (like “She’s Every Woman”) and this selection from Don Williams’ catalog fits him like a glove.
Classic Rock is a bit better, with Brooks turning in three of the set’s best tracks. It’s not surprising he does a fantastic job on “Against The Wind,” seeing that Bob Seger is one of his major influences and the inspiration behind “That Summer.” Brooks’ is equally wonderful on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” on which he gives one of the most passionate vocals of any song on any disc. Listening to it, I felt like I was back in the Fresh Horses era. But the highlight is one I wasn’t familiar with going in, Billy Joel’s stunning rock opera “Goodnight Saigon.” The song is an ode to the Vietnam War that Brooks tares into with vengeance. The rest of the disc is mostly bad karaoke, with songs like “Addicted To Love,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Somebody To Love” that fail to translate when anyone but the original artist is singing them. But I do have to give Brooks credit for doing the Eagles justice and turning in an above average “Life In The Fast Lane.”
Blue-Eyed Soul is by far my least favorite disc, mostly because soul music just isn’t my taste. But he does cover songs I actually like. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite, as Brooks puts his own stamp on the song. Other favorites are “Lean On Me” and “Drift Away,” but they become disjointed in Brooks’ hands, loosing the flow of the original versions. He’s in top form on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but even Brooks cannot get me to enjoy “Stand By Me,” no matter how great his vocal may be. The rest of the record is just ok, with “Shout” being the only real clunker.
Melting Pot is where Brooks covers a bunch of tracks that didn’t fit categorically on the other discs. It’s hands down the best of four, and the one I enjoy most, because of the song selection. He does a wonderful job on rock standards “Mrs. Robinson” and “Maggie May” while turning in another of the box sets’ best performances with “Amie,” one of Pure Prairie League’s best known hits. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” and “Wild World” are just as good, as is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” although I would’ve chosen a different James Taylor song, like “Sweet Baby James” instead. I just happen to like some of Taylor’s other songs better.
In addition to the four discs of covers, Blame It All On My Roots also has The Ultimate Hits two disc set and DVD and a DVD of his Las Vegas show. Repackaging his 2007 collection is pointless, but Brooks’ has made a career out of repackaging his albums, so this is hardly a surprise. The four albums of covers are the real draw and while they’re good, they fail to be anything exceptional because Brooks stays too faithful to the originals (especially on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”). I would’ve liked to see him put his own stamp on the tracks, opposed to just covering them faithfully. That being said, Blame It All On My Roots is still worth checking out, especially for those like me who’ve been Garth fans since they can remember.