Behind The Song Lyrics: “The River,” Garth Brooks

In our cover story with the legend Garth Brooks, he told American Songwriter how important James Taylor was to him while growing up. Brooks, who was raised in both a music-loving and at times-rough-and-tumble household, said that at any time, there could be fisticuffs afoot but when he came home and heard Taylor on the stereo, he knew things were okay.

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“My older brother Mike brought a James Taylor record into our house and our house finally agreed on one music,” Brooks told American Songwriter in 2020. “I owe James my life because, you know, our house was not an easy house to grow up in. If you had an argument, you ended up in the backyard.

“But if you came home and heard James Taylor on the stereo, it was going to be a good, peaceful, wonderful night. I’ve tried to explain that to James, how much I appreciate it. But he’ll never know the godsend he was to our family.” 

So, that’s why when Brooks says he was inspired by Taylor to write his hit song, “The River,” it’s a big deal. Just one dreamer helping another to push on through life’s rapids and impending shores.

In fact, Taylor recently performed the song to a bawling Brooks at a tribute to the cowboy hat-wearing artist during the 43rd Kennedy Center Honors in November. If you stay in the game long enough, miracles do happen.

For the 59-yeard-old Tulsa, Oklahoma-born Brooks, “The River” has lasted as one of his most beloved songs throughout the decades. Brooks co-wrote the song with award-winning American country artist Victoria Shaw (more on her below!). The meaning behind the song itself is centered on the idea of following your dreams no matter how turbulent life can be.

Following its release in 1991, “The River” later hit No. 1 on the U.S. Hot Country Songs and Canada Country Tracks. And it appeared on Brooks’ album that year, Ropin’ the Wind, his third studio LP.

“The River” became Brooks’ ninth No. 1 hit.

In the liner notes for his 1994 greatest hits compilation record, The Hits, Brooks wrote:

Of all songs, most of the letters I receive concern ‘The River.’ 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. One of the greatest awards that this song has ever received was the fact that it was played at Dale Wehr’s funeral. Quite an honor, cowboy.

To begin the song, Brooks delivers the lyrics with a fragile, hopeful voice:

You know a dream is like a river
Ever changin’ as it flows
And a dreamer’s just a vessel
That must follow where it goes

Perhaps more than anything else, Brooks’ ability to inspire both large groups of people and individuals is his biggest superpower. For the stadium-filling, “The River” is just another chance to imbue passion into the hearts of many.

He sings in the chorus:

I will sail my vessel
‘Til the river runs dry
Like a bird upon the wind
These waters are my sky
I’ll never reach my destination
If I never try
So I will sail my vessel
‘Til the river runs dry

And doing so, singing this way, both emboldens his audience and Brooks himself. Today the songwriter, of course, is still going strong, selling out shows, releasing music, and maintaining his status as one of the most important performers in country music, even 30 years after the release of “The River.”

But that’s what a dream can do. It can live on longer than anyone—even the dreamer—expects.

For more, read our interview with Shaw, who talks about “The River” below:

American Songwriter: When and where did you and Garth write “The River?”  

Victoria Shaw: Garth and I wrote “The River” in my little house in East Nashville on McCarn St. My roommate wasn’t home that afternoon. I used to share a house with Jess Leary who went on to write hits like “Where the Green Grass Grows” and “Mi Via Loca.”  Back then we were just trying to get noticed. Anyway, Garth came over and we tried to come up with an idea to write and nothing was happening. We just had one bad idea after another.  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. Sometimes playing music frees your mind up to go other places that have nothing to do with what you’re listening to and that’s exactly what happened. 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.” It just started flowing (pun intended). After that, the song came pretty quickly.  Maybe two hours?  It was fast, not counting the two hours before of bad ideas.  

AS: What inspired the song?

VS: That song summed up exactly what Garth and I were feeling. 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 someday. I just thought he was delusional because nobody had done that in country music and it seemed way too ambitious. Ha! 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!  

AS: What has your overall experience been like collaborating with Garth?  

VS: Garth is a great songwriter. He’s very creative musically and lyrically, but will also listen to your suggestions. It’s funny though… when Garth and I write, it comes out more folky than anything else I’ve written. I think it’s that James Taylor vibe we kinda tune into when we’re together.  

AS: Step outside the song for a moment. How would you describe the song as a music fan?

VS: To this day, people stop me at my shows or wherever to tell me how much “The River” means or meant to them at some particular time in their lives. People play it at funerals, graduations, and one person told me it was the song they kept playing in their car as they were leaving their job and their hometown and seeking a new adventure. That story stands out to me.  

AS: Could you tell us some of the song’s backstory? How much or how little did you edit it, during or afterward? Were there any phrases or lyrics you can remember that were especially tough to make a final decision on?

VS: In general I like all the editing to happen before we call it quits. I don’t tinker much with a song after I write it, but then again I don’t like to leave the room till I feel 100% satisfied. It’s not a hard-fast rule, but 99% of the time that’s how it is for me. Garth might tinker a bit once in a while, but in regards to “The River” what you hear is what happened in my living room on that day. No changes. What I do remember debating is whether “vessel” was the right word. 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. I found out years later that his manager Bob Doyle also tried to talk him out of that word. Now “vessel” is my FAVORITE word. It helped me pay for my kid’s education! 

AS: Did you guys demo it or simply work tape it? How did it wind up getting cut and becoming a single? 

VS: Garth did a work tape demo. I think he did it at Kent Blazy’s house. It’s a very simple demo with that shaker thing in the background and just acoustic guitar. The feel of the whole thing is very close to how he produced it on the record just a little bigger. Garth originally told me it was going to be on his second album No Fences, and I was thrilled because his first album had been a big success. A few months later he called and told me that unfortunately, it was not going to make the album because they tried to record it, but it just didn’t capture the song the way they wanted. Obviously, I was completely bummed and figured there went my chance of being on a Garth Brooks record. Then a year later he called me to say this time they nailed the production and it was going to be on his Ropin’ the Wind album.  It all worked out for the best because “The River” is over 4 minutes long and at that point, Garth was GOD and could put out any length of song and people actually LISTENED and loved it. They loved the message.  

AS: Who was the biggest cheerleader of the song, besides the writers?

VS: You’d have to ask Garth that. I personally think there was no bigger cheerleader than Garth. Again, it took balls to put out a song over 4 minutes on country radio, but Garth just knew that song was important to him and he felt people would relate.  

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