Garth Brooks inspired dreamers everywhere with the 1992 release of "The River" from his album Ropin' the Wind. There are many country songs that inspire, but not so many that do so using the poetic nature that "The River" employs. In the tune, Brooks compares dreams or aspirations to a "river" and the dreamer to a "vessel" following the river's path. He also sings of the difficulties of following "The River," noting that it can be a "constant battle" and that there will be "rough waters." Overall, he makes a strong statement about taking every chance life offers, singing in the second verse, "Choose to chance the rapids and dare to dance the tide."
The tune became Brooks' ninth number one hit on the Billboard chart and has served as a song of inspiration for country music fans everywhere. However, some may not know the song was somewhat inspired by James Taylor. Brooks and songwriter Victoria Shaw wrote the tune at Shaw's home in East Nashville before either artist had found substantial success in the music industry. According to Shaw, the two were having trouble coming up with a good song idea, so they decided to take a break and listen to music in hopes of getting inspired. That's when "The River" was born.
"Finally Garth said, 'Let's just take a break. Put some music on. What are you into lately?' I told him I had just bought the newest James Taylor album (That's Why I'm Here) and so I put it on," Shaw told American Songwriter. "After a few minutes Garth said, 'I got it! Turn it off.' I turned off the CD and Garth started playing the first few lines on the guitar of 'The River.'"
Once Brooks started the song, Shaw said it took them about two hours to complete. The writing process was fairly smooth, although Shaw recalls expressing concern about the use of the word "vessel" in the song.
"What I do remember debating is whether 'vessel' was the right word," she says. "I thought it sounded weird. Garth loved it and felt extremely strong about it being 'vessel.' At the end of the day I decided to trust his instincts. . . Now 'vessel' is my FAVORITE word. It helped me pay for my kid's education!"
Listening to James Taylor may have put Brooks and Shaw in the right mindset to create the song, but the track's story was inspired by the young musicians' lives and their dream of finding success.
"That song summed up exactly what Garth and I were feeling," Shaw said. "We both wanted success so badly though I have to say, he saw it even clearer than I did. He KNEW he was going to play arenas some day. I just thought he was delusional because nobody had done that in country music and it seemed way too ambitious."
Not only did Brooks imagine performing for an arena full of people, but Shaw reportedly told The Tennessean that Brooks specifically envisioned singing "The River" for thousands of people who would hold their lighters in the air. It seems Brooks and Shaw both followed the advice they wrote in the song because not long after "The River" was written, Brooks' vision came true.
"A few years later I had the pleasure of being Garth's opening act at his historic Central Park concert where I got to witness one million fans waving their lighters and singing OUR song," Shaw added.
"The River" went on to become one of Brooks' greatest hits, alongside "If Tomorrow Never Comes," "Friends In Low Places," "Unanswered Prayers," "The Thunder Rolls," "Shameless," "What She's Doing Now," "Papa Loved Mama," "Standing Outside The Fire," "The Beaches of Cheyenne," and many more. Brooks also included "The River" on his compilation album, The Hits, and a live version of the song is featured on his Double Live album. The country superstar wrote of the song's significance and the fan response to it in the CD liner notes for The Hits.
"Of all songs, most of the letters I receive concern 'The River,'" wrote Brooks. "It is a song of inspiration... a song that I will be proud of a hundred years from now. Victoria Shaw is a wonderful writer and a wonderful friend. And this is what happens when two dreamers get together and write from the heart."