It’s a recurring theme in Garth Brooks lore that the superstar is typically a few minutes behind for his next appointment, whether due to the generosity of his answers or factors beyond his control. Today is no exception: Brooks is powering through a series of interviews in support of his new album Gunslinger at a Nashville audio production facility and running late.
As the highest-selling solo performer in U.S. history and a key influence on many (if not all) younger artists now competing with him for airplay, Brooks could be excused for still harboring outsized expectations and ambitions around every new project. And yet Brooks’ Gunslinger makes no attempts to position him as country’s envelope-pushing vanguard, but rather a guy who knows how to play to his strengths in any decade.
“You never want to chase anything. You can’t do that,” Brooks says, with certitude. “Some people want to chase because they want to be modern or hip; you gotta be who you are.” He’s casually dressed in hoodie, T-shirt and jeans over Asics sneakers, with a Costa del Mar baseball hat resting on his head.
Though he’s more used to setting the trends, Brooks’ return to regular touring and recording in the last three years has been remarkably anachronistic, his triumphs markedly traditional. He’s resisted streaming his music until now, entering that business through an exclusive partnership with Amazon (it’s not by accident they also sell physical product) and embracing the reach of social media through the launch of his Inside Studio G series via Facebook. He’s broken his own ticket sales records with his ongoing world tour and has also sold an admirable amount of physical albums, the most recent being a Target-only set of recordings called the Ultimate Collection, which reportedly sold nearly 135,000 first-week units (though its holiday-aware price point of $29.99 kept it out of the official Soundscan tally). Early in November, he collected his fifth CMA Entertainer of the Year award.
Still, a considerable amount has changed since Brooks was regularly getting singles to the top of the country chart – not just in the way the music industry has had to reckon with technological advances, but the sound of country music itself, having made room for cutting-edge production styles and a wide array of contemporary influences. It’s easy for a performer to lose his or her way trying to keep up.
“Your job as an artist is make sure that vein of why people even listen to you in the first place is in every record you make,” he says. “An album has to be who you are at the time you’re making it. What kills me is we’re kind of known as the traditional country artists now, because when we started out, they wanted to hang us because they didn’t think we were anything near traditional country music.”
Gunslinger appropriately situates him much closer in sound to his Nineties heyday. There are guitar-driven barnburners that recall the wild abandon of “Ain’t Goin’ Down ‘Til the Sun Comes Up,” along with booze-soaked waltzes and heart-on-sleeve odes to love and marriage. There are no drum loops or electronic textures oddly shoehorned in – just the kind of relatable, story-driven songwriting and surefooted singing that helped propel him into the stratosphere beginning in 1989.
Brooks’ previous album Man Against Machine was released in 2014 under a label agreement with Sony’s RCA Records and, while the release stuck to his bread and butter, musically speaking, its singles fell short of his former chart glory. Gunslinger adds a business-side tweak now that Brooks is working independently, bypassing traditional label functions with retail partnerships and his own promotion team. The joyful, euphemistic “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance” is currently inside the Top 30, making the most of a committed performance and an expertly crafted hook despite the uphill battle of promotion.
“I’ve said since day one and I’ll stand by it forever: radio is the window between the artist and the people who allow that artist to be an artist,” he says. “I don’t think you do it without radio. They can laud streaming all they want, but still the discovery process is going to be terrestrial radio, it just is.”
Brooks wrote more than any previous album for Gunslinger, surpassing even 1995’s Fresh Horses with nine out of 10 songs to his credit. Man Against Machine had just two songs from his pen, a fact that did not go unnoticed by his fans. Gunslinger is a corrective in that sense, tapping into a wealth of stories he accumulated during his years of self-imposed retirement to raise his daughters. “Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, they will let me know,” he says, “but if I am accurate in hearing what I heard out there, here comes the answer.”
Among them are “He Really Loves You,” a heart-pounding drama for husbands who have trouble expressing their feelings that is inspired by Brooks’ time being the lone father at youth soccer practice with all the wives. And “Whiskey to Wine,” with wife Trisha Yearwood, is a Jones-Wynette style duet chronicling an addictive-but-toxic relationship. Later in the album, he looks back fondly at his younger days of burning the candle at both ends in “Cowboys and Friends.”
“[That] was my life from the ages 21 to 25,” Brooks says. “That was my life every day, the way that song goes. Just your buddies, that’s it. And nothing that went on outside your world mattered – world affairs, nothing.”
There’s a thread of salvation that runs through the whole thing, whether it’s in the redemptive power of going out with “Honky Tonk Somewhere,” the healing aspects of love in “Baby, Let’s Day Down and Dance” or the ultimate, spiritual revival of a soul in “8teen.” Brooks relates that feeling to being back in the saddle as a touring artist, initially being uncertain how much demand he’d see and then being scared to let anyone go home from a show feeling disappointed or not included. So far, he’s had massive success announcing one city at a time, then playing multiple dates – sometimes in one night – in that market. At this point, only dates in Cincinnati, January 21st to 29th, and Memphis on February 4th have been revealed as the tour prepares to wind down in 2017.
“We’ve rounded the corner,” he says. “You’ll see the end in sight and the cities will start getting even more frantic, which is always the joyous ride. This is our third global world tour and if it ends like the other two did, it’s gonna be a race to the finish.”
Because for Brooks, it’s always been more about the journey than the finish line – even if it does run a little behind schedule.