2015, it would seem, is the year of the country comeback. After more than a decade of relative silence from both Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, they both came roaring back at the end of last year, announcing what looked like dual blockbuster comebacks. Brooks has already sold out tour dates across the country, including seven nights in Dallas at the American Airlines Center. At the same time, critics are heaping praise on Twain, who plays there tonight and is on her final tour.
It's uncanny that these two artists would plop back into the country listener’s consciousness at the same time, considering that many fans are quick to blame them for the ascension of pop-country in the 1990s. Twain, billed the “queen of pop country,” has had more crossover success than any other female artist in music history, and Brooks has sold more albums than the Beatles. For all their faults, country can thank Twain and Brooks for making it the most popular genre in the United States.
But the two comebacks, both staggering in their success, are not on the same trajectory. Brooks stepped out of the spotlight to raise his teenaged daughter, vowing to get back into the music business after she turned 18. He made good on his promise, launching the independent, artist-friendly streaming service GhostTunes and recording Man Against Machine, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Album Charts. Earlier this month, it was announced that Brooks’ current tour is already 2015’s top-performing country tour, surpassing megastars like Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift.
Critical reception for Man Against Machine was somewhat tepid, and while overall favorable, it doesn’t touch what Brooks was able to do in the '90s. Still, we can expect plenty of new music to come. Plans for a follow-up to Man Against Machine have not yet been announced, but he does plan to release a Christmas album with wife and recording artist Trisha Yearwood, and you can expect that with success like this, he’ll be back for more. It isn’t exactly easy to record an album when you’re keeping up one of the most grueling touring schedules in the entire music business.
Twain's comeback tour, however, is much more of a farewell, at least from the road. Twain has said in multiple interviews that the Rock This Country tour would be her last, even though she plans to release a fifth album by the time she’s 50, aka in the next year or so. Twain does not plan to retire from music, making her announcement much like George Strait’s proclamation that he would continue to record and perform, but would be leaving the touring world after The Cowboy Rides Away tour concluded in Dallas last year.
The coverage of Twain’s Rock This Country tour, which has been traveling around the country with its showy theatrics and pyrotechnics since 2014, has been overwhelmingly positive, if disparate. Critics in some markets, like Kansas City, called the tour a “goodbye,” while others definitively called it a “comeback.” Perhaps the latter is more wishful thinking, especially after more than a decade off the road. Either way, it remains to be seen whether or not Twain will be able to recoup the same comeback success that Brooks has — assuming she even wants to.
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The two parallel comebacks, and their different intended outcomes, are notable in the context of the current country climate. Country is desperately trying to find its authentic roots, and when Twain and Brooks look like “old-school” country it’s clear that this genre is need in some serious rehab. But Twain isn’t necessarily interested in being part of country music’s authentic renaissance. Instead, she plans to record an album of “soul music,” whatever that means.
Brooks, savvily, is taking advantage of a climate that is overwhelmingly friendly to his comeback. All but gone are the fans who would claim that Brooks’ music is inauthentic — they’ve all fled to Americana where they can hear steel guitars and good guitar playing — and the same fans that enjoyed his music in the '90s are downloading Luke Bryan and Chris Young albums today. The country fans that became country fans in the Brooks era are still country fans, even if they’re not interested in the authentic stuff.
Whether either tour will amount to much of a "comeback" remains to be seen, but in spite of their totally different approaches, Twain and Brooks are both cashing in on country music’s desperation to distinguish itself from plain old pop music. Whether that's good for the genre or not may be the biggest mystery of all.