"Ropin' the Wind"
How has Brooks been able to become the hottest figure in country music in ages with just four compelling songs an album?
There are two reasons: His best tunes, almost all of which have been hits, express country music's underdog, blue-collar sentiments as well as anything since Willie and Waylon's outlaw days.
Just hearing the spunky independence of "Friends in Low Places" or the tender romanticism of "Unanswered Prayers" on the radio should be enough to make a Brooks fan out of anyone with even a mild interest in country music.
The second reason, and the clincher, is the Oklahoma native's live show.
Brooks delivers his most affecting songs on stage with a genuineness and good ol' boy exuberance that touch you in the same warm, uplifting way that, say, Bruce Springsteen does in rock. The odds are you'll not only buy his albums after the show but also find yourself urging your friends to see him the next time around.
Given this almost irresistible live show, it was surprising to see how uneven his first two albums were. For every playful "Not Counting You" or disarming "The Dance," there were stiff, belabored narratives, such as "Alabama Clay," or timid fare such as the remake of the Fleetwoods' old "Mr. Blue."
The problems continue with Brooks' third album, again produced by veteran hitmaker Allen Reynolds.
Several of the songs echo strains that worked for him before--and they'll probably work again live, where the charm of Brooks' personality will give them an edge.
On record, however, "Against the Grain," which aims for some of the rebel independence of "Low Places," sounds more manufactured than heartfelt. Similarly, "The River" reaches for the philosophical grace of "The Dance," but the images are a bit too grandiose.
Brooks' biggest problem in selecting material, however, is his apparent inability to resist story songs--even if the stories are old . . . old . . . old . . . old.
"Rodeo," the first single from the new album, is yet another wanderlust tale about a man who can't let go of the boots and the chaps and the cowboy hats. "In Lonesome Dove"--a story of a woman who loses her Texas Ranger husband to outlaws only to see her Texas Ranger son battle the same foes--is drawn from every Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad or Kenny Rogers cowboy yarn that you've ever heard.
Brooks, who co-wrote seven of the album's 10 songs, is at his best this time out when he sticks to material that exhibits wry or ironic twists. "Papa Loved Mama" is a high-spirited tale of a woman's roving eye and a husband's dangerous jealous streak. It should be one of Brooks' most popular concert numbers--if some watchdog group doesn't throw up picket lines because it thinks the song encourages domestic violence with lines like "Papa loved mama / Mama loved men / Mama's in the graveyard / Papa's in the pen."
"Cold Shoulder," a song about a trucker's longing for his wife back home as he travels down a snow-covered road, is blessed with the same clever wordplay of, say, the Randy Travis hit "On the Other Hand," and it should be another concert favorite. Key line: "God, I wish I could hold her / Instead of huggin' this old cold shoulder."
The album, thanks to such other selections as the delicate "What She's Doing Now" and the vigorous "We Bury the Hatchet," gives Brooks enough serviceable material to freshen the live show, but his failure to live up to his potential with a more consistent and revealing album is a disappointment--and after three tries, even the most loyal fans may start feeling a bit impatient.