Every #1 Country Single of the Nineties: Garth Brooks, “Shameless”

“Shameless”

Garth Brooks

Written by Billy Joel

Billboard

#1 (2 weeks)

November 16 – November 23, 1991

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

November 8, 1991

Garth Brooks rocks the arena with a fearless cover.

The Road to No. 1

In between this No. 1 and the last, Garth Brooks was a national media sensation, thanks to his Ropin’ the Wind album being the first country album in history to debut at No. 1 on the all-genre album chart.

There couldn’t have been a better single at that moment, while he had the attention of curious American listeners from coast to coast, to release “Shameless,” his cover of a Billy Joel album cut from two years earlier.

The No. 1

So much of what makes a Garth Brooks record work – or not – comes down to calibration.  “Not Counting You,” the first single covered in this feature, suffered from the production and performance not matching the energy that the record demanded.  This single’s immediate predecessor, “Rodeo,” cranked up both of those elements too much, resulting in something a little over the top.

“Shameless” is perfectly calibrated.

There is this instinct in Garth to go super melodramatic with his vocals, almost like a hillbilly attempt at opera.  That often happens when he’s doing material that simply isn’t intended to be performed that way.

“Shameless” is meant to be performed that way.  It’s a Billy Joel song, for starters, and he has a powerful singing voice as well as a songwriting talent that produces compelling and memorable melodies.

Brooks follows the blueprint of Joel’s original recording, adding appropriate country flourishes that infuse additional layers of warmth and sincerity.  He pivots from a growl (“I’ve never been in love like this”) to a pure country wail (“It’s out of my hands,”) showing a range that even Joel couldn’t match.

“Shameless” demonstrates how to upscale country music so it can fill an arena just as well as any rock band.

Side note: Brooks sings the fire out of this, but he’s not even the best vocalist on the track.  Listen closely at the end for Trisha Yearwood, who provides backing vocals throughout, but gets a solo lick right before the fade.

The Road From No. 1

Garth has more No. 1 singles on the way from Ropin’ the Wind, with the biggest radio hit from the set up next.  But as a footnote to this particular hit, it forever linked Brooks with Joel, who showed up at his Central Park concert and later inducted Brooks into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“Shameless” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

Previous: Keith Whitley and Earl Thomas Conley, “Brotherly Love” | Next: Randy Travis, “Forever Together”

20 Comments

  1. Definitely one of my least favorite Garth Brooks singles (I like Billy Joel, but I didn’t like his recording either). Too noisy, too bombastic – I’d give it a C+ (based mostly on its historical significance)

  2. It’s not my favorite Garth song, but I still like it. I remember hearing the story that Garth kept pushing Trisha to go crazier on her vocal and she kept redoing it and she finally got frustrated and went over the top because of that frustration and it’s the take that we hear on this recording.:)

  3. I’ve read a lot of negative reviews of this song and Garth’s performance of it in general. And I never agreed with them. I can hear how some people would consider it over the too. (Especially when you watch him sing it live in Texas. He is holding a single yellow rose through the whole song. Near the last verse, he seizes violently and rips all the petals off. That was more cheesy than showmanship to me.) But I’ve always loved this single.

    I think Kevin said it best that the lyrics call for a melodramatic flair, and nobody was more melodramatic in the 90’s than Garth Brooks. This one is a helluva lot of fun to sing along to as well.

    I’m still loving this feature. Thanks, guys.

  4. I heard this song for the first time performed live at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand show he played with Lorrie Morgan in 1991. The same show that helped me contextualize “Rodeo.” It stole the show.

    It was clear Brooks brought a level of showmanship to country music shows most country fans hadn’t seen before. Musicianship aside, I can’t aside the Randy Travis and Alan Jackson ticket a few nights earlier had this level of energy and intensity, screaming and steel guitar!

    This song embodies the shameless recklessness Brooks now seemingly strives for in every recording. This approach would increasingly show itself as hit and miss going forward, but in this moment he was a pioneer without peer.

    Country music grows because of these kind of explorations of what the genre can bear.

  5. @ Peter Saros:

    Not only is “Shameless” a polarizing song, so too, in the minds of many (though of course not all), is Garth himself. There’s no question that he helped to take country music’s popularity to far bigger heights than it had ever been to before. But it’s what he (unwittingly) encouraged in almost everybody who has followed in his wake when it came to arena spectacle, unadulterated showmanship, and a decidedly corporate approach to things.

  6. This is one of those songs that I enjoyed more than I expected to upon revisiting. I think those live performances had replaced the studio version in my mind. Him walking around with that damn flower.

  7. @ Erik North

    Brooks is inescapably guilty as charged in terms of arena spectacle, unadulterated showmanship, and a business first, corporate approach to his music.

    On that last issue, I think a case could be made that Book’s insistence on total artistic and financial control of his product is exactly what the 1970’s Outlaw movement was all about, except Brooks had suburban and mainstream aspirations. Instead of hippies, bikers, and rednecks, Brooks changed the game with a fan base made up of soccer moms, aging baby boomers, and kids with no historical connection to country music. Brooks sparked a revolution from within Nashville, rather than from outside Music City, that forever changed country music. He found a new fan base for country.

    What sets Brooks apart as innovator is how well so much of his actual music stands up to the test of time. Just as Kevin pointed out, “Shameless” sounds better stripped of all the cult of Garth noise and theatrics.

    The challenge of being a Garth Brooks fan is accepting the capability of ongoing moments of magical musicianship with the monstrous marketing and shameless self promotion of that same musical output.

    Brooks remains a relentless polarizing personality and force within country music.

    I – perhaps naively – still believe country music ultimately benefits from Garth Brooks!

  8. Country music benefited tremendously from Garth Brooks and it still does. He has made some great music over the years. Country never went back to its second tier status after what he did for the genre’s profile, image, and reach.

  9. I’ll give it a solid B. If he didn’t sing the title word as if he had a double wad of Skoal in one cheek and 3 marbles in the other, I might give it a B+.

  10. Ditto to Peter and Kevin! I know that he is polarizing, bombastic and even weird, but I remain an unapologetic Garth Brooks fan and I’m grateful for what he’s done for country music.

  11. I agree wholeheartedly with the recent comments of Peter, Kevin and Leeann. Frankly, once Garth came out with “The Dance”, I was going to buy everything he was selling. I now look back at his body of work and know, in the great scheme, I didn’t make any mistakes. He may be polarizing and is no George Strait or Alan Jackson, maybe not even Randy Travis. But he absolutely has a country heart!

  12. When on the road,The Garth Channel on Sirius XM satellite radio has played the role of AM radio from years past for my family. The breadth and diversity of music, artists, and genres he plays makes it the safe channel for my two teenage boys to listen to as we travel between baseball games, hockey tournaments, and basketball events.

    Everyone gets to hear something they like, and perhaps more importantly, they are exposed to something they might not otherwise ever hear on mainstream radio. They will tolerate Willie’s Roadhouse and Prime Country, but they will actually punch in The Garth Channel. I think that’s cool and gets at the spirit and heart of what drives Garth Brooks.

    I shared this personal anecdote because I believe it speaks to all the influences and musical loves that inform Brooks’ output.

  13. The very first time I ever heard “Shameless” was when my step dad brought home the “Ropin’ The Wind” album on CD one night in the Fall of 1991. When we were playing it in the stereo downstairs for the first time, he, my dad, and I were all there just listening to it track by track as I was recording a copy of it onto a cassette tape. Both my dads had apparently already heard “Shameless” before I did, and it was the track my step dad was especially anticipating and waiting to see my reaction to. When it finally came on, and Garth growled out the first “I’m SHAMELESS!!!” in the middle of the song, I turned around and he was grinning excitedly, while I was like “Whoooa!!” This song, and Garth’s performance especially, was absolutely unlike ANYTHING I had heard in country music up to that point, and I just remember being excited and amazed and what I was hearing while the rest of the song played. Needless to say, it quickly became one of my favorites, and it was one of my step dad’s favorites, as well. He liked it so much at the time, he even bought a karaoke track of it (along with some of Garth’s other hits) on tape. I still remember him having a fun time singing it during one of my parents’ karaoke nights at home with him trying to imitate Garth’s famous growling, lol. And even at six years old, I could tell there was a lot of hype surrounding him and the song, and I specifically remember seeing an interview with Garth on TV with a female reporter asking him why he decided to record “Shameless.”

    Kevin pretty much perfectly explained why this song still very much works for me, while “Rodeo” hasn’t aged quite as well. This one actually CALLS for an over the top, melodramatic performance, and it actually IS a rock song, except Garth and Allen Reynolds did a great job of countrifying as much as possible. Right from the start, Bruce Bouton’s steel guitar is right there in your face, and it sounds so good. I actually think this is one example of where the country and rock elements come together perfectly, as far as Garth is concerned. There’s something about the melody I’ve always really liked about it, too, and I still get a kick out of Garth’s performance on the second half of the song. Overall, it’s still an enjoyable listen for me, and it always brings back some great memories.

    I also agree with Leeann, Kevin, Peter, and others here concerning Garth Brooks. He is one of the first artists I remember ever being a fan of, and I have so many great memories of my earliest times of being a country fan that involve both this album and No Fences. I just can’t but help but still be a fan of his and root for him, despite some of his more recent material being hit or miss and him just being a polarizing figure, overall. A lot of country music’s success in the 90’s is most definitely owed to Garth, and I just can’t imagine the decade being what it was if it wasn’t for him.

    As for him possibly having a negative influence on what’s followed him since, I blame that more on the industry being so copycat (not to mention, spoiled rotten by his success) and expecting just about everybody else from that point on to copy the arena rock style and thinking that everyone had to sell just as many records and tickets as him.

  14. BTW, I wouldn’t realize until later on that it was Trisha Yearwood doing those backup vocals. Leeann, I do remember hearing that story about how Garth got her to that famous vocal lick of her’s near the end! lol

  15. Count me in with the unapologetic Garth Brooks fans too. Those first 7 albums are all classics.

    I could do without some of the spectacle, the third-person references in interviews and the over singing, but as Peter said brilliantly above, being a Garth Brooks fan means accepting his cringeworthy moments in between the moments of musical mastery. In the grand scheme, I still count more of the latter.

    I would say country music benefitted from Garth. He made everyone pay attention to country. From soccer moms and college kids buying his albums to the Wall Street and Music Row bean counters who were only seeing the SoundScan numbers, he forever raised country music’s visibility and credibility in the industry.

    And he recorded some damn good music along the way.

  16. This is about the time in county music that there stated to be a shift (and not in a good way). I admire his success but I would easily give this a “D” at best

  17. It’s kinda cool to see actual debate on a song that not everyone universally loves, as it seems like most of these singles in the feature to this point are either universally liked/loved, or just not that memorable. I personally never really loved it, mainly because it first came out when I was a kid, and his screaming on the chorus at the end scared the living daylights out of me the first time I heard it. That’s the thing…this definitely stood out, as opposed to the laid back stuff that was being in released in 1991.

    Listening to it now, I understand it’s appeal to folks and why it stood out to people…but I still never warmed to it. What got Garth to be as big as he was was the music, and the genuine/relatable nature of it. He still has some good material coming forward, but…this always felt like artifice over quality, and honestly…there’s not much here lyrically that clicks with me (sorry Billy Joel fans). Again, I can’t say it’s not a memorable record…it’s just not one that ever really worked for me.

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