The number of artists associated with Garth Brooks in some way is staggering. From former T-shirt sellers who made it big as singers (Martina McBride), to aspiring songwriters whose songs he cut (Victoria Shaw, Stephanie Davis, Kent Blazy, Pat Alger, Tony Arata… okay, I think you get the point), to close buddies whom he name-dropped repeatedly (Chris LeDoux), to just random acts he collaborated with once (anyone heard of Royal Wade Kimes?), to his current wife, Trisha Yearwood, it's clear that most of Nashville has had a piece of the Garth pie at some point. But of particular interest is his former guitar player, Ty England.
England is also one of the few who knew Garth before he was famous, as the two were roommates at Oklahoma State University. (And just to add to the list, Garth was classmates with Jeff Wood, a now-former brother-in-law of Phil Vassar, who did a pretty good album on the short-lived Imprint label in '97.) He served for several years in Garth's road band, and can be heard singing backing vocals on "Friends in Low Places and "Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)", to name a few. By 1995, England had quit Garth's road band (although he and Garth remained friends) and signed with RCA Nashville to release his debut album.
Produced by another Garth (Fundis), Ty England started off strong, with "Should've Asked Her Faster" topping out at #3. It was as catchy and bouncy as any other Western swing-influenced song coming out of Nashville. The problem was, it sounded just like any other Western-swing influenced song coming out of Nashville. Ty England was the stereotypical "hat act" — a George Strait and/or Garth Brooks clone in a cowboy hat, buttoned shirt, and jeans, having all-around musical competence, charisma, and maybe even a few genuinely good songs, but not much of a discernible identity. (And furthering the Strait comparisons, Ty England included "Her Only Bad Habit Is Me," which Strait previously cut on Chill of an Early Fall in 1991.)
1995 was also the twilight of the "hat act" era, with the last batch being one of the most anonymous before the trend fizzled out entirely with the Great Shania Twain-ification of 1995. And in spite of its anonymity, "Should've Asked Her Faster" is by no stretch "bad" or "boring"; it's actually a pretty tight, bouncy little number with enough charm and ear-worm power to stick in your head, but enough lyrical mettle not to drift right back out a few seconds later. (As an aside, the songwriters behind it are interesting: former NRBQ member Al Anderson; Bob DiPiero, a man behind many a hit in the 90s, and Joe Klimek, who according to BMI has no other songwriting credits. I can just imagine that after the songwriting royalties faded out, he probably took a job at a Walmart or something.)
England made an impressive move with his next single, "Smoke in Her Eyes." A smooth ballad with an intricate lyric, it clearly illustrated a woman who, despite really wanting to fall in love, won't let her heart's impulses outweigh her desires for true love. Hands down the best single from the album (bolstered by a warm production and a more intimate vocal), it came to an early stop at #44. Finishing off the debut album's singles was "Redneck Son," a silly but nonetheless catchy ode to redneck life: mama works at Dairy Queen, daddy's a farmer, Grandpa "taught me 'bout the Golden Rule," etc. etc. Other than its spunky acoustic guitar riffs, it was pretty much musical cotton candy.
On to album number two, Two Ways to Fall, with Byron Gallimore and James Stroud behind the boards. Leading off the album was "Irresistible You," England's only other journey into the Top 40. Not unlike "Should've Asked Her Faster," it could've seemed disposable on the surface, it still had enough charm and lyrical twists ("All because of mystical, sweet little kissable, irresistible you") to justify its existence. But again, the "hat act" trend had come to a close, leaving England and his contemporaries mostly outmoded. He tried again with "All of the Above," which cleverly twisted around words in a way I've honestly never seen before: "It's as simple as A-B-C: I could be A.) lover, B.) true, C.) no one else but you / And if those choices aren't enough / I could be D.)evoted E.)ternally to your love / Or how about all of the above?"). WIth the boredom of 1996 in full force, a song of this caliber should've shaken things up a little bit, but it somehow failed, and Ty left RCA. (And yet again, a song on the album was previously cut by someone else: "I'll Take Today," an uncharacteristically weak effort from the late Kent Robbins, which was originally found on Tanya Tucker's 1994 Fire to Fire, and later a single in 1998 for Gary Allan.)
By 1999, England had signed to Capitol Records, for whom he released only one album: Highways & Dance Halls. It was produced by Garth Brooks, with whom he was now sharing a label. The album's content hinted at a more mature, assured style than its predecessors: the hat was gone, he was going by Tyler instead of Ty, his voice was stronger, and the songs were more distinctive. Among them were Bruce Robison's stunning "Travelin' Soldier," later a hit for the Dixie Chicks; a redo of "Should've Asked Her Faster" with an assist from Steve Wariner; and the flavorful Spanglish broken-heart song "My Baby No Está Aquí No More," co-written by former Decca Records artist and current pastor Shane Stockton. (Find his "Gonna Have to Fall" if you can.) However, it produced only minimal chart action in "I Drove Her to Dallas." With its more mature, old-school lyrical twist — he didn't fill up her truck or take the wheel, but he's the one who drove her to Dallas — it was handily one of his best and countriest. But by 1999, country was at its absolute poppiest, so a ballad of this sort was borderline anachronistic.
England seems to have been almost a non-entity until 2007, when he (once again going by "Ty") self-released Alive and Well and Living the Dream. Its first single was "Redneck Anthem," a hokey piece of garbage with clichéd lyrics about guns, patriotism, trucks, tobacco, NASCAR, exacerbated by some eye-rollers like "Even mow our lawn with a billy goat" and a shout-out to Larry the Cable Guy's "git-r-done." The album ran the redneck tropes into the ground with other hokey titles like "Texans Hold 'Em" and "The NRA Song," and even hunting and fishing references in the slower (though generally better-written) songs like "Stick to Your Guns" and "It Must Be Colorado." That said, the album was not devoid of good songs, but Ty's voice seemed more wavering and thinner than it did even in 1995. England has not recorded since, but he has continued to tour sporadically.
Listening to most of England's discography, I get the impression that he was by no means lacking in talent, but seemed to mostly lack the follow-through to really capitalize on it. His debut album was all-around solid, and its unoriginality can somewhat being forgiven for him having little experience as anything more than a sideman, but I still get the impression that the label tried to groom him into being a "hat act" instead of trying to let him do his own thing. Perhaps letting Garth take a bigger role in the creation of the RCA albums — maybe having him cut a Garth album cut or two, or having the two co-write or even produce — would've allowed Ty to find his muse earlier, instead of finding it at a point in his career where traditional-skewing country was no longer in demand. That said, his first two albums were not lacking in quality material, but as one more entry in a crowded field of handsome 20-somethings in cowboy hats, and debuting so closely to the end of the neo-traditionalist boom, he had the odds against him pretty much from the beginning. Still, he at least has something that he can hang his hat on.