Garth BROOKS doesn’t own a BlackBerry. He’s dismayed by musicians who use click-tracks to keep the beat and auto-tuning to stay on pitch. Until recently, he recorded his albums on analog tape. Still, the 45-year-old singer is a modern guy, sidestepping his publicist to set up his own interviews by e-mail. Given a choice, though, he’ll reach out the semi-old fashioned way: via cellphone, better for cracking jokes and asking about a caller’s kids.
“Technology scares me,” Brooks said Tuesday during a lengthy chat in a cozy conference room at Texas Jet, an executive terminal in Meacham International Airport. His schedule that day was taking him to nearby Cook Children’s Medical Center, where he and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman would christen a high-tech play space cosponsored by their charities. Brooks laughed at his own comment, not quite believable given the jet-setting lifestyle he’s maintained even in the midst of his much-publicized retirement.
“What scares me is when you go somewhere and people come up and go, ‘Oh, my God, it’s just you and a guitar!’ ” he said. “And you start thinking, how many successful acts can perform that way today? I don’t like walls, but there are traditions that you try and keep alive.”
Brooks might be the homiest forward-thinker in contemporary pop. He’s not often cited as a revolutionary, partly because he’s equally committed to being an Everyman.
To that end, he’s resurfaced amid a retirement he says will not officially end for at least a decade. His drive to connect -- and set pop milestones -- vies with his oft-noted sense of contentment.
Billy Joel, KISS, Chris Gaines
Achieving superstardom in the 1990s by blending hard country with soft-rock sensitivity and hair-metal bravado, Brooks challenged Nashville to move toward the no-fences 21st century.
He covered Billy Joel, recorded with KISS and elevated the career of his hero, cowboy crooner Chris LeDoux.
He experimented with alternative rock (through his much-ridiculed alter ego Chris Gaines), played Central Park and broke virtually every sales record imaginable.
Then his popularity began to slip a notch; he went through a painful divorce and a shift in priorities. He retired to his native Oklahoma in 2001 to become a full-time parent to his three daughters. The youngest is now 11.
“I remember not knowing my children, and I never want to go back there,” he said. “I want my kids to be raised the way I was raised. My parents were at every game, whether I played or not. You’d look over your shoulder and there they were.” Brooks now lives near Tulsa with his second wife, singer Trisha Yearwood, and says other parents on the soccer field don’t pay any special attention to him.
If Brooks is a PTA parent, though, he’s the hyperactive type. He’s not just a face for his Teammates for Kids foundation; he’s an event organizer, an active fundraiser and occasional bureaucrat. High-profile charity events including Live Earth and the Grand Old Opry’s 80th Birthday celebration have given him a semi-regular chance to perform.
Born at the tail end of the baby boom, Brooks shares certain traits with that generation. He’s insistently youthful, yet haunted by thoughts of impending decline. He is redefining retirement as a reduction in work, not a cessation. And he’s unwilling to gracefully enter the twilight of cultural irrelevance.
So he’s recorded a handful of new songs, including his recent chart-topping single, “More Than a Memory,” and his current duet with Huey Lewis on the bar-band king’s old hit “Workin’ for a Livin’.”
“There are rules you set up when you retire,” he said. “But I will step across the line. The duet with Huey, for example, was something I wanted to do in 1999, but Capitol [Brooks’ label then] wasn’t for it; they didn’t want to see a crossing of the two artists. These things all have their reasons for being picked. They’re dear to me.”
Aikman, a friend as well as a partner in Brooks’ children’s charities, views Brooks’ active retirement in connection with his lifelong passion for sports.
At Cook Medical Center, where he and Brooks spent a happy hour playing video games and cards with young patients, he reflected on the singer’s drive to participate.
“Garth was an athlete as a kid,” he said. “He played baseball, track. When that didn’t work out, he was able to transfer that competitive sense and work ethic to music. He still brings that athlete’s perspective to whatever he does.”
Finding new challenges
Brooks does seem bent on creating new ways of competing with himself. Next weekend at Staples Center, he’ll play five concerts in two days, hoping to raise $10 million to benefit victims of the California wildfires and fund future firefighting efforts. (The shows are cosponsored by The Times, AEG, American Express and the McCormick Tribune Foundation.)
The event grew out of another test of strength -- the nine-show marathon Brooks played at Kansas City, Mo.'s Sprint Center in November.
“I spent a fair amount of time with Garth leading up to the Kansas City run,” said Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive of AEG, which owns the Sprint and Staples arenas. “We were talking about some ideas he had and about bringing him to L.A. And right through it all the first round of fires had occurred. We talked about the impact on Southern California, and I said, ‘Why don’t we do it for the firefighters?’ ”
Friday’s first show will be televised live on CBS (with a tape delay for West Coast viewers), allowing for viewers to call in to pledge contributions. Brooks wanted to set a challenging financial goal. “The El Rey Theatre came up, the Nokia came up. But I told Tim, ‘If you’re gonna raise a lot of money, it has to be the Staples Center,’ ” he said. The logistics of the shows will be challenging, with barely a break between sets.
This is classic Brooks, recalling the time he signed autographs for 24 hours straight at Nashville’s annual Fan Fair as well as the recent Kansas City shows.
Though he turns 46 in February and often kvetches about his age, Brooks is not nervous about surviving the endurance test.
“When it comes to performing, it’s a totally different muscle, a different fuel from somewhere,” he said. “There have been times when I’ve been throwing my guts up, sick to death. You step up onstage and all of a sudden, you’re young. Or your voice will be gone and it just comes back onstage. So that’s why I think performing is a gift from God. As long as it’s meant to be, it’ll happen. The second it’s meant to be over, there’s nothing you can do.”
Brooks wants his hard-earned leisure time, but he also still wants to kick butt.
A partnership with Wal-Mart has allowed him that luxury. Giving the chain exclusive distribution rights in 2005, he’s released several lavish compilations; the most recent is 2007’s “The Ultimate Hits,” which includes three new tracks: “More Than a Memory,” the duet with Lewis and the honky-tonkin’ “Midnight Sun.” He’s moved millions of albums this way, becoming Wal-Mart’s bestselling music artist without having to give up the days at home with his girls.
Most artists who fall under the “independent” umbrella would cringe at the idea of partnering with a corporate behemoth like Wal-Mart. But the typically contrarian deal is what allowed Brooks to become an independent artist, once again marrying innovation with the big commercial goals of mainstream pop.
“The deal was extremely good for me,” he said. “Wal-Mart, their foot traffic is staggering, and their demographic and mine are the same. I felt very lucky and blessed and offered them a thank-you concert. Kansas City was that.”
At the Kansas City shows, which were open to the public, Brooks was shocked looking out from the stage. “What blew me away was the younger kids,” he said. “They came to sing, and they knew every word. I thought, ‘How could this be happening?'I loved it. I could have done another 40 nights there.”
Energized by this renewed sense of relevance, Brooks still remains wary of some aspects of 21st century music culture. He’s not fond of iTunes, remaining loyal to the album format. And when the subject of illegal downloading comes up, watch out.
“What is popular isn’t always right,” he said during a 20-minute rant. “My dad, who is 70-something, all he wants to do is eat sugar. All my child wants is to eat sugar. But we know it’s not the best for them.
“As a society, all we want is more free music. But let’s talk about me being on a soccer field, and hearing ‘More Than a Memory’ on somebody’s phone. I go over there and say, ‘Where’d you get that?’ and they tell you: a file-sharing place. I call that place and they say, ‘We can’t do anything until you write us a letter.’ Now how screwed up is that?”
Brooks knows that a multimillionaire like himself is unlikely to elicit much compassion from the music-should-be-free crowd; he cites the songwriters behind most country hits as piracy’s real victims.
“It’s gonna have to happen,” he said. “Every illegal download you do, you’d get a $25 ticket, like a parking ticket. What would 10 cuts for $12 feel like compared to that? And the people who create the songs will be able to pay for their children’s school.”
Brooks has other thoughts about how to fix the sales crisis in the music industry. He’d like to see price structuring, so that a popular artist could sell single downloads for more than the industry standard of 99 cents. (“A Lexus isn’t the same as a Volkswagen,” he said.)
He’s also for stricter licensing deals for artists whose music ends up behind the credits on television shows or in commercials. These aren’t arguments that will endear Brooks to the average music blogger. But then he puts forth a plan that sounds as contemporary as the iPhone.
“If I was just a hayseed from Oklahoma, starting out, I wouldn’t do a record anymore,” he said. “Every four months I’d release a single with a bonus track on iTunes. That way what radio gets is brand new every time. And then at the end of four or five singles, I’d release a record for the people who want to get it that way.”
Brooks suggests this strategy for younger artists, not himself; that much work would mess with his retirement. He does use his favorite phrase -- “The door is open” -- in reference to the prospect of a duets album with Yearwood. That one would be a family affair, so it might not violate his rules.
After his Staples Center concerts, Brooks will return to screenwriting, an avocation he’s been pursuing for a while. He may even revive the Chris Gaines project, which stalled after the 1999 album he recorded under the pseudonym flopped.
Other plans? Mostly, being a dad. Youngest daughter Allie has started to show a passion for music, which he cautiously supports. There’s also the occasional charity event. Oh, and one other thing.
“I would love to be the guy who fixes the Internet technology problem,” he said. That’s Garth, thinking small, at least for him.