Garth Brooks Sees Himself as a Songwriter First & Foremost, So Why Don't His Awards Reflect That?

Garth Brooks
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Garth Brooks performs at The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize tribute concert at DAR Constitution Hall on March 4, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Brooks' songwriting may tend to be overlooked because he is such a phenomenal entertainer, as all his CMA & ACM Awards demonstrate.

The most revealing moment in the all-star concert event at which the Gershwin Prize was presented to Garth Brooks came at the very end, when a deeply moved Brooks said how he wanted to be remembered.

"When you get to this age, I guess people want to say, 'What do you want to be remembered for?' I want to tell you who I am," Brooks said, addressing the audience of VIPs that gathered at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on March 4. The show aired Sunday night on PBS stations.

Brooks said he sees himself, first and foremost, as a Christian, a proud American and a grateful son, husband and father. "That's how I want to be remembered," he said.

As for his career, he added: "But if you're talking about music -- entertainer, artist, whatever – people, please remember Garth Brooks as a songwriter."

Brooks has co-written many of his hits over the years. He has a songwriting credit on 10 of the 20 songs that he has taken to the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Hot Country Songs or Country Airplay charts, including such prized songs as "Unanswered Prayers," "The Thunder Rolls" and "That Summer," all of which he performed at the Gershwin event.

West was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011, which is a signal career moment for any songwriter. But at the top music award shows, Brooks has gotten few awards, or even nominations, for his songwriting.

Brooks has won two Grammys, from 14 nominations. Both of his Grammys are for performances -- for his 1991 blockbuster album Ropin' the Wind and his 1997 hit "In Another's Eyes," a collab with his future wife, Trisha Yearwood. His only Grammy nomination as a songwriter is for co-writing "In Another's Eyes" (a nominee that year for best country song) with John Peppard and Bobby Wood.

Brooks has won 14 Country Music Association Awards, from 36 nominations, including a record seven awards for entertainer of the year. He has never won for song of the year and has been nominated for the award just once, for "If Tomorrow Never Comes," which he co-wrote with Kent Blazy. The song was Brooks' first No. 1 hit on Hot Country Songs.

Brooks has won 22 Academy of Country Music Awards, from 55 nominations, including a record six awards for entertainer of the year. His only song of the year nomination as a composer is for the aforementioned "If Tomorrow Never Comes."

Brooks' songwriting may tend to be overlooked because he is such a phenomenal entertainer, as all his CMA and ACM Awards demonstrate and as Sunday night's telecast reminded us. That is his most extraordinary gift.

Brooks' songwriting may also be overlooked because he didn't write or co-write two of his signature hits: "The Dance" (Tony Arata) and "Friends in Low Places" (Dewayne Blackwell/Earl Bud Lee). These were his second and third No. 1 hits on Hot Country Songs and his first hits to spend multiple weeks on top. These were the final two songs in his set at the Gershwin event, reflecting their status as, quite possibly, his most beloved classics.

Of course, you can't just look at No. 1 hits to measure Brooks' impact as a songwriter. He and Stephanie Davis co-wrote "We Shall Be Free," which stalled at No. 12 on Hot Country Songs -- Brooks' first single to miss the top 10. (Brooks' singles immediately before and after "We Shall Be Free" both reached No. 1.)

Keith Urban performed that song at the Gershwin event and praised Brooks for having the courage to write and record the song back then.

"I was a fan of you right from Day One, but it went to a whole new level when I heard this song. … For someone of your caliber and in your position to write a song with so much weight and gravitas and to address issues that comment on 'Where we're free to love anyone we choose' and 'When we all can worship from our own kind of pews.' Come on, man. That song was almost 30 years ago -- way ahead of your time, Garth Brooks. The pioneers get the arrows and I appreciate your taking every one of them for all of us. You definitely set the path."

"The Thunder Rolls," which Davis co-wrote with Pat Alger, addresses a husband's infidelity -- and, in the video, domestic violence.

The Gershwin Prize for Popular Song isn't intended to be a songwriting award, even though it is named in honor of two of the greatest songwriters of all time (brothers George and Ira Gershwin) and even though the 10 previous recipients include such all-time great songwriters as Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Carole King and Smokey Robinson.

The last two recipients before Brooks were Tony Bennett, a world-class interpreter, and Emilio Estefan and Gloria Estefan, who are probably known as much for their energetic stage presentation as for their songwriting.

Here's how the award is defined on PBS' site: "Bestowed in recognition of the legendary songwriting team of George and Ira Gershwin, the Gershwin Prize recognizes a living musical artist’s lifetime achievement in promoting the genre of song as a vehicle of entertainment, information, inspiration and cultural understanding."

There's greater detail on the Library of Congress' site: "The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding. The styles in which these works are composed reflect myriad contemporary traditions like rock, jazz, country, pop, blues, folk, and gospel. The recipient-whether composer, singer/songwriter, or interpreter-is recognized for entertaining and informing audiences, for drawing upon the acknowledged foundations of popular song, and for inspiring new generations of performers on their own professional journeys."

A few more observations on the concert special. The show was taped just days before the global coronavirus pandemic put such gatherings on indefinite hold. There was no evidence of social distancing: Every seat in Constitution Hall was filled. There was no mention of the deadly virus that would soon bring the world to its knees.

The show ran two hours, a half-hour longer than this event has run in the past. It will be interesting to see if PBS keeps the event at two hours or if this was a special accommodation to Brooks, owing to his star power.

Brooks was extraordinarily generous in sharing his spotlight with the songwriters who inspired him. He performed pieces of 11 songs written by other writers. They were: "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)" and "American Pie" (both 1972, Don McLean); "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)" (1972, Jim Croce); "Sing Me Back Home" (1967, Merle Haggard); "To Make Me Feel My Love" (1997, Bob Dylan); "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" (1968, Steve Cropper, Otis Redding); "Ain't No Sunshine" (1971, Bill Withers); "Wild World" (1971, Cat Stevens); "Turn the Page" and "Night Moves" (1973 and 1976, respectively, Bob Seger); and "Piano Man" (1974, Billy Joel).

Note that only one of those songs had even two songwriters -- much different from today's prevailing songwriting-by-committee approach.

This segment, which also included three songs that Brooks co-wrote, proved that, in addition to being a phenomenal entertainer, Brooks is a helluva good musicologist, educator and communicator.

And, yes, even though he may not have the awards in his trophy case to prove it, a really strong songwriter.

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