G'bye, Garth

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Garth Brooks has a fine voice, though it's a shade too polished to be called distinctively great. His songbook is thick with quality ballads and rockers. But other than Friends in Low Places, a 1990 song that brilliantly melded the mischief of country with the simplicity of pop, Brooks has never produced a track with crossover appeal. What he has done, quite purposefully, is sell an astonishing 101 million records--and sales figures, more than anything, are how he has come to be defined. To the guardians of traditional country, the figures are license to write off Brooks as a popular errata. For the faithful, the numbers validate their participation in a phenomenon.

Scarecrow (Capitol), his 14th, and, he says, final release, is a reminder that Brooks is a man with a significant gift. Like Elvis and Sinatra, Brooks isn't just a singer but an interpreter. He has an uncanny vocal ability to make his material convincing, from the weary amazement of Why Ain't I Running to the matter-of-fact Wrapped Up in You to the bad-boy exuberance of Beer Run. The problem is he never stops selling. He invests as much in trifles like The Storm ("She's drowning in emotions, and she cannot reach the shore") as he does in Pushing Up Daisies, a tune about his mother's death. Either he's blind to his lyrics' weaknesses or he's using sincerity as a kind of hustle. Regardless, it comes off as crass.

Brooks admits that he covets sales the way George Steinbrenner does trophies, and Scarecrow, which arrived at No. 1 on Billboard's album chart, will land on millions of CD shelves. But unless there's a comeback in the offing, his legacy will be determined by the numbers.