By Robyn Collins
This weekend (September 10) marks the 25th anniversary of Ropin’ The Wind, the epic third studio album by Garth Brooks, the best selling country artist of all time. The album was the first by a country singer to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts, and completely changed the game in country music.
In 1990, Garth Brooks released No Fences, an album that hit #3 on the pop album charts and eventually sold over 17 million copies. With smash hits like “Unanswered Prayers,” and “Friends in Low Places,” it’s the album that made him a superstar within the world of country music.
But Brooks’ ambitions extended far beyond his genre; he wanted to be the biggest artist in any genre. In fact, his ambitions were so big, that as he bum rushed the pop mainstream, the entire country music genre followed in his wake. As Garth became a mainstream superstar, he raised the profile of contemporary country music. That all started with Ropin’ the Wind.
It turns out that Brooks’ career started to catch fire at the exact right time: technology was changing in a way that would favor his dreams of chart domination. Thats because the way the Billboard charts were tabulated were changing, and would now favor country music in general (as well as other niches, like hip-hop and heavy metal). Prior to Ropin’ the Wind, Billboard had been tracking sales through reporting from stores, a method that was inherently flawed, not to mention easily gamed and favored the most mainstream pop artists. Store managers literally reported what sold the most that week; this was not a scientific process. But in 1991, with the shift to electronic scanning, using a system called SoundScan, record sales began to be tallied electronically, and the Billboard charts reflected what albums were actually selling, in real time. By September 21 Ropin’ The Wind secured its place on the Billboard Country and Top 200 charts at No. 1.
That showed just how many people were buying country music albums; but Garth was stretching the boundaries to draw more people in. The album’s second single, “Shameless,” was instrumental in bringing mainstream fans over to country. It was a Billy Joel cover and became a huge crossover hit for Brooks. He said he didn’t want country fans listening to pop music, he wanted pop enthusiasts to turn the dial to country radio. Some have called “Shameless” their gateway drug into country music. The timing on that was perfect also: rock radio was moving away from singer/songwriter acts like Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp and turning towards more aggressive rock and alternative acts like Metallica and Nirvana. Brooks’ grown-up vibe gave middle-aged people a new “mainstream” that they could be comfortable with.
Over the course of six months, Ropin’ The Wind would spend a collective 18 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, competing with (and eventually beating out) albums released by Michael Jackson, U2, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and Nirvana. Nirvana’s Nevermind, like Ropin’ the Wind, benefitted from the new SoundScan reporting, and topped the charts twice. One of those times, it bumped Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from #1, and that particular story tends to be told in music media as if it were a symbolic changing of the guard: Jackson’s pop was being pushed aside for Nirvana’s edgier, punk-influenced rock. That may be accurate, but it’s also worth mentioning that both times Nevermind was knocked out of the number one spot, it was by Ropin’ the Wind.
Brooks discussed the record’s chart performance in a 1994 Playboy interview (via The AV Club). “I called it the Cheerios of country music because at that time, Cheerios was doing an ad where you push a Cheerio down in a bowl of milk and it pops back up. What happened was that U2 came out, slammed in at No. 1, and Ropin’ popped back up. Michael Jackson did the same. They just kept coming. I think it traded places six or seven times. That album spent 18 or 19 weeks at No. 1, while six or seven of the world’s biggest artists released things. So I was extremely proud of that.”
Showing his shrewd business sense, the entrepreneurial artist did a television special, This is Garth Brooks, in 1992. After the show, once again, Ropin’ the Wind took the top spot on the Billboard charts; meanwhile, No Fences climbed back up to No. 2, and Garth Brooks showed up in the 10th position. Brooks was the first country artist to have three albums in the pop Top 10 in the same week.
On October 3, 1992 Billboard reported that Garth Brooks was having a massive impact on the business, “Moderate estimates indicate that Garth Brooks has generated more than a half-billion dollars for the industry.” That was 24 years ago.
Popdose stated that, “Music City recognized what it had in Brooks: a rock- and singer/songwriter-inspired savior who could lead the entire country genre to new heights among suburbanites, many of whom were turning away from pop radio as that format became more R&B-dominated… (and Brooks’s impact went) a long way toward making country, for a time, the most listened-to format on the radio nationwide, and had opened doors (both on radio and TV) for a generation of young artists like Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt.”
The door Brooks bust open is still open today; he paved the way for artists including Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Carrie Underwood to become huge stars with a national profile, both within and outside of country music. And the album has served Brooks well also: “Shameless,” “The River” and “Papa Loved Mama” are among the songs that frequently pop up in his setlist; all of them were in his set at his recent Yankee Stadium show. He sold out two nights at the stadium, the ultimate display of mainstream penetration and longevity.