September , 2010
By David Huff
Lord of 'The Dance'
An Exclusive Interview with Garth Brooks: Part 1
It's an hour before show time, and Garth Brooks sits back in his tour bus relaxing – and reflecting – on a career path that in a span of six months has made him the toast of country music. As one of the industry's biggest and brightest stars, Brooks' humble demeanor gives way to a somewhat arrogant attitude on his outlook of the musical environment around him. But, In the World According to Garth, this Oklahoma native has for now, earned the right to interpret his surroundings any way he sees fit.
This Oklahoma State graduate will be the first to admit that Nashville simply kicked his ass the first time he set foot in Music City. Starry-eyed and filled with vim and vigor, Brooks' ego was shattered as reality set in, and 22 hours after arriving, the musician's delusions of grandeur had vanished. The Yukon, Oklahoma native hi-tailed it back home to not only reassess his goals, but take stock of his dreams as well. Two years later a different Garth Brooks emerged. With a marriage under his belt and successful band in tow, a recommitted artist returned to the city of broken dreams armed with the one thing he lacked the first time around – confidence. Ironically, the musician realized in his journey of self-discovery that 'if tomorrow never comes' then you just haven't mastered 'the dance'.
JAM: It must have been a humbling experience to come to grips with the fact you weren't as great as you thought you were upon arriving in Nashville. What did you see the second time around that escaped you on your first attempt to conquer Music City?
Garth Brooks – The first time I went to Nashville, I learned a valuable lesson most people never grasp. You have to have total commitment to your craft if you move there. I discovered – painfully I might add – that Garth Brooks is not an island, and I don't stand alone. I need people around me. When I initially left Oklahoma to go to Nashville, I had no intention of ever going back. I told my family and friends I loved them, waved goodbye and took off. I was convinced I was going off to become a millionaire and didn't need anybody to accomplish it. Boy was I wrong.
JAM: Did you totally misread not only what you were about, but how Garth Brooks was going to be received when you started making the rounds?
Yes. Music is a product in Nashville. I was much too young and naïve the first time I arrived in town. In fact, the first single off my album, "Much Too Young", was a song I'd written before I arrived in Nashville. Looking back, I don't know if my material was any different then that it is now, but one major transformation had taken place. I had gotten married between my two trips to Nashville and it shed a different light on things. A commitment like that was a good thing when it came to furthering my career, not a bad one. You see, when I first went to Nashville, marriage didn't seem a logical step to me because I thought it tied you down and hampered your goals if you weren't free. When I got married, I found out that two people could go as far as they want. JAM: So the confidence you gained from being married gave you the strength to tackle Nashville again?
Yes it did. I understood what the commitment was that Nashville wanted.
JAM: What is this commitment you keep referring too?
The first question from record company executives ask to a struggling new artist that comes to their office is this. 'How long have you been here?' They don't want to invest $100,000 in your career and then see you flip out and go home tomorrow. They want to know if you are there to fight the fight, or are you there to tell people 'Hey, I got a record deal!' Do you understand that at all?
JAM: To be honest with you, no! That type of thinking seems so backwards.
Let me put it to you this way. A kid comes into my office at the label I own. He tells me he has been in Nashville for two weeks. Now, I'm not going to sink tens of thousands of dollars into a record deal with this person on the simple fact they showed up in my office armed with songs and a voice. But, if they tell me they've been in town a year, and he has done this and done that, then I'm going to take a hard look at him. My initial impression then will be 'Yeah, he's here for the fight!'
JAM: You make it sound as though the Nashville hierarchy forces you to become an indentured servant to their system. When you have shown them enough stamina and fortitude, then you are finally given an audience before the king makers.
Record deals are a dime a dozen. It seems as though more people are getting them every day. It's hanging on to them that's the hardest part, and I'm glad it's that way. In this business, it has come way too easy for a lot of people. I'm just glad my deal went down the way it did.
JAM: And how was that?
Well, I didn't sweat, bleed and die for my contract, but I was there long enough to know it can't be done tomorrow. I never wanted to turn around again and not do this for a living.
JAM: At what point do you learn the difference between harsh reality and Nashville fantasy?
I learned the difference long before I got management. My first trip out here was the harsh reality of what Nashville was all about. It was a real eye opener. I realized right then and there that Nashville was no longer the town where you could go and strap on your guitar, sing one song, and somebody slaps you on the back with a contract then goes in and records your album.
JAM: What had given you the confidence to go to Nashville on your own in the first place?
The material I had written gave me confidence to take my career to the next level. I believed in my songs and who I was as an artist. However, when I actually got there I really didn't believe that much in me anymore.
So the reality of the situation really hit home when you arrived in town? It did, and in a big way. I was scared to death. I was in an office talking to Merlin Littlefield from ASCAP, the songwriting organization. The intercom button on his phone buzzed, and this voice comes on and says so in so is outside in a lobby and he wants to talk with you. Merlin said great, and told me I was going to meet one of the greatest songwriters in Nashville. I was thinking, 'All right! Now I will have someone to compare myself too!' Well, this guy comes into the office, and he has written songs for the last two Kansas albums. They were getting back together to work on another record and I hear the guy say, 'Merlin, I can't go until I pay a loan off!' I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, this guy is having money problems?' Merlin goes, 'How much is it?' The guy tells him $500. Now I'm sitting there thinking to myself I've just left a town where I was making $600 a week playing solo, not counting my day job up in Stillwater, Oklahoma. After the gentleman left, I looked up at Merlin and told him that I made that much money in less than a week where I was from. He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Then go back home! You aren't ready to make it here!'
JAM: I would think that confusion, more than anything else, is what sent you quickly packing from Nashville.
Let me tell you something. When I returned to Nashville two years later, my head was on straight. I was only making $300 a month off my draw writing songs while my wife worked three jobs. There was no confusion on my part as to why I was there.
JAM: I don't want this to sound rude, but I've been interviewing rock and roll bands for ten years, and those musicians know what pain and suffering for your art is all about. What you are telling me doesn't even begin to compare to what real hardship truly is.
And why is that?
JAM: From what I'm hearing out of your mouth, if you don't follow Nashville's unwritten rules, you don't stand a chance of ever making your mark in country music. It's as though Nashville is trying to control the artists that produce country by making sure they follow some archaic process that was set in stone decades ago.
Well, your observation is pretty much on the money. The thing is these people hold the keys to what you want to do.
JAM: When you went back to Oklahoma, then returned with your reinforcements two years later, were the same people who had told you to go home still holding their keys?
Yes they were. In fact, Merlin Littlefield is one of my biggest supporters today. You know, looking back, what can you say? It is what it is there.
JAM: You returned to Nashville not as some starry-eyed solo artist, but this time as a member of a fairly successful band you had formed in Stillwater.
The group was called Santa Fe.
JAM: Was there safety in numbers for Garth Brooks this time out?
That's hard to say. The group was five different guys with five different ideas on what it took to make it. We weren't ready to move to Nashville when we pulled up stakes and took off.
JAM: So once again you are out in Nashville and you suddenly realize you can accomplish more on your own than you could fronting a group.
I had no choice. The band blew up right in front of my face. Two of the guys went back to Oklahoma almost immediately leaving three of us to stay. I settled in on my songwriting, and my manager, Bob Doyle, hired me as a writer for the publishing company he had just started.
JAM: So basically, your ability to craft songs made you a valuable commodity?
I don't know if it was valuable at the time, but in getting started, the ability to write songs got my foot in the door. That's how I made a living on my second trip back to Nashville. I then went to play all seven major labels and got passed on by all of them. Even the A&R guys that eventually signed me at Capitol said no. When they finally saw me perform live, that's when they came up to me and said, 'Look we missed something.' Have you heard the album?
JAM: Yeah, I listened to it and I was quite surprised because it sounded totally different than what I envisioned a traditional country album to sound like.
Thank you very much. My brother Kelly told me the other night that I had taken a big risk musically, but it seems to be paying off. My live show is sort of a reflection of the attitude I made my album with.
JAM: Is there a reason for this?
There is a big difference between playing country music and entertaining. If you go out and play country music all night, you can entertain if you are George Strait or George Jones. It's completely different if you're a kid who only has one or two singles out. You have 90 minutes to go out there and entertain people, so you start pulling out what you know from your past. We call our style of music "cowboy rock 'n' roll". We do things with fuzzed-up loud guitars, vocals, you name it. I end my show with Don McLean's "American Pie" if that tells you anything.
JAM: Your stage set up leaves little room for security. Does that bother you?
I think it's nice. When we were playing Texarkana awhile back, I was yanked off the stage into the crowd. In Dennison, we played a club called Calhoun's. On the last song, I was playing to people four or five deep on the stage. For me, these spur-of-the-moment instances make my performance a more intense show. I love dealing with things right off the cuff, the exact moment they are happening. If somebody says something to me, then I feed off of that. I love spontaneous things. Every night before we go out, I pick somebody out of the crowd and say to myself, 'Do something tonight that is going to shock them!'
JAM: Was it chance, or luck, that landed you on the stage the night of the showcase performance that caught the attention of Capitol Records?
I was scheduled to be on the showcase, lucky I played in the slot I did. I was supposed to perform in slot seven or eight. The gentleman who was supposed to perform second didn't show up. That is who Capitol came out to see – this guy from Canada. I went on in his place, and that's when the label people came up to us afterwards and said, 'Hey, we missed something!'
JAM: I saw this quote that called Garth Brooks a new traditional contemporary. You must have really confused the hell out of Nashville for them to come up with that type of label.
Well, the thing is, when a new guy comes to town and shakes things up a bit; they have to figure out what to call the music. That's all they know to do. People hate to deal with the unknown in country music, so they slap a label on it so they can rest a little easier. It is like, 'Okay, at least we know what kind of music this guy sings now!' Only time will really tell you what I am. If you think they are confused now, wait until my next album comes out. I don't even know if there is a label for what I do.
JAM: Did it take a long time to put your debut album together, or is it a collection of songs from your past?
Your first record always is a collection from the past. For the second album I've been working on, it seems as though the innocence has lessened for me to an extent. The first one seemed like a real young kid telling country stories, like "Alabama Clay" and "Cowboy Bill". The album I'm currently recording doesn't have so much of a mature feel to it, but does deal with more 'ways of the world' types of songs. For instance, there's a song that deals with a man who gets caught cheating on his wife and she kills him. The thing is – that song isn't just every day life – it is every day real life. Later this summer my second album comes out and it is going to reflect a lot more current, every day things in our lives.
JAM: As a solo artist, do you find it easier to conform musically to your surroundings so as to reflect the moods and feelings of the times you live in?
No I don't. I truly believe a musician's toughest competition for love of their wife, or family, is their love of music. If you are married to a musician, you better be prepared to go through hell, because these people do not give up. Music is so important to them they will fight for it to the end. I think this attitude prevails on everybody in music, no matter what form it is. But no, I don't think you're born a rock and roller or a country musician.
JAM: Your comment that Nashville is 90 percent sadness and ten percent happiness is a tremendous statement about hopes and dreams, especially when it pertains to the country music industry in that town.
There are people leaving that city every day with their head's down that have ten times the talent I have, but they just couldn't cut it there. That's what I meant by the statement. It's amazing the kind of talent that travels to Nashville. The sad thing is one out of every 100 gets the dream. Of that, one out of every 1,000 actually makes it.
JAM: So was Garth Brooks born lucky?
The good Lord has smiled on me my whole life. I am not saying I deserved it, but I am blessed that it happened.
JAM: When you speak, whether it pertains to your music or life in general, is it a reflection of the environment in which you grew up?
I don't know. My parents took a big responsibility. The surroundings I was brought up in were very real life to me. There were real problems there with real lives involved. As for some one else brought up in a different environment, they face their own set of problems. The basic gist of this thing is that we are all in this thing together to live that dream, to dance that dance.
JAM: I am very surprised that you are married.
JAM: The life of a musician is difficult, especially in the early stages. The road tests you every day. You are considered one of the hottest country stars today. If you tell me that the grind of traveling from city to city it not as grueling as fighting off the advances of beautiful women, then you are a liar.
Well, let's get one thing straight first. These guys that work with me, the great thing about them is they're not into this for money, because we hardly get paid while we're on the road. This group is all about the music. Second, you are right about temptation. It is big out here, and it ain't just for me either. All but two of us are married and sure it's a big temptation. If women's eyes do light up when my name is mentioned, it has a lot to do, I believe, with the performance I give out there on the stage.
JAM: Did you drift into country music by accident?
No, it was always around my house. I was fortunate enough that I'm the last of six kids, and my oldest brother is 15 years younger than my mom and dad. There was never really any kind of gap in music in my house. It went from George Jones and Haggard for my dad to Tom Rush, Townes Van Zandt, Joan Baez, Rita Coolidge for my sister, my brother is a big James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg fan, and I'm a big Fleetwood Mac, Buffett, Queen, Kansas, Journey and Boston fan. The tightness of those late '70s, early '80s groups was unbelievable.
JAM: I'm a little bit surprised for a country artist to admit his biggest musical influences growing up were rock bands.
My dream right now is to not equal the Rolling Stones or Beatles. Honestly, my goal is to simply have a better career than anybody ever hard. If you're not out here to be the best that there's ever been in God's time, then why are you out here at all?
JAM: Those are pretty heady words for a guy with just one album under his belt. Country music and rock travel entirely different roads, and they always will.
Well certainly a lot of it has to do with the loyalty of the fans that come out to see you in concert and buy your records. The people that love country music are die-hard fans. When it comes to rock and roll, it's sort of like who's the flavor of the month. I know this is going to sound crazy to you, but I'm trying to combine elements of rock into my music. Now, whether or not this strategy works we'll just have to wait and see. Have you ever seen my show?
JAM: No. This is my first introduction to anything Garth Brooks.
I think you will be very surprised by the song selection you hear tonight.
JAM: With that type of answer, you must be looking forward to your dates with Hank Williams, Jr. If your club shows rock, playing before 10 to 12,000 rowdy Hank Jr. fans every night should be exciting.
I turned those dates down.
JAM: You have got to be kidding me?
Hank Jr. has a musical direction he wants to go in that I don't. He has a choice for what he is using his gift for I don't agree with.
JAM: That comment makes absolutely no sense. You are two different individuals. Your music is a reflection of Garth Brooks. His is a reflection of Hank Jr. That my friend is cut and dry!
I cannot work with a man I don't believe in just for the money. I can't say, 'Yeah, I'll do the show with him, the dirty son-of-a-bitch!' That isn't me. That is not how I was brought up. He has his direction – I have mine. Personally, I wish Hank the best of luck.
JAM: Let me see if I have this straight. You are telling me you'd rather perform in every small town honky-tonk in America, than go on the road with Hank Jr. to open for thousands of people every night, simply because you disagree with a man's musical direction? By the way, even I know he's part of Nashville's royalty because of his father.
The first interview I ever did somebody asked me a question similar to that. All I have done is shown up and do what I love to do. Everyone you see here works their dog-ass off around me, and that's how it is.
JAM: Thanks for the non answer Garth. I hate to spring this news on you, but I don't care whether you play rock music or sing country songs, when you sign your first contract, you work your ass off to get your music in front of people. To sit here and declare yourself special is not only arrogant, but could very well lead you down a path of self-destruction.
This business if full of opinions, and right now you think my attitude towards Hank Jr. reflects a rather cocky one. There's a good chance when people read your article, they too are going to wonder what in the world I'm talking about. You see, my attitude towards a particular performer doesn't seem arrogant to me. I am being very honest, and I believe I owe that type of honesty to someone like Hank Williams, Jr. Here's the thing. I am not going to sit here and say I don't really care for what he does, then turn around and use his drawing power to play in front of thousands, just to help bolster record sales.
JAM: I don't want to drag this issue on any longer, so here's the last thing I'm going to say. You are not playing strictly for Hank Jr. and his fan base. You are performing before fans that could care less about any issues you have with Hank Jr. If you can get your message across to a broad spectrum of people – and Hank draws that kind of audience – that is what should take precedence over your own personal opinions or beliefs?
I consider music to be a mighty sword. When you pick it up, and make one false swing with the blade, you can cut thousands of people out of your life. Make the right move with it, and thousands of people will stand by your side the rest of your career. The sword is a gift. I feel that some entertainers – and I'm not going to name any names – use that sword and waste it.
JAM: You just called out Hank Williams, Jr. and now you don't want to name any names? Come on Garth, how many ways are you going to dance around this argument?
I am not naïve enough to think this gift can't be gone tomorrow. I am not that big to be doing things just to be doing them.
JAM: In a conversation I had with Billy Joel some time back, I got into a disagreement with him about the purpose of music – specifically his songs about Vietnam and Allentown. I told him it wasn't his job as a musician to amplify America's ills, this country was well aware of them. In speaking with you, I see Billy Joel written all over your face.
I don't think music is just something you put out there to entertain people with. I think it should have meaning where people can take sides and express their opinions. I think musicians are some of the last true believers in following your heart. I can't think of any other profession where you get shot down so much for taking a stance and believing in it.
JAM: Don't you place an unnecessary burden on yourself by looking at music from that angle?
If I just want to exist I am. The good Lord gave me this gift to spread to share with the people out there. I feel responsible enough to give something back to them, especially when I go out on stage. To play 90 minutes of an illusion and get away with it doesn't cut it with me. I want people to take positive thoughts away with them, little kids especially. I want people to walk away from my show thinking it is hip to be square. It's cool to be old-fashioned. It's alright to go back to having manners and doing what is right.
JAM: How would you describe your shows?
They are very wild.
JAM: You are a walking contradiction of yourself Garth. What are you, a PG-13 performance compared to Hank Jr.'s R rating?
My shows are wild enough to where kids think, 'Hey, this is cool!' Once you get people saying its cool, that's when you say, 'Hey man, the only way for me to be cool is through the good Lord.' The only way for me to go forward as a performer is to follow my heart and do what is right. Respect, stuff like that, that's what this business is all about.
JAM: I get this funny feeling that Garth Brooks is actually two people, almost a Jekyll & Hyde character if you like.
What you're seeing is basically this. Someday, someone is going to say this about me if they haven't already. They're going to say, 'That guy's an egotistical son-of-a-bitch! What does he want to do, run for President?" Yeah, I do if that tells you anything. I love this country and kids are the future.
JAM: That's fine Garth, but you don't perform for kids. Everyone that comes to see you is in a bar drinking alcohol, period. You have limited your audiences by strictly playing honky-tonks six months after your album's release. Perhaps now you can see why I don't understand your position for not opening for Hank Jr. and the tens of thousands of people of all ages his shows will draw where you can indeed get your message across.
Just because you're drinking doesn't mean you are drunk. Those kids in 10 or 20 years are going to be running this country. Now you may be looking at me thinking this guy is just too damn heavy, but that's cool. This is my gift and this is why I have the sword.
JAM: I see nothing but contradiction in everything you say.
You're going to see even more contradiction when you see me perform.
JAM: You said that innocence was the dominating theme of your debut album. To me, that would seem to be the last thing that Garth Brooks is all about.
I have a philosophy that if you shoot straight from the heart to another heart, and bypass the mouth and ears, then there no longer are borders, because those borders are your enemies. So many times people go, 'I hate country music, but I love what you do!' I don't know how to take that statement.
JAM: Maybe you should be listening to your own philosophy.
You are right. The people that play from the heart don't jump fences and don't have borders and they don't have limitations. You can go to the oldest swing bar in Oklahoma, and you will find elderly people sitting there rocking and rolling to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll." They love that music because it's from the heart to the heart music. There is no fanciness to it at all, and that's the same way with our music.
JAM: Did you learn how to write and communicate with people on this album?
No I didn't. If you are called a writer in Nashville, you are something. The Don Schlitz's and Max T. Barnes, those people can write. At times you wish you could write like that, but then at the same time you don't want your music flavored like that. When you speak from the heart, you want it to be you. Looking at you, my heart's racing a 100 miles per hour because I don't think you understand what I'm trying to say.
JAM: I don't, and it all goes back to your attitude about Hank Williams, Jr. Your comments don't make any sense. If you have the opportunity to share your music with 10,000 people, who gives a damn about Hank's musical philosophy. Those people attending the show don't, so why should it concern you. Just from listening to you describe your own show, I'm willing to bet your performance on stage is as wild as Hank Jr.'s, probably even more so. As long as the audience knows where Garth Brooks is coming from, and that he speaks from the heart, you've gotten your message across no matter who is headlining the show. By refusing to open for Hank Williams Jr. on the grounds of philosophical differences shows arrogance and contempt for a country music icon. It also defeats the purpose of what you set out to do as a musician, and that is to be respectful.
That's a good point, a very valid point, and I guess that I never sat down to think about it that way. It's just a battle within me that I don't want to, in any way, use his organization.
JAM: You are using his stage and lights, that's all.
No, when you open for somebody, you are using their name, their years of drawing power.
JAM: It is a two way street Garth. Don't fool yourself.
Well, that's another thing. I don't want to bring my people there to hear what he has to say because he and I don't say the same thing. And are you ready for this? I do a Hank Williams, Jr. song in my show, because I like what he said in the song.
JAM: Again, you are a walking contradiction.
Just because I agree with one of his songs doesn't mean I agree with all of them. I am not close-minded, but I have to sleep with myself.
JAM: In the last six months, the names of Garth Brooks and Clint Black have been at the forefront of this sort of new country music hat explosion. All your club shows are selling out, your debut is a fixture at the top of the charts and it features at least two Top Five hits. Mention your name to a country music fan, and they nod there head and say, "Yeah, he is great." From where I'm sitting, not only have you become your own worst critic, you have become a hypocrite as well.
Well, that is true. I am a hypocrite. I know that I'm right, but my actions at times contradict my strong opinions. Here's the thing. It doesn't matter what's between the black and the white. Personally, it is meaningless selling out every concert and tens of thousands of records if you can't stand behind what you believe in. I'll tell you right now that a lot of people out there share your opinion of me. You speak for the common voice and I respect that. There are a lot of critics who have their minds made up about me. I'm not what they think traditional country music should be.
JAM: Does that go for artists in your industry as well?
Let me tell you something, I thank God every day for Clint Black. He has allowed me to take on this underdog role we're in today. First off, nobody expects to see what they get from me when they go to my shows. Time seems to bring wisdom to people, and those that can't see the major difference between Clint and I, time will surely show them. He's not cutting any path for me. He's gone off in his own direction, just like we have.
JAM: So where do you draw the line, if there is one to draw?
To me, success in this business is George Jones' 30 years of continuously knowing what country music was all about. It's funny, but the higher you get in this profession, the lower your music gets. If someone doesn't like somebody in this business, they start mentioning things about them that has nothing to do with the music. But you know what, when it's all said and done, the music has stood the test of time. No matter how you look at it, the guys that have stuck with country music and not been swept up in the fads will always be around. Just like the Rolling Stones and rock and roll. If you are honest and shoot from the heart, you are going to be around forever.
JAM: Are you in a precarious position of becoming jaded too early in your career?
Yes I am.
JAM: So what keeps your feet on the ground?