During the early months of 2014, Garth Brooks dusted off his Stetson — or, as he’s more prone to wearing these days, his Garth-branded baseball cap — and launched the biggest comeback the country-music industry has seen in years.
Technically, though, the guy came out of retirement nearly a decade ago.
After spending the Nineties becoming the best-selling country star this side of Elvis Presley, Brooks called it quits in 2000, choosing to head home to Oklahoma and focus on his family instead of his career. The original plan was to finish one last album and lay low until his youngest daughter graduated from high school in 2014, then maybe — maybe — release some more music.
The music started reappearing in 2005, though, starting with a box set that was only available at two locations — Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club — and still managed to sell more than a million copies during its first week. Two years later, Brooks started booking shows again. By 2009, he’d landed a deal with the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino, where he agreed to play an ongoing string of acoustic gigs in exchange for a private jet and a rumored $100 million paycheck.
Maybe that’s why it feels so strange to call 2014 a “comeback year” for Brooks. The guy never truly went away. Still, it’s been ages since any country artist — except maybe Taylor Swift, who isn’t calling herself “country” these days, anyway — enjoyed the sort of omnipresence Brooks has been wielding since mid-July, when he invited a group of international journalists to a press conference in Nashville and, along with enough catered food to feed all the fresh horses in the Bible Belt, served up two major announcements: 1) He was halfway through recording a new album, which would be released in a few months via a new deal with Sony Music, and 2) He was weeks away from launching a worldwide tour.
What followed was “Garth-steria”: an avalanche of headlines and TV appearances that seemed to focus not on the actual quality of the music, but rather the simple fact that Garth was back.
It didn’t matter that “People Loving People,” the first single from his new album, stalled at number 25 on the charts, making it a relative flop by Brooks’ standards. It also didn’t matter that the cover art for Man Against Machine — which featured an airbrushed, sunglassed singer who vaguely resembled the Terminator, if the Terminator wore a rope necklace instead of biker gear — showed just how out-of-touch Brooks had become with pop culture during his break from the limelight. What mattered was the fact that Brooks, who turns 53 this February, could still debut an album at Number One, without the chart-topping hits enjoyed by artists less than half his age. What also mattered was the way Brooks could transform a series of unimportant events, like finally logging onto Twitter and Facebook for the first time, into news stories that were published across the globe.
When his world tour kicked off in September, Brooks announced the shows one city at a time, turning what could been accomplished with a single press release — “Garth Brooks Launches Tour in the Following Places on the Following Days” — into a series of individual announcements that appeared every few weeks, reminding everyone that, once again, Garth was back. And just for the record, the guy came back in a big way, selling more than a million tickets during the tour’s first four months and breaking sales records in virtually every market he visited. Party on, Garth.
The guy can still sing. He still puts on a killer show. Over the years, though, Brooks has also learned how to become an expert salesman, the sort of person who places as much focus on the pitch as the actual product.
Let’s be honest — he isn’t really a man against the machine. Instead, Brooks is a man who bends the machine to his will. Take GhostTunes, an online music store that offers fans an alternative to iTunes’ rising prices. Finally accepting the fact that a musician needs to embrace the digital world in order to sell albums, Brooks started offering his music online earlier this year…but he did so via GhostTunes, a service he created himself. Meanwhile, when it came time to put together his album’s track list, he relied on another machine — Nashville’s songwriting community — to help him find tunes that bridged the gap between current trends and time-tested traditions. Brooks had spent a good portion of his July press conference promising to keep things old-school, citing bro-country and hick-hop as two genres that would not be represented on his new album. Still, he teamed up with some of the biggest architects of today’s music scene — including Kevin Kadish, who co-wrote Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” and busbee, who’s written material for King Bro Jason Aldean — for some of Man Against Machine‘s tracks.
This is Garth Brooks 2.0, a man whose mere presence feels like a throwback to the days when the thunder rolled, the vessels sailed and the whiskey chased our blues away, but whose success in 2014 owed a lot to his willingness to adapt to the modern world…even when he insisted he was staying the same.