During his commercial peak years in the 1990s, Garth Brooks was a staunch defender of country radio, famously resisting Capitol Records’ efforts to work his singles at top 40 and even promoting the medium in a full-page ad in USA Today — “New Garth Brooks music — only on country radio” — six weeks before his album Fresh Horses was available in stores.
Now, as a post-retirement Brooks finds the going a little tougher at terrestrial country radio, he becomes a radio executive in his own right with his own outlet on SiriusXM satellite radio. The Garth Channel launched Sept. 8 with a much-publicized concert at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, Brooks’ first full show at a venue that served as the central home for the Grand Ole Opry for more than 40 years.
The channel, of course, provides numerous benefits. There’s the prestige of having a dedicated, branded outlet on pay radio, a status reserved for such artist as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Kenny Chesney and Willie Nelson. It guarantees his music will be available to listeners on an ongoing basis, and likewise guarantees a certain level of performance royalties for the songwriters of his music, including Brooks himself. It also means he’ll have a place to expose the music he’s currently recording when it’s ready this fall, regardless of how terrestrial programmers react.
“It’s not going to be a high-pressure thing,” said Brooks, who’s assembling a radio promotion team to work his music independently, during a press conference at SiriusXM’s Nashville studios. “If it works for [radio], great, run with it. If it doesn’t, we’ll play it on our channel.”
If that’s not enough, the rollout — particularly the Ryman performance — provided a timely opportunity to remind some industry members of his showmanship and his stature with the public. More than one Music Row observer noted that the concert came a scant eight days after he was nominated for entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association.
The show was indeed impressive. Filled mostly with SiriusXM subscribers, the audience was enthusiastic, on its feet for most of the concert with nearly everyone singing along throughout the set. A uniformed Marine was notably animated, spitting out almost every word of “Rodeo” with biting precision, and many others pointed raucously back at the stage as they shouted out the choruses to Brooks’ rowdy party songs, including “Friends in Low Places” and “Two Pina Coladas.” They were likewise sentimental — but still singing — on his trademark philosophical ballads, such as “The River” and “The Dance.”
During his retirement from touring, Brooks occasionally lined up special performances — such as a series of flood-relief shows in Nashville and five benefit concerts during a two-day span in Los Angeles — in which his vocal rust was frequently evident. Now back on the road for two full years, his instrument was strong and forceful during the Ryman set, which included the debut of one new song, “Whiskey to Wine,” a duet with Trisha Yearwood that hints at yet another benefit of the Garth Channel: creative freedom.
Nashville’s country community tailors its music, sometimes slavishly, to the dictates of mainstream radio. “Whiskey,” a dramatic 6/8 ballad with honky-tonk sensibilities, recalls the stark-country tone of George Jones’ duets with Melba Montgomery in the 1960s. With the Garth Channel, Brooks can invoke “the old stuff,” as he’s prone to call heritage records, in new music and know that it has a home somewhere on the airwaves.
Brooks’ relationship with traditional radio is similar to that of most country artists throughout the genre’s history. Terrestrial broadcasts were a primary inspiration for the singer, who routinely stuck a transistor radio with a St. Louis Cardinals logo under his pillow.
“I went to bed with that thing every night because that was my way out of the town I was in,” he told Billboard Country Update. “That was television for me. I’d go to sleep with that thing, listening to WKY in Oklahoma City, which broadcast the Opry live. Then you’d listen to The Cat [KATT], the rock station there. You got to hear everything. Whatever was coming in the clearest, [that’s what] you’d listen to. So that radio was my window out.”
While the monthly fee is clearly not an obstacle to him, Brooks has never been a SiriusXM subscriber, mostly out of habit.
“I’ve never been a guy that’s had this kind of stuff,” he told Billboard. “It’s just never been in our upbringing to have cool shit.”
Brooks’ stated goal for the Garth Channel is to present a mix of his music and material by other artists from multiple genres and eras. During the weekend, it consistently played two Brooks cuts followed by another act. The mix of outside performances included Kelsea Ballerini’s “Peter Pan,” Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” George Strait’s “Check Yes or No,” Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” and Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks.”
Ultimately, after sampling multiple AM and FM stations with that now-dated -ransistor radio, Brooks envisions the Garth Channel working like a more up-to-date iPod, shuffling through a playlist of music that’s unbound by era or format.
“I’m one of those guys that thinks Merle Haggard might be one of the most talented guys on the planet,” he told Billboard. “So when people go, ‘You can’t play Haggard and Bruno Mars back to back’ — au contraire, you can.”
New Garth Brooks programming. Only on the Garth Channel.