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January 10, 2013 12:10 am


Country music great Garth Brooks' 'Ropin' the Wind,' although released in 1991, is still getting major rotation.

THE 1990S WERE formative years for me, but having conversations about the music of my high school and college years often leaves me wondering whether I was listening to anything at all during that decade. I could blame it on high school and college, but there is a better reason: I was listening to country.

That put me in pretty good company. The popularity of country music exploded in the '90s, and Garth Brooks led the charge. While some of my friends were enjoying the last gasps of mainstream rock, thanks to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, I was jamming to the highly polished sounds of Brooks & Dunn and Reba McEntire.

Most of that music has been relegated to the sonic dustbin of my past, piled in the corners of my memory, unlikely to be listened to again. Except "Ropin' the Wind" by Brooks. That album is a masterpiece, and one I return to regularly.

Brooks trails only Elvis Presley and The Beatles in terms of record sales in the United States. He has two albums that are more successful in terms of sales, but "Ropin' the Wind" is no slouch--it's sold more than 17 million copies and was his first album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Beyond the numbers, it's a pop powerhouse that shifted the landscape of American music. It is the '90s version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

The first guitar hit of opening track "Against the Grain" cracked the floodgates, and a cascade of juiced-up fiddles and steel guitars came pouring out. It is one of the finest statement moments in pop music--Brooks announcing to the world that country music did not have to live within the comfortable yet provincial boundaries of Nashville style.

Brooks gets credit for successfully combining country with rock 'n' roll, and while there are certainly elements of bombastic '70s arena rock on "Ropin' the Wind" (including a cover of Billy Joel's "Shameless"), it's hardly the departure from tradition it was made out to be at the time.

In some ways, "Ropin' the Wind" is the epitome of Nashville tradition. The cast of songwriters and musicians on the album is an impeccable list of bluegrass heavyweights including Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer. The three No. 1 singles from the album, "Shameless," "What She's Doing Now" and "The River" are almost throwback country ballads, complete with plaintive acoustic guitar and tear-jerking pedal steel peals. Brooks' voice has more than the requisite twang, leaving no doubt that it is bona fide country music.

While the album does have a glossy pop production that effectively sands down any rough edges, there's just no way to mask the excellent songwriting and musicianship on each of the 10 tracks.

"Rodeo" is a reverent look at the damaging life of a professional cowboy. "Cold Shoulder" equates the loss of love with the lonesome life of a trucker. "Papa Loved Mama" is a darkly comedic exploration of a relationship between an unfaithful wife and a trucker who uses his rig as a missile. "We Bury the Hatchet" is a rollicking honky-tonk song about making up.

But the song that I always turn to is, perhaps, the simplest track on the album. "Lonesome Dove" has its share of cheese and treacle, but it's a powerfully emotional story-song in the Nashville tradition. It's the high point of an album that covered all the country music bases as it led a revolution in the genre.

I might not have listened to much of the formative rock music that shaped my peers in the '90s, but I don't think I missed much. I had country music, and perhaps the greatest album that decade had to offer.

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036

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