Garth Brooks Hearkens Back to Honky Tonk Past in “All Day Long” (review)

Garth Brooks is the reigning 2-time Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year. He’s the biggest concert draw in America, and one of the biggest concert draws in the world. Garth Brooks owns virtually every sales record that exists in American music. And yet with all these accolades and his undeniable success, you couldn’t find another major artists whose stylistic contributions to country music, or popular music in general are currently more irrelevant.

The promise and hope ahead of Garth’s return from retirement was one of revitalizing country music by hearkening back to the early 90’s, which compared to today’s sounds, were super twangy and most certainly country. Many people love to hate on Garth Brooks, and he definitely makes it easy for them. They love to bring up Chris Gaines and lip sync controversies, and these and many other things are undoubtedly fair game and warranted. But if you think “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” and “Friends in Low Places” weren’t country, or that “The Dance” wasn’t a good song, then you seriously need to question if you’re truly a country fan, or if you’re just bent out of shape.

But now Garth Brooks has become basically a nostalgia act, even though he has the commercial prowess and attention to be much more if he chose. He just needs to decide who he is, and what he wants to be post his retirement. If he wanted to rise up and buck the country music system while revitalizing a more traditional country sound, there would be millions of country fans right there with him behind his back. Garth fans are country fans, not interlopers, not hip-hop fans who decided they liked country when they heard Sam Hunt. But post retirement Garth has been hard to define. His singles have been flat, wanting to be part pop star inspirational, part objectionably sentimental, and twangy only when the edges are shaved off.

Yet it all remains right in front of Garth if he wants to help usher in a traditional country resurgence, and maybe now more than ever since we have a whole host of young performers with a traditional throwback sound indicative of vintage Garth flooding into both the mainstream and independent ranks, and finding some traction and success. The reason these artists are doing so well is because people are starved for the twang that artists like Garth served earlier in their career that has virtually disappeared.

Garth says he was inspired to cut “All Day Long” while playing a surprise show at Layla’s down on lower Broadway in Nashville. Along with Robert’s Western World right next door, these were the two honky tonks that were the cradle of the late 90’s neotraditional resurgence that rose up when artists like Garth were allowing country to stray too far from its roots. It’s either fitting, or perhaps ironic that it’s this setting that inspired Garth to cut the most country-sounding song since his return, or perhaps in the last 20 years or more of his career.

“All Day Long” doesn’t have much as a composition. In fact it may not sound Bro-Country on the surface, but it’s list-like approach and self-affirming country-isms are of a similar vein. But “All Day Long” also has clearly present steel guitar and fiddle, and dedicated instrumental solos for each, even if the lead guitar is unnecessarily crunchy under the misguided idea that this is what will attract the kiddos. Many of today’s young listeners don’t like any lead guitar at all. But Garth promised a throwback honky tonk sound, and that’s what you get with “All Day Long.”

It’s a lead single. It’s meant to be easy, fluffy, and infectious, and it pulls that off just fine. It’s not good, but it’s okay, and fun enough. If you’re looking for songs of a more sentimental nature for Garth’s upcoming record, don’t you worry. This is Garth Brooks we’re talking about. There will be plenty of time for him to brush away crocodile tears as he presents some sappy ode to grandmothers on a network morning show to coincide with the anniversary of a national tragedy so he can show us all how magnanimous and caring he is.

And call Garth a moron all you want for not making “All Day Long” and the rest of his catalog widely available. But guess what, Garth has plenty of money, and now he probably has more of it, as do the songwriters (Bryan Kennedy, Mitch Rossell, and Garth himself) because people are downloading and streaming this song exclusively on Amazon instead of racking up $0.000008 margins on Spotify and YouTube. Technologists will continue to call Garth stupid, but Garth’s accountants will continue to count the money.

For now, and for the first time since his un-retirement, Garth has shown a little bit of country music backbone. And don’t be surprised if “All Day Long” does well on country country radio. It’s just bad enough to be a mainstream hit, while still decent enough to not piss off the core country constituency. Because beyond everything else, “All Day Long” is very Garth, like all of Garth’s efforts. It just happens to be a much earlier version of Garth when he was still useful to the country cause.

1 1/4 Guns Up (6/10)

(Sorry, no preview. Garth’s exclusive to Amazon and all.)