Photos courtesy Capitol Nashville
Garth Brooks is one of the first names you think of when you think of current country. When he announced his 'retirement' not too long ago, there were many that wondered how country music could continue on its successful path of popularity with the listening world. But a few months of rest, relaxation and working on personal projects have given Garth the chance to deliver one of his best CDs to date, 'Scarecrow'.

Garth says this of the namesake for his CD, "I love the idea of the 'Scarecrow' -- a guy who is brainless, but who has a heart." He also says, "This is the happiest record I've ever made."

The songs on Scarecrow are as varied and different as Garth's own musical styles. As Garth has always done, he made an album that reflects his personality, his moods, his world. It ranges from honky tonk to bluegrass to rodeo rock to power balladeering. The surprises come in the stop-you-in-your-tracks lyric line, the tucked away gem of a song, or -- and this is sometimes lacking these days -- the times the artist steps back, turning the session over to the pickers to let powerful, engaging or just plain fun music set in.

Another way in which the making of this recording differs from much of today's trends is the length of time involved in the making. One problem of which both Garth and his producer have always been aware is that of the "…crank-out-an-album-a-year syndrome." Art of any sort is diminished by rigidity of style and time. Scarecrow was made on its own schedule, coming to life over time, through trial and error, from the occasional step back to full tilt boogie -- traveling on an emotional roller coaster that ended on a high. And the result is the most personal album Garth has made to date.

Scarecrow is an earthy album with a live feel. Part of the ability to retain the live quality in his body of work comes straight from Garth and producer Allen Reynolds. The rest comes from his long-time studio team -- drummer Milton Sledge, bassist Mike Chapman, acoustic guitarist Mark Casstevens, electric guitarist Chris Leuzinger, keyboardist Bobby Wood, steel guitarist Bruce Bouton, percussionist Sam Bacco, and fiddle player Rob Hajacos.

Garth has never gone in for drum loops, metronomes or any sleight-of-hand studio techniques. Nor is he afraid to make a mistake. "That's the reason I like to record with the guys who started out with me in the studio," he laughs. "I can come up with some incredibly stupid idea and they'll run with it. And, of course, they feel free to come up with dumb ideas, too! That's why I love working with these guys. If it works, fine, if not, nobody's keeping score." Add in special performances by accordion guru Joey Miskulin on "Pushing Up Daisies" and "Beer Run," and the string arrangements by Dennis Burnside on "When You Come Back To Me Again." Listen carefully to the instrumentation on "Don't Cross The River." Garth heard the release done by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, not the original America cut. Jerry Douglas was in the studio to play dobro on Garth's version, and explained that when he played on Lawson's version, it had been his very first session. Then cut to a gem of a song wind-up in Wayne Kirkpatrick's "Wrapped Up In You," where musical wizard Terry McMillan swaps percussion-inspired harmonica licks with the fiddle of Jimmy Mattingly. "The best part of that whole song comes when I stop singing," Garth says with a laugh. "The whole point of the way we cut this was to be about a bunch of guys sitting around on the front porch in Kentucky. And we went for the 'what if?' What if those four guys were John, Paul, George and Ringo? That was the feel we were after."

You first hear the fun part of Scarecrow in "Beer Run," when Garth swaps vocals with one of his heroes, George Jones. "The great thing about George Jones is that he's the only guy in the room who isn't aware that George Jones is there," Garth says. "I honestly don't think he understands that he's the King of Country Music. He came into the studio worried about being hoarse, then sang circles around me!" This is one of those good-time honky tonkers penned by a list of top tunesmiths -- some veterans of earlier Garth records, some newcomers: Kim Williams, Amanda Williams, Keith Anderson, George Ducas, and Kent Blazy.

And, of course, "good time" is written all over "Big Money," a tune Garth says would have fit easily on his 1989 self-titled debut. Written by Shawn Camp, Randy Hardison and Wynn Varble, this witty lyric is an instant grin-getter. "Rodeo or Mexico" is another turbo-charged, yet wry slice of life in the danger lane, something many of Garth's rodeo songs have explored. A Bryan Kennedy, Paul Kennerley, Garth Brooks tune, this is a bareback bronc ride of a song.

Among the light-hearted cuts you'll find plenty of gravity. When they started recording in the fall of 2000, the self-penned songs Garth brought to the table were pensive, introspective. "Thicker Than Blood," a contemplative account of family ties, of conflict and resolve, had been eight years in the making. "Thicker Than Blood" could very well be the gem on this album, the song that will cause a listener to rewind for another listen, and still another. "Jenny Yates and I started writing that song eight years ago," Garth recalls. "I'm thankful she stuck with me on it."

"The Storm" tells a dark tale of loss, of "…dark clouds forming behind the silver lining." And while in this version, the storm rages around a woman, Garth is quick to say that it could just as easily be about a man. Himself, for example. And the groove on J.R. Cobb, Buddy Buie, and Tom Douglas's longing, plaintive "Mr. Midnight" is like quiet fire. "Why Ain't I Running," penned by Kent Blazy, Tony Arata and Garth Brooks, is full of introspective energy, with an infectious melody and lyric that makes it stick around in your head long after the final notes. There's serendipity, here, as well. The bonus song, another Brooks/Yates collaboration, is "When You Come Back To Me Again," from the film Frequency. What you hear is the rough cut. "Everything is just as it happened," Garth says. "The music, the places Trisha moved in and out on her vocals -- I have to say that this is my favorite of all my records. I don't mean my favorite song -- but it's my favorite record." One of the songs that came late to the project is the Garth/Trisha Yearwood duet, "Squeeze Me In." "I am such a fan of both writers -- Delbert McClinton and Gary Nicholson," Garth says. "I've always wanted to cut something from one or both of them, and I loved this tune." Still, it almost didn't make the album. "Trisha and I had recorded a ballad we liked a lot," Garth says. "But Allen said, 'Pal, I love you -- but the ballad isn't the one. 'Squeeze Me In' shows a whole other side of Trisha, and it's the song that will kick this album in the butt.'"

Throughout the project, writers let Garth personalize a line or a verse, and those intimate moments are among the record's finest. For example, the Celtic-flavored "Pushing Up Daisies," tightly crafted by John Hadley, Gary Scruggs and Kevin Welch, suddenly makes a personal revelation that makes the song an emotional stunner.

Most of the musical world probably won't be surprised at the great musical quality of 'Scarecrow'. If this kind of work is the result of Garth's short 'retirement', maybe he should do this more often...:-)
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