When Ty England parted ways with RCA Records in 1997, he packed up his wife and four kids and moved back to his native Oklahoma. After only a month or so of settling into their new home in Oklahoma City, he got a phone call that would eventually bring him back to Nashville. It was England's old friend and former boss, Garth Brooks, with an offer he couldn't pass up.
"He said, 'Buddy, I feel like you didn't get the shot you deserved, so if you want another chance at this I'm willing to try to help you get it,'" England recalls during a recent interview.
A former guitarist for Brooks' band, England struck out on his own in 1994. He signed a solo deal with RCA and released his self-titled debut in 1995, producing the Top 5 hit "Should Have Asked Her Faster." His sophomore album, 1996's Two Ways to Fall, failed to yield a follow-up hit, and he and the label parted ways. Although disillusioned with the experience, he wasn't ready to give up.
"In all honesty, I had done a lot of soul searching and looked through newspapers for jobs," England remembers. "I did everything to try to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I have never found anything that I care about the way I do music. When Garth called, my immediate response was, 'I want to try it again.'"
Brooks introduced England to Pat Quigley, then president of Capitol Records. Quigley signed England -- now called "Tyler" -- to a new solo deal, and Brooks offered to produce the record. England quickly accepted, even though at RCA he had taken great pains to distance himself from his famous friend.
"I felt I needed to get away from Garth so I could earn credit and wings on my own," he explains. "I realized that no matter what I had done, it was going to be 'because Garth had helped,' so I thought, 'Why not let him help?'"
England and Brooks met as students at Oklahoma State University and quickly bonded over music. Having known Brooks for years, England hoped working with him as a producer would help him avoid the pitfalls that derailed his career on the first go-round.
"We made several mistakes at RCA, number one being we chose songs by committee," England says. "We were exclusively trying to pick songs that we thought radio would play. And [producer] Garth Fundis didn't know me for who I really was. He knew me for who I had been in Garth's [Brooks] band.
There was much more creative freedom on Highways & Dancehalls, England's first album for Capitol, due in stores Tuesday (Nov. 21). Even so, England admits he had a few early reservations about working with his old boss.
"Garth is a get-things-done kind of guy, and when he's a busy man, he lets you have it with both barrels if you need both barrels," he explains. "So, having been an employee, I thought, 'What if it's like working for Garth instead of with Garth?' But he looked at it like, if this was his album, how would he want a producer to treat him? And he treated me like gold."
In fact, England says Brooks was a skilled first-time producer, having picked up a few tricks from his own longtime producer, Allen Reynolds. The experience also gave England a chance to mend fences with Brooks. He says the two drifted apart after England left the band.
"Garth went to Australia for his world tour, and I went out on my tour and literally didn't speak to Garth for about three years," England says. "Anytime he needed me he could have called, and vice versa, but we were just busy. A friendship became drastically misplaced during the process, but it was still there."
During the recording sessions, England would come to Nashville in two-week stretches, staying at Brooks' house outside town. The singer says the time was "almost like being back in college."
"The only thing we didn't do was go for midnight doughnuts," he says. "We'd sit around with guitars and talk about songs and play songs. It helped us find that old friendship. I call him a lot now, and I've been to see him in Tulsa now, where he lives. So if this album did nothing other than that, it brought a friendship back around, and that's nice."
England says Highways & Dancehalls is much more suited to his musical tastes and personality than his earlier efforts. But he admits he and Brooks didn't always see eye to eye on songs, including the album's first single, "I Drove Her to Dallas." England liked it. Brooks didn't, but he eventually came around.
On the other hand, Brooks convinced England to re-cut "Should Have Asked Her Faster," a song the singer was eager to leave behind. "I got so tired of that song being the only one related to the name Ty England. It was wearing me out."
Brooks called his friend and labelmate, Steve Wariner, and asked him to join England on the recording.
"You gotta know, I was starting to sing Steve Wariner songs in high school," England says. "I used to want to be just like him. I'm intimidated by this guy, bad. And I'd never done a duet with anyone. I mess up a lot, so I thought, 'I'm going to mess up and he's going to kill me.' So Steve comes in and puts on his guitar. You know how Steve is, he's so nice and so talented it just pisses you off. But, he's standing 10 feet in front of me and all the butterflies just disappeared."
To round out the album, the duo found two songs written by Austin, Texas-based recording artist Bruce Robison. The singer-songwriter played guitar and joined Brooks on harmonies for "She Don't Care About Me." The second tune, "Travelin' Soldier," is the haunting tale of a young Vietnam soldier who didn't come home. The album also contains three songs with a Mexican feel, including the aptly titled "Blame It on Mexico." "My Baby No Esta Aqui No More" was co-written by David Stephenson, who has a total of three cuts on the record. "I'd Rather Have Nothing," written by Great Divide frontman Mike McClure, has a Jimmy Buffett groove. Lyrics like "Commitments and strings and all that wealth brings/Just may be for some other breed ... And I'd rather having nothing/Than a whole lot of something I don't need" echo England's own life philosophy.
"I think everybody who's ever drawn a paycheck feels like that song at some point in time," he says. "That's why I think that song is magical. It's not my performance of it, it's the attitude the song expresses. It's like a blue collar man's and woman's anthem."
While he has a new record deal and a new chance at stardom, England is ever mindful that he also is still a working man with a family to support back in Oklahoma. Instead of touring to promote the record, he says he'll concentrate on making hits at radio. That way, he says, he can actually make some money on the road when he does hit the dance hall and honky tonk circuit.
"My wife has hoped for a long time that I would grow up and get this out of my system. It's just so hard to explain to her," England says. "Now, the day my wife calls and says we missed a house payment this month or the kids are hungry, life's going to take an immediate and drastic change. We haven't gotten to that stage yet, so I'm going to give this my best shot. I look forward to the day when I can make life easier for her. Right now, I just want people to find something in my music that I find in it."