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Brooks takes the long road

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 2015

Garth Brooks was country radio for years. But a lot has changed since Brooks went silent in 2001. Country has shifted even further away from its roots with rock and hip hop part of the landscape.

As for Brooks, he retired to spend time raising his three daughters, far away from the bright Nashville lights in Oklahoma. Yes, he did a residency in Las Vegas, but he went 12 years in between new material before releasing "Man Against Machine" in November.

Brooks indicates in an interview in Boston prior to the start of a four-night, six-show run that he had no illusions that this would not be so simple.

Yet, ticket sales have been great. He pointed out during a press conference that he had sold about 140,000 tickets for shows in Denver the previous weekend, whereas he sold about 90,000 in the late ‘90s in the Mile High City.

But not everything has gone as smooth. For example, his lead single, "People Loving People," never got higher than 25 on the Billboard charts. A second single, "Mom," rests at 49 on Billboard about 8 weeks after its release.

Brooks says in an interview that it there will be a three-pronged effort to return to the music business with touring, radio and the industry considered separate segments. With the touring underway, Brooks says his next emphasis will be on country radio.

"We're going to sit down and get some strategy in the long term," says Brooks, dressed informally in a black baseball cap and jeans. "We just started."

He said that one of the cornerstones of radio was the relationships that have been built, something he believes will help him in the long term.

Brooks says that one key way the music business has changed since he started was the lack of a long-term development plan for artists. In his day, an artist could release a number of singles that could fail to click at radio, but that did not mean the singer or band would be cut loose.

Nowadays, that's just about the kiss of death with hardly any performers able to survive a lack of radio play at least among the major labels.

"That's one of the things that I see disappearing," Brooks says, referring to the development of artist. "That just doesn't seem to be like that's the plan."

Brooks has taken control of his digital destiny by creating GhostTunes last year. The main artists featured are his wife, Trisha Yearwood, and himself. but he also sells the music of others. Artists are given the freedom to sell what songs they want and how they want – meaning in different configurations. Brooks says that he has been satisfied with GhostTunes, but intends to expand it soon with movies and books.

"That's all coming, he says at a press conference prior to the interview. "You're seeing the first phase of it."

"It's been a fun ride so far," Brooks says.

Part of Brooks' re-entry has been his engagement in social media, something he previously eschewed. He now is on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He said social media "lets you do your own thing when you're ready to do it…I love making mistakes. Otherwise, how are you going to learn?"

And now Brooks is converted. "The only regret I have is not getting into it sooner," he says.

Hitting the road again clearly is part of the fun. "It's really humbling, flattering," he says of the crowds that have come out to see him since he started his world tour in September in Chicago. "To have this happen, of course, you dream it, but you never think it's going to come true."

"Before it was just your people that came to see you…You hope you're going to see people you recognize," says Brooks. But he also pointed out that he learned from TicketMaster that about "43- to 48 percent" of the fans coming out to see him have never seen him before - meaning he's not necessarily attracting old fans age-wise. "Half the arena is faces you've never seen before," he says.

Later that night, Brooks exudes a "happy to be here" attitude as the near sell-out crowd sings along and applauds often.

The biggest difference between touring now and in his previous musical life was "how loud they sing," says Brooks. He says Ireland "used to have the patent, copyright on singing," but it's a different world. Citing the chance to tour with his "best friend" (that means Yearwood), "This is the easiest, the most fun tour I've ever been on."

Brooks is in a bit of peculiar place when it comes to today's country music. While he led the huge surge in country, he also received a great deal of criticism from country traditionalists who lamented the rock and pop sounds he brought to the genre. Now, Brooks seems to incorporate more traditional country sounds (in concert, fiddle is particularly prominent) than the Florida Georgia Lines and Luke Bryans of the world.

Country has "always been influenced by other musics," says Brooks. While citing George Strait, Keith Whitley, Chris LeDoux and Merle Haggard as key influences, he also said that Queen, Dan Fogelberg and Billy Joel were part of his musical canon. Today, Bruno Mars, Adele and Pink are influences on country.

"Now, there are all kind of loops. My thing is you find what you like…What you don't' like, let go. There's plenty to choose from."

Ultimately, it's the quality of the music that's the driver of the pubic, according to Brooks. "I don't think it's about this guy," he says referring to himself in third person. "I'm not 120 pounds. I don't have a lot of hair (it's thinning). I like to think it's the music."

For Brooks, he hopes 50 years from now, given the chance to remember who Brooks is or RThe Dance,'" which remains his favorite song, he hopes it's the latter.

As for the newer breed of country artists that interest him, Brooks cites Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert. He thinks Aldean "opened up a whole new path." He says Lambert keeps changing things up other releases, which he likes. "I'm anxious to hear what the next thing she's going to do is."

Despite pointing to Lambert, he also laments the lack of female country artists making a dent. About the only ones who are making much of an impact on the charts are Carrie Underwood and Lambert. "One regret is I'm having right now is we don't have enough females on radio…We should be embarrassed. We don't have any practically."

Brooks is going to do something a little different in the music biz this year - a duets album with wife Trisha Yearwood, one of those female artists lacking airplay. The two are planning to put out a dust holiday disc in time for Christmas 2015. "We'll test the waters," Brooks said, saying it could be the prelude to a regular full-fledged studio duets disc.

Brooks is plain spoken whether talking with press or fans, who show up from Ireland specifically for the Boston gigs. But one thing he is clear about is that he's back once again for the distance. "It's a long road," he says. "No matter how you do it."