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America’s Guy: Can Garth Brooks Really Make a Comeback?

Until this month, Garth Brooks hadn’t toured Middle America in 13 years. But he’s still attuned to Middle American sensibilities.

If you want to know why Garth Brooks became one of the most successful American pop singers who ever lived, it doesn’t hurt to ask a silver-haired gentleman wearing excellent snakeskin boots.

I met Jim by the merch table two hours before showtime. His wife, Kim, was buying two Garth Brooks tour T-shirts. Jim had recently surprised Kim with tickets for that night’s concert, the first of Brooks’s 11-show run at the Allstate Arena just outside of Chicago, which commenced his comeback tour in early September. Two floor seats purchased at face value cost just $140, an absurdly low amount considering the level of expectation for these concerts. (The first 10 dates sold out immediately — an 11th was later added — though nosebleed seats for opening night were going for as low as $6 on the secondary market earlier that afternoon.) The tickets were nearly as good a deal as the shirts, which went for $25, again well below what artists of Brooks’s stature normally charge.

“I’m sitting here, because I’m always a number person, thinking, How much do you think he makes?” Jim said. “I betcha $1 million in T-shirt sales.” If you figure that, like Kim, each of the 18,000 people in attendance dropped $50 on Garth gear — admittedly, this is a stretch — Jim’s estimate checks out.

“Because people are buying more than one thing” was his argument. I had to concede that the line at the table, one of several scattered throughout the arena, seemed pretty long.

Jim and Kim, who are both in their mid-fifties and hail from Salem, Wisconsin, a rural town tucked on the other side of Illinois’s northern border, were the first people I interviewed after arriving at the arena. They might as well have been the only people. They saw Garth as other fans I spoke with that night saw Garth. They saw Garth as I imagine Garth himself would want people to see Garth. When I asked Kim if Brooks can still matter like he once did, before he went on hiatus in 2001 and then became a Vegas act for five years, she didn’t mention his new, mawkish single, “People Loving People,” or his galvanizing live show, or even his disarming, self-effacing demeanor. She zeroed in on his value to the consumer.

“He’s a reasonably priced ticket,” Kim said. “He’s the common-person’s performer.”

Until this month, Garth Brooks hadn’t toured Middle America in 13 years. But he’s still attuned to Middle American sensibilities. (To be fair, those sensibilities have remained more or less the same for decades.) You can call Brooks’s music anodyne or liken his face (as one critic cruelly wrote in the early ’90s) to a “thumb with a hat.” But that’s just willfully disregarding the power of his business model. Like Sam’s Club or Golden Corral, Garth Brooks endures because he gives you a lot of product at an affordable price. He’s one of the last remaining vestiges of the old, dying American way.

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Can Garth Brooks really have a comeback? It seems implausible. For one thing, coming all the way back for Brooks would require a full-scale rehabilitation of the cratered record industry, the unlikeliest ’90s revival of them all. Brooks’s otherworldly sales figures are rehashed whenever he’s a topic of discussion, but you could pore over them for years without fully wrapping your head around their significance. Brooks is currently the third-best-selling artist ever in America, with 134 million albums sold, and he’ll likely pass Elvis Presley (who’s at 134.5 million) in the no. 2 slot now that he’s made his discography available digitally for the first time via his own GhostTunes service. Considering that Brooks is selling his first eight studio albums, plus 1998’s Double Live and his next two studio LPs (one is due this fall and the other next year), as a bundle priced at just $29.99, he could very well overtake the Beatles in the pole position.

It’s also possible, as a report last week from Billboard suggested, that Brooks has reentered the music-selling business too late. Download sales, even in the country market, where people generally pay for music at a higher rate than do consumers of other genres, are down dramatically this year. Brooks’s insistence on selling his music exclusively as albums rather than offering up individual tracks further hampers his commercial prospects. As for “People Loving People,” it debuted strong on country radio, entering Billboard’s country airplay chart at no. 19, just as one of Brooks’s best-known songs, “The Thunder Rolls,” had back in 1991. This isn’t a surprise, given the hype surrounding Brooks’s return. The question is whether he can stay on the radio.

The irony of Brooks’s career is that he began as the Antichrist for traditionalist country fans, and he’ll probably end up as a bulwark of the genre’s old-school fringe. At the time, albums like 1990’s No Fences and 1991’s Ropin’ the Wind were condemned for pandering to pop tastes and bastardizing country with arena-rock bluster. Listening to those albums in retrospect, however, it seems clear that critics were projecting their unease with Brooks’s man-in-beige image and the Kiss-inspired theatrics of his concerts onto the music, which otherwise sounds like mellow ’70s country cut with a heavy dose of James Taylor.

A ham-fisted message song about how altruism is “the enemy of everything that’s evil,” “People Loving People” is deliberately out of step with other current country hits. It’s as serious and informed by classic rock as the competition is fun-loving and indebted to hip-hop. The heavy-handed preachiness and sunny optimism are reminiscent of Brooks’s 1992 single “We Shall Be Free,” in which he attempted to translate his big-tent, one-size-fits-all musical aesthetic to Addressing Real-World Problems. Back then, it didn’t matter if you were Eddie Murphy, Amy Grant, Bernie Kosar, or Julio Iglesias — in Garth’s world, men and women of all colors, creeds, and mullets were welcome. The difference is that “We Shall Be Free,” which stumped for gay rights, was deemed too controversial for many country stations. “People Loving People,” meanwhile, surely ranks among the most staid tracks on contemporary playlists.

Then again, how many fools have lost their shirts by betting against Garth Brooks’s ability to draw a crowd? The man is a born showman. His introductory run of concerts in Chicago was a masterstroke in that regard. Brooks could’ve performed for the same number of people over far fewer shows at Wrigley or Soldier Field. But, along with the relative intimacy of performing in an arena, selling out nearly a dozen concerts was quite a statement for an artist who’s never been averse to goosing his statistics.

Garth Brooks Portrait Sesison

In the ’90s, Brooks made his name by courting an audience that had been left behind by other pop stars. Grunge rockers and gangsta rappers were similarly defined by what they opposed: namely, establishment-hewing whites residing in flyover country. Part of the appeal of Nevermind or The Chronic was that they acted as portals to an alternative America. The joy of getting it was knowing that certain people didn’t get it. As pop evolved into a loose collective of only alternatives, Brooks swept up those stranded in the middle, like a machine collecting discarded tennis balls. Those who didn’t get it could always get him.

There was nothing exclusive about Brooks; you weren’t penalized if you didn’t know the deep cuts or collect the vinyl-only 7-inches. Kurt Cobain was haunted by jocks comprising the core of Nirvana’s post-Nevermind fan base, but Brooks catered to the jocks, the jocks’ friends, and the jocks’ friends’ parents. Brooks viewed pop music as a service industry — if you wanted to see him play live, he made sure you could see him live, even if you lived in the sticks and didn’t make it out to concerts all that often. Consider that during his late-’90s world tour, Brooks played 350 concerts over the course of three years and charged $20 per ticket. In Minneapolis, he sold 159,000 tickets, enough to play nine consecutive sold-out shows. Clearly, there were a lot of discarded tennis balls.

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In a 1994 Playboy interview, Brooks articulates his worldview like a lost prophet of the monoculture. “To me, if country music’s smart, it won’t divide up into different formats like rock and roll did, into contemporary, middle-of-the-road, rap, heavy metal, thrash, light rock, classic rock,” he says, blanching at the marginalization of artists like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash that his crossover popularity unwittingly set in motion. Elsewhere, Brooks makes sure to play the humility card: “Three years ago, would you have thought that the largest-selling artist in the Nineties would be going bald and have an eating problem and be doing fiddle and steel-guitar music?” he wonders with mock incredulity. But what comes through most powerfully in the interview is Brooks’s almost presidential ambition. He talks about pop stardom in terms that would make even Kanye West wince.

“I wanted to be an artist that the American people could relate to,” he declares. “I wanted to be America’s guy.”

America these days is too fragmented to have just one beau. But there is a desire out there to re-form a more perfect union in Brooks’s image. Mingling among Brooks’s fans before the concert, I was surprised by the number of teenagers and twentysomethings. This is the generation that first heard “Friends in Low Places” and “The Dance” as toddlers perched in baby car seats in the backs of minivans. Many spoke of Brooks rescuing country from the current scourge of truck songs and ersatz redneck rappers.

“I think country music has lost itself a little bit, and now is the perfect time for Garth to be back doing his traditional country music,” explained Dustin Clark, a 30-year-old singer-songwriter from the St. Louis area. Clark, who recently auditioned for The Voice (he didn’t make it on air), remembers his mother transcribing for him the lyrics of “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” a hit weepie from Brooks’s self-titled 1989 debut, as a transformative musical moment.

“It’s a huge thing for country music for him to be back here,” he said.

Describing Brooks as “traditional country” will strike some as laughable. But for younger fans, Brooks is a towering childhood myth resuscitated back into human form, like a combination of George Jones and Barney the dinosaur.

“Basically, we told each other years ago that if he comes anywhere near Wisconsin, max out a credit card, I don’t care, we’re going to see Garth Brooks,” Jason, 27, told me as showtime loomed. He stood next to Mike, his 26-year-old pal and a fellow native of La Crosse. Mike wore a black hat with a Confederate-flag buckle and a T-shirt that read, “I Got A Fishing Rod For My Wife … Best Trade I Ever Made.” With his long blond ponytail, Mike resembled Greg Allman’s long-lost nephew. He and Jason were both nursing margaritas and feeling festive.

“This was on our bucket list,” Jason said.

“We made it!” Mike added, smiling victoriously.

Two other friends, Darius and Tiffany, joined the group with beers in tow. Darius, 27, had driven to the show from the hospital, where he’d spent the previous nine days with his ailing mother. Surgeons had just amputated the lower part of her right leg. “She told me to get the hell out of the hospital,” Darius said, his words rushing out due to what I imagined was a mix of high excitement and extreme exhaustion. “She wants me to tell her all about it.”

In interviews, Brooks still harmonizes seemingly sincere modesty with raging egotism. Talking recently to the Daily Beast, he counterintuitively argued that country radio remains the ideal “bridge between the artist and the people,” as opposed to social media, which “twists everything.” Even with his entrée into the digital market, which he has long resisted — again, he doesn’t want his albums carved up into individual tracks — Brooks remains loyal to old-media institutions. His verbiage is also quaint, referring to “the people” as a discrete but massive entity just waiting to be moved by a visionary artist like himself. (They’re the same people he implores to love other people in his latest song.) The fans I spoke with internalized this, speaking about Brooks like you would a generous benefactor and not an entertainer with a gazillion dollars in the bank.

“He doesn’t do it to make money,” Darius insisted before entering the arena. “He does it because he cares.”

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This is what democracy looks like in Garth’s world: Being a member of the press normally privileges me to a great, free-of-charge seat. For Brooks, I had to buy my ticket online, just like everyone else. Somehow, I ended up with the best seat I’ve ever had for an arena show — 11 rows back, slightly off-center and favoring stage left. Shortly after taking my seat, I was roused back up by two boisterous blondes carrying tall boys. “Comin’ through, we got big asses and big boobs,” one of them said. “We like to eat and we like to drink.” I could instantly tell that I wasn’t surrounded by VIPs, as one might expect on the first night of a superstar tour. Instead, I was neck-deep in “the people,” regular fans who lucked out as I did during the mad scramble for tickets.

I looked at the stage and noticed that the drum kit was encased inside a circular, Thunderdome-like structure. I peered closer to see if Tommy Lee was lurking inside, but Tommy was nowhere to be found. “WE ARE NOW FIVE MINUTES FROM GARTH,” a disembodied voice intoned from above. With every announcement, the lights grew dimmer and the audience more jacked. Four minutes later, a 60-second countdown commenced. “THE MACHINES ARE IN CONTROL,” a different disembodied voice said. This Garth Brooks concert seemed more like a Rush concert than the Rush concert I saw last year. It was about as “traditional country” as “By-Tor & the Snowdog.”

I glanced down for a moment, and when I looked back at the stage, Brooks had suddenly appeared, as if out of thin air. After a dramatic Michael Jackson pause that felt like an eternity, he exploded toward the audience, singing a weird, percussive, mostly indecipherable new song called “Man Against the Machine.” It was all too much; Brooks wasn’t merely aiming to blow our minds, he was attempting to annihilate all the flesh and muscle mass situated above our necks. The dinosaur had subsumed George Jones. The audience just stood there stunned, their camera phones blinking dumbly at the carnage.

The second song was “Rodeo,” off of Ropin’ the Wind. I legitimately love this song — it has fantastically smoky Silver Bullet Band keyboard licks, and Brooks affects a genuine snarl in his vocal. Predictably, he calmed way down and the fans grew way more ecstatic. Despite the botched open, Brooks quickly recovered. It helped immeasurably that he subsequently stuck with tunes from some of the most purchased albums ever. The biggest reactions of the night weren’t for songs, however. The audience cheered loudest whenever Brooks simply raised his arms, screamed, and registered surprise and appreciation that they, the people, had showed up.

The audience loved watching Brooks soak up their love for him. “You came back!” he said, eliciting loud screams. “YOU CAME BACK!” he said, more emphatically, eliciting deafening screams. It reminded me of that part in That’s the Way It Is when Elvis Presley sings “Love Me Tender” and then walks through the Las Vegas theater, shaking hands and kissing every damn woman he approaches. Only here, it was as if the audience were mounting the stage to lather their affection on Brooks.

Was it a good show? It was entertaining watching Brooks work the crowd. He did this thing where he would single out somebody pumping his or her fist, and then mimic the precise force and speed of the fist-pumping as an acknowledgment. During another song, somebody in the front row handed him … I don’t know what it was. It looked like a diploma encased inside of a cuckoo clock. Brooks received the tchotchke, doffed his hat, and carried it away, all without breaking from the song.

Brooks was emotional throughout. At times, he appeared to be on the verge of tears. “Now there is finally nothing between you and us,” he swooned. It is different now for Garth Brooks and America, but in that moment they felt united.