Garth Brooks is sitting on a mustard-yellow sofa in the bowels of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, three hours before playing Show No. 386 of his 390-date tour. He slowly reads the stats off a huge plaque bearing his name propped up against the wall: “390 performances. 78 cities. 6.4 million tickets.”
His three-year arena run, which started Sept. 4, 2014, ends Dec. 23 as the top-selling North American tour ever logged by an artist. Following a hiatus that lasted over a decade, Brooks returned to the road to pent-up demand, playing up to 11 shows in some cities, and averaging 80,000 tickets per town.
Though Brooks’ promoter, Ben Farrell, does not report Brooks’ concert grosses to Billboard Boxscore, the highest North American tally Boxscore could find for any other artist was U2’s 2009-2011 360 tour, which sold more than 2.7 million tickets.
The numbers mean a lot to Brooks, the RIAA’s top-selling solo artist, and he’s happy to reflect on the past three years and express tremendous gratitude that “the people showed up.” But he is looking forward, not back. Hinting at new deals to be made and new fields to be conquered, Brooks has plans that will take him into 2021.
In an expansive interview with Billboard, Brooks seems to have total recall of every show on the tour, and of nearly every fan. For other artists, a tour may be a blur, but not for Brooks, who remembers shows with great detail. He’s less specific when it comes to what’s ahead, loath to spoil any announcements, which will start rolling out in February.
But in his excitement, he hints at a number of big things to come — including a potential deal with YouTube that would allow his videos and music on the platform for the first time. Read below.
Your three-year tour is coming to an end with seven shows in Nashville. Do you want to keep going?
Oh yeah. Playing is the most fun part. The most un-fun part is the business.
You are ending the tour with your first No. 1 single on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in 10 years with “Ask Me How I Know,” as well as Part 1: The First Five Years, the first volume of your 5-part multi-media Anthology, hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums Chart. How does that set you up for what comes next?
I’ll say this as sweetly as I can, so it doesn’t sound ungrateful — never let the tail wag the dog. You’re thankful for the No. 1s, but you still do the best music that you can do. Was “Mom” a No. 1 record? Yes. Was it on the charts? No it wasn’t. [The song peaked at No. 32.] Was “People Loving People” a No. 1 record? Yes. Was it on the chart? No. [The song peaked at No. 19]. So I think you just have to do what you do. Whether someone gives you a No. 1 or not, you must approach everything like it’s the best you can do at the time that you’re doing it, and that continues for us.
How have you changed in the past three years?
If anything has changed, it’s a bigger level of gratefulness. Physically, I’m a little tired, but I hate to admit that…This band and crew have been exhausted for the last year and a half.
Bruce Springsteen talks about how no matter exhausted he is, the walk from the dressing room to the stage always invigorates him, and it has never failed him.
It never will. This tour, it had to be Lincoln, Nebraska [in late October] and I said, “I can’t believe I’m this close to the finish, but I just can’t get that motor running.” I came on out [from under the stage]. “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance” is the opening song, and I look to my left and there’s two girls. One of them is just screaming her head off, the other one is just bawling her eyes out [Brooks tears up] and it hits me she’s crying because she’s here. I should be crying because I’m here.
The rest of this tour has just been this 8,000-mile-an-hour slide that’s just going downhill and it’s wonderful. For that moment, that little girl saved everything for me. She was younger than my daughters, but it was just neat seeing the innocence, all from the first song, for the fact that we were all here. That’s what I get to do every night and so you feel very thankful.
What are you going to miss?
I’m going to miss the guys. You don’t do 390 performances with people you don’t want to see every day. I’ve got one more week as the captain of the ship to make sure everyone gets home safe. Seeing these people get back to their families after three years of running the road, that’s pretty cool.
You’re the captain, You can see port from here.
“You guys text me when you get home safe to your own houses. Then you’re not my responsibility!” [Laughs.]
You have a female tour manager and two female assistant production managers, as well as other women on the crew. How important is it for you to have a diverse crew?
You got somebody who will work their ass off and get the job done. Does it matter whether they’re black, white, male, female, gay, straight, what religion they are? Get your job done. Get. Your. Job. Done. Pull the weight, and if someone goes down right beside you, get their job done too. That’s the rule here. So if you’re female and you can do whatever it takes, you’re hired. if you’re a male and you can do whatever it takes, you’re hired.
One of the highlights of this tour is what you call “Housekeeping,” where you, usually alone with your guitar, end the show by playing song requests on signs held up by audience members. What has that meant to you?
A lot of it is the sincerity with which they present. There are people who are doing it to bring attention to themselves, but 99 percent of them are doing it to bring attention to the song or what that song means to them. All it does is slow down the mechanism and become one on one.
In Yankee Stadium [in July, 2016], when you slow down the mechanism in right field and it had rained all night, and there was a little girl with a sign for “You Move Me” — her sign’s about to fall apart and she’s soaking wet. You stop everything and the crowd allows her to have her moment. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s why you picked up the guitar in the first place.
Because of ticket demand and venue availability, in many cities you played two shows a day, often not ending until 2 a.m. You sent the crews into overtime. Was that a concern?
[My production manager] looks at me and goes, “If you go past this, it’s overtime.” I look at him and he says, “I know what you’re going to say, but I feel I have to tell you every time.” You play. And when you’re done, you look at the clock. This is what I love about the [local] crews: When they see what you give, man, they’re the first guys when you come off stage. They’ve got their hands out, you’re shaking hands. You know you just put them behind three hours on a load out. They’ve got nothing but respect for you, they’re telling you, ‘Thank you.” It’s a cool love between a local crew and a touring band.
Even with the overtime, you’ve kept most of your tickets, including fees, around $70 — five to ten times less than most superstar deals. What do you know about touring that other superstar acts don’t?
I would love to tell you that it’s some kind of intelligence, some kind of business sense. I’d love that to tell you that my four years [playing a solo show at Las Vegas’s The Wynn] with Steve Wynn I learned how to become a businessman, but it would taste a lie. I think it is just purely ego-driven on my part. Just so you can see more people. There’s nothing cooler than playing for 18,000 people and when you say goodbye, those 18,000 people are ushered out and there’s a new set of 18,000 people there two hours later. How does it get more egotistical than that?
Nobody feels better after two shows than I do, because it’s a bunch of love coming right back toward the stage. I guess that’s why I do it. [As] the last of six kids, I always wanted to be part of something. I always wanted to be a teammate and I feel like I get to in this group.
You had to cancel three shows in Tampa in 2015 because of the the Stanley Cup finals, but, remarkably, you didn’t cancel any other dates on the tour for illness or personal reasons.
No, the show always goes on. We’ve never canceled a date. I think the bus broke down on Easter Sunday morning and we couldn’t get it fixed, and missed a gig in Chattanooga in ’89.
The way this stage is set up, you couldn’t even run off to the side and throw up if you were sick.
You go underneath the stage and throw up and come back. Didn’t do that this tour. You throw up right before you go on stage and right afterward, but never had to go off stage and do anything… But I’m telling you, once you’re out there, you’re Superman.
How are you going to keep fans engaged after the tour is over? They can’t go on YouTube and watch your videos, because you have an issue with how YouTube compensates song creators.
Because they can’t go on YouTube and watch the video today does not mean they cannot go on YouTube and watch the video tomorrow. [Utilizing] the new technologies without sacrificing the old-school beliefs, those days are getting closer.
What does that mean?
Individual deals with different technology companies, but built solely on one thing — what works best for the music and the artist.
So are you going to make a deal with YouTube?
I can tell you I’d like to… It if happens, if’s going to happen [based on] what’s best for the song and the people who created the song. You can bet on that… as long as it benefits the people who created it, as well as it benefits the people who enjoy listening to it.
Do you have a timetable?
Garth Brooks is a single artist, he’s not Universal, he’s not Sony, so I understand if they’re not in the biggest rush to get it done.
In almost every city on tour, you had a sports camp with underprivileged kids and pro athletes through your foundation, Teammates for Kids. How important was that to you?
I hate to put anything in front of the music. With that said, man, watching these babies — you don’t even know if they’ve eaten in a while — they come from these clubs that try to take care of them so much, like Boys and Girls Clubs. You see these 350-pound offensive tackles in the grass with these five-year-olds playing football. You sit there and cry the whole time and you love it. It is the most important work, other than being a husband and a father, I’ve ever gotten to do. And my whole message was love.
What happens after you walk off stage on Dec. 23?
For the first two or three weeks I’m not going to feel guilty about just sleeping the whole time, but then when you wake up, you look in that mirror, and say, “I’m breathing. What am I supposed to do?”
You’re already slated to play the Houston Rodeo and Stagecoach next year. You keep hinting you’re going into stadiums. What’s that plan?
I can’t tell you, but it’s so fucking cool.
Are you touring Australia and Europe in 2018?
It doesn’t look like it’s going to be able to be pulled together by then. I gotta tell you, I have a circle to complete and that circle is not getting any nearer.
Do you mean playing in Dublin after you had to cancel your five shows there in 2014? [Brooks sold 400,000 tickets to five shows in Dublin’s Croke Park stadium, but after the Dublin City Council would only issue permits for three shows, all five were canceled]
[Nods.] I hope that Ireland will never give up on me.
You tried again recently and you couldn’t make it work. Why can’t you go to another stadium in Dublin?
Because we have a chance to make what was wrong right. You can’t make it right anywhere else because of the sheer numbers.
A lot of things with international is, “How do you want to go over there?” Do you want to go over there as someone who is working something current or do you want to go over there as someone who is an artist from the past? I’ve never enjoyed being an artist from the past. We need to start working current music in the places that we’d like to go.
Could you make some appearances at festivals in Europe this year?
Is that how you do the promo trip to set up the big visit? [Grins.]
The next part in The Anthology is the live volume. You’ve also been talking about a new live album. Will they come out in 2018?
The beautiful thing about The Anthology and the live [album] is they can come out to coincide with each other, but what I really want to make people understand is the [five-part] Anthology is The Anthology. It is not the Garth Brooks product for the next five years. We’re going to be making new music through all of this as well, while The Anthology is running.
So the live album is coming out in 2018?
We’re going to see. Contracts in our lives and as an artist are coming to an end in 2018… In 2018, there are going to be some major decisions for us and that will determine a lot of what the schedule is. You’re trying to make the best decisions for the music and whomever owns those copyrights.
Are you writing new music?
Yes. What I love about it is it’s writing with writers you’ve written with, it’s writing with new people, and then what’s fun is to take those new people and the old writers and put them in a room without you, and then put them in a room with you and see what they do.
Will there be another single from Gunslinger?
I’m not at liberty to say yet.
You won Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards this year for a record sixth time. How was this win different from the previous times?
it completed the circle for me. Three world tours, three back-to-back wins in each tour. The first world tour [I won in] 1991 and 1992, then 1997 and ’98 and this one, 2016 and 2017.
Were you surprised you won?
Yes, because right before Reba announced it, I looked at my wife and said, “I just don’t feel it,” and Reba goes, “Garth Brooks.” I was like “Wow, never more happy to be wrong.”
I have never felt more like part of the business than I have right now. I’ve never felt more welcome. It brings a calling with it to be there to talk with the younger artists if they want. Hopefully you’re coming off as someone who’s got a really good grip on who they are at this point. That I will attribute to God and Trisha Yearwood. It’s funny how once you find that person you are, you notice all the other stuff that you were letting in before, because you were kind of lost on who you are. But having a good sound idea of who you are kind of keeps everything in focus.
Is there something you learned during this tour that you did not know going in?
They’re still there [tears up]. The music made the leap. I’m proud of it. There’s a new generation. Sweet.
What does the next five years look like for you?
It’s going to be nothing but joy for me music-wise. The people, the industry, has made the mistake of letting me back in. My retiring days are behind me and I just want to run, run, run.