As is often the case, Garth Brooks has somewhere to be. As is also often the case, he’s already supposed to be there. So he’s answering Rolling Stone Country‘s questions as he walks through the bowels of Arlington, Texas’ AT&T Stadium on the way to rehearsal for the ACM Awards.
Heads whip around as people realize who has just passed. The seasoned star is practiced at tuning it all out, walking with his head down — not so much as to avoid eye contact, but as a means of keeping his focus on the interview.
As the conversation begins, Brooks is still on a high from the previous night’s inaugural Lifting Lives gala that he hosted with wife Trisha Yearwood. The event, which raised more than $1.5 million for various charities including Brooks’ Teammates for Kids, also featured performances by Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, the Band Perry, Hunter Hayes and Keith Urban. “I was humbled by how sweet all the other bands were and how they volunteered right away to do it for the kids,” says the legend.
Hayes and Urban joined Brooks on what he still calls his all-time favorite song in his unparalleled catalog of hits, “The Dance,” at the fundraiser. It was a bucket-list moment for the 23-year-old Hayes, who got choked up during the performance, causing him to drop a few lines. It was a gaffe Brooks insists he didn’t notice.
“I was sitting there going, ‘I am so not soulful.’ Did you hear him take that chorus?” Brooks remarks of Hayes’ vocals. “That was cool for me to see these other guys sing these songs. And I feel stupid, but I was going, ‘How do they know these songs?’ And it hit me, ‘Holy crap! Maybe they grew up on them,’ and then I started to cry. It was a cool realization for me. There are a lot of things in this business I don’t get. I guess they just fly over your head because you’re right in the middle of it, but that was a cool night for me.”
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As Brooks heads to the stadium’s field level, a service elevator opens. It’s crammed with people who brighten as they register who is waiting to get on, then visibly sag in disappointment when they realize there is no room, even for a superstar who is just trying to find his way onto another stage.
On stage is where Brooks has gleefully found himself since he kicked off his first national tour in 13 years in Chicago last September. He can’t contain his exuberance about having recently performed 100 concerts in 77 days on his Man Against Machine Tour. In many stops, Brooks is performing two shows a day to meet pent-up demand.
The flow still isn’t quite where he wants it, but that may speak more to his perfectionist tendencies than to any true pacing issues. He just knows he feels great on stage. “The show’s lasting about two-and-a-half hours, but, truthfully, it feels like about 10 minutes and that’s what you want because then you know you’re not worrying about anything, you’re not thinking about anything, you’re just following your heart. And that’s when live shows get fantastic,” he says of his trek, which is setting up shop for anywhere from three to 11 concerts in each city.
Because he’s doing more concerts than were originally planned at each arena — he announces each town one-by-one, heralded by its own press release — Brooks has had to reduce the number of locations he’ll hit on the three-year U.S. leg, which runs through 2017. He explains the tour math simply: The more shows he sells in each city, the less number of total cities he can hit. He estimates the final tally will be around 50 American cities, but stresses there may be more to come because he’s having so much fun.
“There was a song called ‘The Old Stuff’ on Fresh Horses, that says, ‘We were begging for a place to play.’ We’re still begging for places to play. I love it; I can’t have enough places to play,” Brooks says. “If we get through with this American leg and there are some cities out there that we’re going, ‘You know what? How do you do a tour without these cities? Then I think we extend the American leg or come back and finish it [after the European leg], for sure.”
Brooks just hit the 2 million mark in ticket sales — a number that includes the 400,000 tickets sold for last summer’s canceled Ireland shows. Brooks was slated to play five nights at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium last July, but he pulled the plug on all the shows when the Dublin City Council would only grant licenses for three concerts.
The pain from the canceled shows lingers undiminished nearly a year later. When asked if he’ll ever play in Ireland again, Brooks solemnly answers, “I can’t answer that.”
The 53-year-old entertainer is equally tight-lipped about last month’s exit of Gary Overton from Sony Music Nashville, the powerhouse label with which Brooks signed a distribution deal last year. Although Overton (whom Brooks calls “a sweet man”) was already rumored to be on his way out, the Chairman and CEO’s departure was no doubt aided by controversial comments he made in a newspaper interview claiming artists who are not played on country radio “don’t exist.”
Without an existing Sony chief, an ongoing marketing strategy for Brooks’ Man Against Machine album is in flux (even the top-selling solo artist in the U.S. is affected by label changes). He says plans for a third single from the chart-topping LP, which was released in November — his first studio album of new material since 2001’s Scarecrow — are on hold until the label’s changeover to a still-to-be-named leader is complete. “My thing is allow them the freedom to make that transition and get a plan and nobody’s heard anything about that yet,” says the singer, who is now working on a holiday album with Yearwood. The first two singles from Machine — the anthemic “People Loving People” and sentimental “Mom” — peaked at Numbers 19 and 32, respectively, on Billboard‘s Country Airplay charts.
Brooks continues talking as Brian Kelley from Florida Georgia Line passes by, doing a double take and a little stutter step as he contemplates interrupting one of his musical heroes but respectfully decides not to. His bandmate, Tyler Hubbard, following closely behind, does the same. Finally someone nudges Brooks, alerting him that the duo wants to say hi. Bro-hugs ensue, a few enthusiastic words are exchanged, and Brooks picks up the conversation exactly where he left off before heading to his next stop. Where he is, no doubt, already supposed to be.