Sometime in the mid-Eighties, Nashville-based music publisher Don Tolle was having lunch with his business partner, singer-songwriter Tony Arata, when Arata brought up a song that he was in the process of composing. To Tolle, it was unusual because his friend didn’t normally mention unfinished works. But this one was different.
“I was really struck by that,” Tolle tells Rolling Stone Country. “He said, ‘D., I think I really got a good one.’ I said, ‘Great, what’s the title?’ ‘I don’t know yet.’ ‘Well, what’s it about?’ ‘I don’t know yet, but I got a good one.'”
Little did both men know that this seed of a song would grow into Garth Brooks’ classic “The Dance,” which originally appeared on the superstar’s 1989 self-titled debut album. A majestic ballad that evokes themes of love and mortality, “The Dance” debuted on the country charts on May 5th, 1990, en route to becoming Brooks’ second Number One song. In a Playboy interview from 1994, the singer declared, “‘The Dance’ will be the greatest success as a song we will ever do. I’ll go to my grave with ‘The Dance.’ It’ll probably always be my favorite song.”
How the Tony Arata-penned song became one of country music’s biggest smashes is told in For the Record: A Musical Odyssey, a recently-published memoir by Tolle, a veteran of the music industry and the founder of Pookie Bear Music, which was Arata’s music publisher at the time. “He said, ‘I’ve written a lyric or two, but I know it’s not the lyric,'” recalls Tolle. “It was probably another two months. . . I didn’t want to put pressure on him.”
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Arata later refined the song that would eventually become “The Dance” after watching the 1986 Kathleen Turner movie Peggy Sue Got Married. According to Tolle, the songwriter showed up one day at his door and performed it for him. “The movie is basically about, if you had one thing you can go back and change in your life, would you? And [Peggy Sue] did, only to realize that it changed everything that came after, and she realizes she wouldn’t have wanted it this bad. [Tony] came home from the movie that day and he knew the song.”
“It just hit me so hard,” Arata said in a 2013 Tennessean interview about the film’s inspiration. “It hit me that you don’t get to pick and choose your memories in life. You have to go with things as they play out. You don’t get to alter them.”
From that moment on, Tolle knew that Arata had something special. “If you go back and analyze that song, it’s a classic,” he says. “There are very few lyrics in that song. And yet every word in there needs to be there, and there’s not a single thing missing. But there’s a lot of space – it breathes.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but “The Dance” was originally pitched to label after label on Nashville’s Music Row without any takers. Tolle believes it was because the song didn’t follow the conventional country music format of the time. “The A&R people didn’t really get ‘The Dance,'” he says. “They kind of liked it but, ‘We’re not sure what it’s about.’ It wasn’t like anything else in country music. It was genius in its simplicity and truth. But they didn’t know.”
Around this period, Tolle and Arata became fixtures of Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, which was a haven for aspiring songwriters – one of whom was an up-and-comer from Oklahoma named Garth Brooks. “He was a pretty gentle person,” Tolle remembers. “He had a good voice and all of that, but who knows what separates the ones that might have been to the ones that really take it to the moon and stars? And he was one of those. You have to credit that to a lot of ambition.”
According to Tolle, Brooks heard Arata perform “The Dance” at the Bluebird and was enthralled. When Brooks later signed to a major record label, he contacted Arata for permission to record the song. After the songwriter gave his blessing, Brooks invited Tolle to hear his recorded version of “The Dance” at the office of his manager, Bob Doyle. “Garth’s sitting over there in the corner,” Tolle recalls. “He walks across the room and clasps my hand in an iron grip — the guy’s so strong. He said, ‘Thank you so much for coming down. Thank you for letting us record this.’ It just blew me away. I thought, ‘Boy, this is a game changer.'”
But there was one more mountain for “The Dance” to climb. Three singles had already been released from the Garth Brooks album — and at the time, that was the maximum number of songs Capitol Records was releasing per album. So Brooks’ producer Allen Reynolds invited label chief Jimmy Bowen to the singer’s upcoming show in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the hopes that the audience’s response to the tune would prove its potential.
“Garth closes the show with ‘The Dance,'” says Tolle, “and somewhere along the way, the audience started raising their lighters and waving them back and forth. It was somewhat like a spiritual thing.”
In the end, Bowen couldn’t help but be convinced and released “The Dance” as Brooks’ next single.
“The Dance” was accompanied by a moving, groundbreaking video featuring archival footage of John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., the Challenger space shuttle crew, Keith Whitley and bull rider Lane Frost — all people who chased their dreams and died before their time.
In addition to staying at Number One for three straight weeks, “The Dance” won both Song of the Year and Music Video of the Year at the 1991 Academy of Country Music Awards, and Music Video of the Year at that same year’s Country Music Association Awards.
Twenty-five years later, “The Dance” still endures not only as a staple of Brooks’ live shows and compilation albums, but it’s also been covered by artists as diverse as Mindy McCready, Martina McBride, 3 Doors Down and George Winston. “You can put that song in any genre: modern pop, contemporary music, country music, instrumental piano,” says Tolle. “That’s my definition of a classic, and that’s not true of most songs. If you take it out of a certain format, nothing really works. Again, it’s just the marriage of a great melody and a perfect lyric. You can do anything with a song like that.”
Asked if “The Dance” would have been a hit for someone else if Brooks hadn’t recorded it, Tolle is doubtful: “In retrospect, it was just meant to be. It’s hard to separate that now from Garth. Again, it was a great recording, great production; the simplicity of it matched the song. . . It was a song that was meant to be recorded by Garth.”