Garth Brooks on Coming Out of Semi-Retirement and Wanting to Beat U2's Touring Record 'for Country Music's Sake'

Ben Krebs
Garth Brooks onstage at New York’s Yankee Stadium on July 8, 2016.

Garth Brooks arguably was the biggest solo artist on the planet when, in October 2000, he announced that he would retire to Oklahoma until the youngest of his three daughters graduated high school. Though he periodically emerged for brief, sold-out runs at arenas and, from 2009 to 2013, played a 186-show acoustic Las Vegas residency with his wife, the country star Trisha Yearwood, Brooks remained out of the public eye.

When the couple’s daughter Allie opted to attend Belmont University in Nashville, Brooks, 54, moved back and reassembled his touring team as promised. Since launching in September 2014, the Garth Brooks World Tour has moved an estimated 4.5 million tickets (Brooks does not report his touring data), playing as many as 11 shows, often two in one day, in 48 North American cities through July. U2 holds the all-time attendance record of 7.3 million, according to Boxscore.

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In November 2014, Brooks -- RIAA-certified as the top-selling artist in U.S. history, with 137 million albums sold -- released Man Against Machine, his first new studio album in 13 years, which already has gone platinum. In June, he signed a deal for global representation with William Morris Endeavor, and SiriusXM’s Garth Channel will launch with a private show at the Ryman Auditorium on September 8. Also coming this fall: two new albums, including a collection of Christmas duets with Yearwood, and a Man Against Machine follow-up.

In his first in-depth interview since his return, Brooks spoke from his Allentown studio in Nashville on a rare break from the tour. Even he seems baffled by the enthusiasm for his comeback, which he says exceeds even his ’90s-era commercial peak: “This current thing is just stupid. I can’t explain it.”

While you were away in “retirement” for those 14 years or so, did you pay attention to the music marketplace, or did you completely disengage?

Well, you’ve got three daughters, they’re all at the age where they’re consuming music left and right, so you couldn’t ignore what was happening. Also, it could have been the most important time ever in the history of music with the birth of the iPod, and even though Apple was a company before this, here comes iTunes. You can’t ignore that; you could be in a cave and that would be in your life every day.

On the rare occasions you did perform during the off-time, demand was super strong. So you must have had an idea you could come back and do at least solid business.

Well, solid business to us would have been half of what we did in the ‘90s. I’m not kidding, half of what we did in the ‘90s and we’d be scratching our heads saying, “I can’t believe we’re getting to do this.” But not these numbers, man. I wish I had an explanation for it, but I’m clueless.

When did you start laying out this basic blueprint of what you would do?

My daughter, our youngest, came to us at the beginning of her junior year [in high school] and she said, “Dad, I really think I want to go to Belmont [University in Nashville], where Miss Yearwood went to school.” That was it, because we were going to spend the rest of our lives in Oklahoma. I’m sitting there going, “Holy cow, she wants to go to Nashville. This might be the perfect opportunity to move back with her.” So we started making calls just to see who was there. I lost two of my guys to death, but I got all of the rest of ‘em back.

Was it like a Blues Brothers thing -- “Let’s get the band back together”?

(Laughs) Your first calls are going to be to your core guys, so Mike Palmer, drummer since day one, David Gant, piano player since day one. You’re gonna call Dan Heins, sound guy since day one, David Butzler, lighting guy since day one; Brad Wathne, stage designer. Brian Petree, production manager since day one. These are the guys you’re going to make the first calls to, because they’re the guys you just can’t imagine touring without. They started all coming back as positive, so I started reaching out for more and more, and here they came. Miss Yearwood and I merged our bands, so her guitar player, Johnny Garcia, since day one, Steve Cox, her piano player for the last 22 years, and put them all together with the band that we have. The rookie on the tour is 22 years in, so it’s pretty good.

How long did it take to get your mojo back?

When we came back, I was being humble saying, “Give me four to six months.” I [was sure] it would take me two weeks, but I wanted to protect myself. Four to six months in, I was nowhere close. I was stunned how long it took me to get back to playing. It was New Orleans, Houston, right around then, which was July of last year. It probably took me 14 to 15 months to start to really kind of feel like, “OK, my legs are underneath me again now.”

Was it about getting your chops back, your endurance, your timing?

No, man, I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain this, so forgive me if I can’t. There’s a saying that you live by, and that is, “The fan should live in the moment, the entertainer should live in the moment before.” And getting to that moment before, I just couldn’t do it. I was hearing things at the same time that people in the seats were, I could not get ahead of the game to get it laid out and kind of take charge of it. Thank God I was with people who protect you and love you up there on stage, and they just kept coddling me until I could be a leader. But, man, it took forever until I could feel like I was in control of the steering wheel for a little bit.

The fans have welcomed you back. Do you feel like Nashville has too?

The industry has become a very small place, so you either belong to one of three labels, basically, or you’re going to be doing it yourself out there. Everybody at Sony was great. But when you think about what makes their money -- streaming, downloads and touring -- I can’t help them in any of that stuff, because I don’t stream, I own my own masters and when we tour, we tour independently. The business has changed, so my thing is just focus on the things you can control and the people will decide what they want to see happen.

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You priced your tickets relatively low, one price for all, and have played so many shows that fans didn’t have to turn to resellers.

The ticket prices [are] really low, well, maybe compared to The Rolling Stones. Think about it: You never go to a concert by yourself, so whatever your ticket price is, immediately double it. Parking is as much as the ticket in some places. Double it again if you’re having a babysitter, plus dinner. That’s a honking expensive night. So you take that into your thinking when you’re pricing your tickets.

As for one price, I have never enjoyed playing a hall where the people on the floor were the rich people, and it never has made for a great crowd. If my kid said, “Hey, Dad, how come we’re not sitting down there?” and I had to say, “We can’t afford it,” that would break my heart. So I just wanted it to be luck of the draw.

It appears to have worked. There aren't many tickets for sale on the secondary market.

You know this business better than anybody else -- you know next week they might be done with you. So if they’re going to create so much demand that you have to play two shows a night, thank you God, let’s go do it. And when you talk about the secondary market, I’m still gonna put our secondary market up against anybody else’s on percentage of what they get for tickets compared to what they paid for them. I don’t have anything to do with it, but the Ghost Tunes guys, the company that we’re running, they do this VIP thing, and I’m stunned how many VIP packages they sell, because the price of those is anything but cheap. Vegas, I bet we had 50 to 100 VIP packages in that city alone, that’s crazy.

I can’t explain why these people are showing up in the way they’re showing up, I’m just happy. So if that means we’ve got to do two shows a night for five nights in a row, you’re not going to hear any bitching, you’re gonna hear me say, “Thank you God, thank you people, let’s go out and turn it up.” And they know what your schedule is, so when you go out there all beat up and you don’t have a voice, they don’t care, they’ll sing for you. It’s a wonderful attitude these people are showing up with.

When you throw in these two-shows-in-one-day dates, how hard is that?

Garth Brooks is surrounded by people who spoil him on the road. There is a person for every job -- I don’t have to grab a tissue to sneeze; they’ve got it taken care of. To me, two shows a night is like eating two helpings of ice cream. How does it get better than this? Do it twice a night, that’s how it gets better.

Another strategy on this tour is only announcing dates a few weeks ahead of the show date. What was the thought process there?

A lot of it is we’re all part of an industry, so to parachute in on somebody doesn’t work, nor does having somebody parachute in on you. I don’t know if you ever met my brother Kelly. He was the guy who said, “Hey, man, let’s just wait, so for five or six weeks you’re the talk of this town.” It kind of makes the town its own kind of special event when it’s quick like this. What [Steve] Wynn taught me in my four years with him is “destination.” The reason Vegas is such a success in the entertainment field is destination, so make each city its own destination. Announce it closer to the thing, so for six weeks it’s all a big party, when the shows come to pay off that party. It makes for a really great atmosphere, and it allows other artists to come and go at their own pace without you crossing over them or them crossing over you.

Talk about your on-sale process, where you sell to a certain point and then roll into another show before the previous one sells out. Is there a science to it?

Our [tour promoter] Ben Farrell and the guys at Ticketmaster have come up with this system. How they explain it to me, what used to happen is, if you got in line for a show and that show sold out, you got kicked out, which meant you had to get back in line and were probably at the back of the line for another show. So they’ve come up with this system, we’re very lucky in that they built it for us specifically, in the fact that if your show sells out, you immediately get in line for the next show, nobody gets in front of you. That hopefully makes your seats better, you’ve waited longer than anybody else, so you should be in the front of that line. As they explained it to me, they’re finding less people are falling out and you’re getting to serve more people at a quicker rate. I have noticed at on-sales since they introduced this system about five or six cities ago that on-sales are over twice as fast as they used to be on this tour, and they’ve moved great numbers of tickets.

Are you pleased with how the whole ticketing thing has worked?

As long as you make more available than people want, as long as you follow that rule, if you don’t mind playing to five-and-a-half shows instead of five sold-out shows -- then I think you can give people what they want. They’ll choose how much they want to pay to get tickets where they know where the seats are, like secondary markets [allow]. 

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The all-time attendance record held by U2 would seem to be within reach. Do you want that?

I would like it for country music’s sake. We’re 20 months into this tour and we’re at 4.5 [million], so I feel really lucky to be where we’re at right now. If the people keep showing up, so be it. If the people stop showing up I don’t have anything to bitch about -- it’s been a great run.

Do you plan to go international?

The guys from Australia came and talked to us. Australia’s a great place to tour. And festivals are becoming the way to tour outside the U.S. for a band that doesn’t want to take 800 zillion people and 1,400 trucks and all that stuff. If you can get on one of those festival runs where it books out right, you could see a lot of people and not have a lot of costs to drive tickets up.

Looking at the five Croke Park shows in Dublin that were supposed to launch your return, and then ultimately didn’t happen, is that something you’d like to revisit?

I can tell you next to losing my Mom, that might have been the hardest day ever for me in music. That’s how much it hurt. I just don’t get it, to this day I scratch my head, I cannot figure this one out. I don’t know what the future holds there, but I can tell you this, [Aiken Promotions chief] Peter Aiken, I’ll put him in the same class as his father [founder Jim], you’re talking about a good, good man. 

I hear that some of the staging at the Yankee Stadium shows was originally intended for the Croke Park run.

Yeah, the Irish Ring, the big circle, was for that, because the Gaelic football fields, you could put three NFL football fields on that. So it was meant to get out among those people. They do standing there, they don’t do seats, so in Ireland it was 8,000 in the ring, 20,000 outside the ring, and then another 50,000-something in the stands. That’s what it was originally built for, and it worked well at center field in New York.

You recently signed with William Morris Endeavor Entertainment in Nashville. Why did you decide to go that way after booking in-house for years?

When we started, we pieced it together over the years, we just didn’t turn the light switch on. It’s the same way coming back -- it’s taking us a year-and-a-half of out there getting ready to release this second record. This is kind of like the sophomore record starting all over again, those guys over at William Morris have been great to me, they have through the whole years of raising our babies. [WME Nashville co-head] Rob Beckham tells the story he was working in Montana at a building when we came through and it made him want to come to Nashville, so he’s got some sweet Garth-related stories of why he’s doing what he’s doing, which makes you fall in love with him, because you want to work with guys that believe.

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You’re out on the road with your wife. How challenging are the “honey-dos”?

(Laughs.) Anything she asks is an honor to do -- all I want to do is see her smile. So she doesn’t have a long “honey-do” list. I think she makes up things just so I can feel proud to do something for her, because she knows how much I love her.

What’s the direction of the new music?

The one question I keep getting asked on this tour is “Where’s your pen? Where’s the Garth stuff you had a hand in writing?” I didn’t trust my own pen on the last record, because it had been 15 years since I had used that muscle. So I kind of holed myself up about six months ago and started forcing myself to write every day, then started to get enough courage to call writers and sit down with them and start learning the process all over again. So this new record will probably be the most Garth thing I’ve ever done -- whether that’s good or bad, the people will decide that. But I’m all over this next record.

You’ve always been socially conscious. What’s an artist’s responsibility in these challenging times?

Making music. If you would have been there Friday night in New York [at the Yankee Stadium show], that was right after [the police shooting in] Dallas. When you talk to people, you can tell they’re all frustrated, you can tell they all are hurting, from Dallas and Orlando, and every day in the news. The simple thought of [Man Against Machine single] “People Loving People,” you would have not believed it -- it’s a new song, not one of the old ones, [and the audience] made it theirs and sang their asses off. It’s going to be the highlight of the whole [as-yet-unscheduled TV special]. You’ll see the joy in their faces getting to communicate that frustration, that love, that passion, through music.

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Do you want to have a hit song on the radio, and do you write and record toward that end, or do you just follow your instincts?

I think you’ve just got to be who you are. The people have always allowed that to be enough, I’ve been very lucky that way. And it’s also a good indicator of where you’re at in your life. Just be yourself. Being somebody else is always an act, and you always have to remember stuff. But being yourself you just get to be the same ol’ lazy, slobbish kind of guy that you are.

How do you see your musical legacy in Nashville?

The writers on this last album, I noticed even on the stuff I didn’t write, that there was something familiar about it, the way they would phrase it, the way they would turn their melodies around. One kid said, “Hey man, I was raised on your stuff, so naturally if I’m gonna write, I’m gonna write from your influence anyway.” Maybe that’s why a lot of that stuff was really easy for me to sing, even though my hand wasn’t on the pen. As far as the live show, people come up to you and say “Somebody’s doing what you did.” I always stop them and say, “Hey, man, I ripped everything off Chris LeDoux I possibly could.” I think what you do is keep handing it down, generation to generation. 

What keeps you motivated to do two shows a day five days in a row?

Truthfully, and this is not a statement of humbleness, my bucket list has one thing on it: just one more day like today. It’s going to be over before I want it to be, and all the money in the world ain’t going to buy you another day. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 6 issue of Billboard