Back in the ’90s, Billy Joel was doing “lecture tours,” where he took questions from audiences, and he’d bring a piano along to demonstrate points that he was making, or to even perform some songs. Last week marked the 30th anniversary of Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind album, which included his cover of Billy’s “Shameless.” Which reminded us of a stop on that tour where Billy was asked what he thought about the country version of his song.
Billy dunked on country music a bit, but he also said that the song turned him on to country. And he noted that when he wrote “Shameless,” country music was pretty far from his mind. “When I wrote ‘Shameless,’ I thought I was [playing like] Jimi Hendrix,” he said, proceeding to sing the song in Hendrix’s style.
“And Garth Brooks took it and made it into a country/western hit,” he explained, using a term for the genre that was antiquated even in 1995. “Which was fantastic to me. Because I’ve never had a record played on country/western radio. Country/western radio is very strict, they only play country/western artists. And I’m very grateful to Garth Brooks for making something that I wrote available to hear to people who wouldn’t normally hear the music that I do.”
“Now, I didn’t used to like country/western music,” he continued. He moved to the piano to play what he called his “first impression of country music.” “I grew up in New York City, and there’s no country/western music radio in New York City.” He then sang a parody of a country song (that sounded like a cross between Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “A Boy Named Sue”) using a terrible faux-accent. He then sang an actual country song, Don Gibson’s 1958 hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You” — again, in a terrible faux-accent — as a demonstration of why he didn’t like country music. But he noted that when Ray Charles covered the song it changed his mind. “He was a Black man who sings the blues, did a country/western album,” referring to Charles’ classic 1962 Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music.
“And all of the sudden, I got it! I liked country music!” He then sang the song in Charles’ vocal style. “And ever since then, I really wanted to sing just like Ray Charles. But it’s really a matter of interpretation. I liked the way Ray Charles did country and western music and I happen to like the way Garth Brooks does it. It makes it more accessible to me.” He also noted, “Garth Brooks brought a lot of rock and roll to country. People like Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks, they grew up listening to me, and the Rolling Stones and they brought a certain amount of popular music into country/western.”
Brooks explained how he came to cover the song, in the liner notes to his 1994 collection, The Hits.”‘Shameless’ was the longest shot we took with a song. I was talked into becoming a member of a CD club…you know, the 40,000 CD’s for a penny deal. With those clubs, they write you with the selection of the month. If you don’t write back and cancel, then they send it to you and charge you for it. I was on the road for six months with no one to check the mail and came home to find six compact discs in my mailbox. Storm Front by Billy Joel was one of them. I hadn’t listened to Billy Joel since the late seventies, probably since Glass Houses,” he said, referring to Joel’s classic album which was actually released in 1980.
“I fell in love with the album and fell back in love with Billy Joel’s music. One of his songs really captured me, a song called ‘Shameless.’ I kept watching… and when he did not release it as a single, we contacted his people in the hopes that we could cut it. His people sent us a letter acknowledging that he knew who I was and was very honored that I was cutting it. That was quite a compliment for me then, as it is now. My hope is that Billy, as writer, hears this cut and says, ‘Yeah, man, the guy’s got balls.'”
Joel surely approved… and not just because of the royalty checks. The two have appeared together often throughout the years to perform “Shameless,” among other songs from both artists’ respective catalogs. And in 2011, Billy Joel presented Garth Brooks at his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.