“A lot of things have changed and it’s all up hill,” Brooks said at a recent album preview party in Nashville. “I’m not saying an album can make a difference, but I think music can.”
And with his music, the Oklahoma native has always worn his impassioned heart on his sleeve. In the spirit of Brooks’ “Machine,” we count down his 10 most audacious song lyrics, from the deliciously defiant to those that inspire social change.
“The Thunder Rolls,” 1991
“She reaches for the pistol kept in the dresser drawer/Tells the lady in the mirror he won’t do this again/’Cause tonight will be the last time she’ll wonder where he’s been”
Already an explosive, controversial hit, this song took took an even more defiant stand against infidelity, with the main character brandishing a firearm and putting an end to her cheating man’s ways — and to the cheating bastard himself. It remains one of Brooks’ most powerful statements.
“Do What You Gotta Do,” 1997
“They’ll call you a hero or a traitor but you’ll find out that, sooner or later/Nobody in this world is gonna do it for you”
A fast-paced standout from Sevens, this Pat Flynn-penned tune was originally recorded in 1989 by Flynn’s band, New Grass Revival. Recorded before, but released after 1999’s much-maligned In the Life of Chris Gaines pop-music project that had Brooks’ fans shaking their heads, it could have easily been looked at as the country superstar saying, “Sorry, not sorry.”
“Friends in Low Places,” 1991
“I didn’t mean to cause a big scene, just wait ’til I finish this glass/Then sweet little lady I’ll head back to the bar and you can kiss my ass”
Taking a song that was already a huge hit and adding one more verse to it that he had written himself was one of Brooks’ more defiant acts. Claiming the tune didn’t reflect the way he’d react in the situation the song depicts, the kiss-off line would soon work his live crowds into a friendly frenzy.
“The Fever,” 1995
“What he loves might kill him, but he’s got no choice/He’s a different breed with a voice down deep inside/That’s screamin’ he was born to ride”
This updated version of an Aerosmith song is about a whole lot more than just a rodeo rider who’s not wrapped too tight. Brooks was a global superstar by this time, but proved he was still vulnerable, yet no less defiant.
“We Shall Be Free,” 1992
“When we’re free to love anyone we choose, when this world’s big enough for all different views/When we all can worship from our own kind of pew, then we shall be free”
In spite of how far things have progressed in the 22 years since Brooks and Stephanie Davis wrote this (when there was no such thing as marriage equality in the U.S.), there’s still a long way to go before the song’s message is truly embraced. But for anyone other than Brooks, taking such a brave stand on record at that time could have been a country music career killer.
“The Change,” 1995
“But it’s not the world that I am changing/What I do is so this world will know that it will not change me”
Co-written by Tony Arata (“The Dance”) and Wayne Tester, this song takes a gentler approach to defiance but that just helps make the message louder and clearer: one person can be all the difference the world needs. In fact, the theme of this 1995 tune has carried through Brooks’ 2014 career comeback: Not letting the world’s changing circumstances change you is one way to defy all the odds.
“Standing Outside the Fire,” 1993
“There’s this love that is burning deep in my soul/Constantly yearning to get out of control”
A theme song for the lonely outcast if ever there was one, this inspirational smash, which Brooks wrote with Jenny Yates, shared a message about perseverance that was made even stronger and more poignant through a memorable music video, in which a high school student with Down syndrome runs track, refusing to give up even after a fall. Subtle? Not a bit, but powerful nonetheless.
“The Night I Called the Old Man Out,” 1993
“Fist to fist and eye to eye, standin’ toe to toe/He would’ve let me walk away/But I just would not let it go.”
It’s rather appropriate that this tune comes from Brooks’ In Pieces album, since more than one of the characters in the song about a father and his strong-willed sons was knocked down, but not necessarily out, by “the old man.” But the lesson (and the bloodied nose) at the heart of the song made the defiant stance worth it.
“The Old Stuff,” 1995
“Balls out no doubt this is what it’s all about/Beggin’ for a place to play”
Brooks wrote this with Bryan Kennedy and Dan Roberts, capturing the nomadic spirit of what it’s like to load up a rented van with instruments and travel from gig to gig with your band mates. It may not be everyone’s idea of glamorous, but even when it’s less than ideal, it can still be pretty great.
“Against the Grain,” 1991
“Folks call me a maverick/Guess I ain’t too diplomatic/I just never been the kind to go along”
Penned by Bruce Bouton, Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson, this hard-charging track opened Brooks’ second album, the career-changing, history-making Ropin’ the Wind. The tune namechecks trailblazers from Christopher Columbus to John Wayne, as its narrator hopes to “buck the system” as they did. One of his earliest songs, “Against the Grain” was just one of the ways in which the public was now on notice that Brooks was anything but a garden-variety country star.