Garth Brooks was out of breath. You could hear it in the microphone. He ran like he was barreling down the stairs and he struggled to climb the 15-foot-tall drum riser. Wearing a plaid shirt, the stocky singer looked like a bricklayer playing an open mic at a bar. The crowd, which looked exactly like him, didn’t care.
“The people are going to kick my ass, but I’m going to put up a fight,” he said. Then he confessed. “Tonight’s show will suck.”
Fourteen years away from the stage and studio hasn’t done much to change Brooks’ status as country music superstar. He’s sold out every show on the tour in record-shattering time—including the first comeback concert of the world tour in Rosemont, Illinois, at the 14,000-seat arena.
It has, however, transformed his role on country radio. In the 1990s, when Brooks was scoring hit after hit, and selling albums by the millions, he was the “crossover” artist. His few critics—their voices muted by the roaring crowds he met around the country—chastised him for “selling out” and dangerously flirting with pop in his country singing and songwriting.
Now, after the enhancement of the trend he started, and the emergence of Taylor Swift, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, and many country-pop acts, Brooks has become a “traditionalist.” He sounds more like his country influences—George Jones, Merle Haggard, and George Strait—than he does like anything on the current country charts. He also sounds better than the crossover children he helped conceive. Brooks wrote most of his songs, and dealt with real emotions and serious issues, even taking the unlikely and unpopular stance, at least for a country singer, in support of gay rights on the anthem, “We Shall Be Free.” The new crop of country superstars follow the predictable and derivative formula veteran country songwriter Vince Gill called, “I’m hot, you’re hot, and we’re in a truck.”
I sat down with Brooks and asked him about his new role in the rapidly changing genre of country. Before I could even finish my sentence with the word “traditionalist,” Brooks laughed. “Traditionalist? I can’t really believe it myself,” he said. “All I know how to do is be myself. That’s all I did in the ’90s and that’s all I’m doing now. For me, it’s not pop or country. It’s just Garth.”
Earlier in a press conference, he apologized for his habit of speaking in the third person. The apology complemented the rest of his personality. He seems genuinely kind, warm, and decent. His statement about expressing only his true self would seem cliché—and, in fact, is cliché—coming from any other major entertainer, but Brooks pulls it off.
It is his ability to do this, seemingly without effort or contrivance, that lies at the heart of his immeasurable success, and that is most responsible for his strengths and flaws as a performer.
“I’ve been so excited for tonight,” Brooks said before the first concert of the tour, “Because it is the moment when we finally get rid of all the crap in between the artist and the people who allow me to be an artist.”
American culture, especially in entertainment, is one of script doctors and image makers. Someone who can show sincerity, and actually facilitate an emotional connection between himself, as an entertainer, and the people he entertains, is rare. Whether or not one likes the music of Garth Brooks, it is arguable that he is the last and only populist in pop culture.
“I’m just a guy who eats too much, is lazy, and loves to play music,” Brooks said. It is not merely an authenticity that Brooks uses to connect with his admirers, but his embrace of an average identity. Brooks talks about his fans with more reverence than he talks about himself and without sounding like a used car salesman or cheap politician.
“I don’t care who you are, $70 is a lot of money,” he said when discussing his practice of keeping ticket prices low. At $55, especially considering the insane demand for his tickets, the price of admission to a Garth Brooks performance is a bargain. The costs of merchandise were right out of the 1990s: $20 for T-shirts, $30 for sweatshirts. “Raising the ticket price, just because there is a big demand for tickets, was never an option for me,” Brooks said. Many performers claim to represent the working class, but Brooks is one of the few who actually enforces his words with the action of making his concert experience affordable.
And Brooks isn’t shy about his resistance to social media. “Country radio is the bridge between the artist and the people,” he said. “Social media twists everything, but on radio, it is my voice directly to the listener.”
He is starting a new digital music store, called Ghost Tunes. The promise is that Ghost Tunes will pay the songwriters more money, allow the artists to determine how their music is sold, and provide the best deals for the fans. To help promote the service, Brooks is offering a digital bundle of ten of his albums for merely $29.95.
Unlike other internationally famous bands and artists who resist, or at least criticize, digitalization, Brooks frames his argument—and now his new sales pitch—in the language of artistry and democracy, casting technology on one side, and “the people” on the other. “Music is now all about the technology that delivers it,” he said. “When you put the songwriter last, music suffers.” He went on to elaborate using his odd, but surprisingly effective and persuasive rhetorical combination of egomania and humility: “People tell me, when it comes to music, that it was just a victim of the Internet. ‘The genie is out of the bottle,’ they say. Well, I’m creating the genie, and I want to get it to the people in the best way I know how.”
134 million genies sold later, Brooks has the luxury to continue to, as he would put it, “be Garth.” “I’d be lying if I said I was not influenced by some of the talented kids, like Bruno Mars and Jason Aldean, but the last thing I’m going to do is chase anything.”
The deafening volume of the crowd, screaming in high pitch in reaction to every small move Brooks made during the opening night of his tour, proved that he doesn’t have to chase anything. Millions will continue to chase him.
Even after a strange concert like this.
The large screens showed a skull and crossbones, as if Motorhead was ready to take the stage, and then a child appeared, repeating, “The machines are taking over.”
At that point, a sphere lit up, resembling the landing of the UFO in E.T., and the overheard lights descended on the stage. Brooks’ band came out chanting “war,” and then Brooks emerged singing a new song, “Man Versus Machine.” At its conclusion, the entire band stood together, staring at the light unit as it moved, threateningly one was to presume, toward them.
Any philosophical statement was lost in the oddity of the moment, and for his first entrance on a major concert stage in 14 years, Brooks made it decidedly anti-climactic. The special effects and lighting also contradicted the simplicity of his performance personality, and the organic nature of his homegrown appeal. It was bizarre, but the fans barely noticed. When Brooks went into his second song, an old hit called “Rodeo,” the cheers grew so loud it was hard to hear him sing.
The rest of the performance was underwhelming. The setlist seemed arbitrary—an up-tempo country rock song had the crowd dancing and screaming, and it would immediately transition into an acoustic ballad. The spaces in between songs were Brooks’ opportunity to walk around the stage screaming, “Oh, yeaaaaah!,” “You came back!” and so on and so forth. He often appeared on the verge of tears. In many ways, it was difficult to determine who was more excited, Brooks or his audience. If the crowd started to audibly sing one of his songs, he would lose track of the vocal and launch into screams of encouragement.
If his avidity was an act, Brooks should immediately move to Hollywood and collect his Academy Awards. The decency, generosity, and sincerity of Brooks would make even a cynic a believer, and the natural camaraderie he has with his audience is what explains his immense success. It is also what explains his importance. In a culture drowning in too-cool-for-thou irony, and above it all pretension, Brooks’ passion—unapologetically showing love and belief in everything he does—fills a void as big as the arenas he plays.
Brooks is a good singer, but not a great one. In fact, when his wife, Trisha Yearwood, took the stage to perform a five-song set of her own hits, she took her husband to school. The power, timbre, and range of her voice made her performance the best part of the night. Even the band began to play better under her direction, which was something Brooks predicted, saying, “You’ll see them starch up and really get on it when she walks out.”
Brooks is also a good songwriter, but not a great one. So when he screams, the crowd screams with him. When the crowd screams, he screams back. If Brooks looked and sounded like Elvis, played guitar like Hendrix, or wrote songs like John Lennon, the populism would seem phony. He breaks down the divide between himself, as performer, and the fan, as spectator. They almost become one.
When Brooks sang “The Dance,” one of the most moving country songs of the past few decades, he finally calmed himself down, and delivered the tender lyrics with poignancy. As the song ended, fighting back tears, he identified individual members of the crowd.
“This is for the gentleman in this section with the sign saying, ‘I first saw you in 1996,’” he said. “I’ve seen you every day of my life. This is for the woman back there with the sign, ‘I missed you.’ I missed you too…”