Playboy Interview: Garth Brooks, by Steve Pond ~ June 1994
Tuesday, May 31, 1994
Playboy- Steve Pond.
A candid conversation with country music's crossover phenom about life on the road, backstabbing in Nashville and why he has the best manners in showbiz.
High overhead, lights flash. Smoke blankets the stage. A deep rumble shakes the walls of the cavernouse old auditorium. A lighting rig descends toward the stage, separating into 19 banks of multicolored, computerized lights. A chunky beat begins, punctuated by roars and explosions. Intense white lights blind the audience as a hydraulically powered elevator slowly rises out of the stage, with half a dozen musicians visible through it's tinted sides. A door slides open. The musicians take the stage, the music gathers momentum, the elevator sinks back into the floor--and there, revealed at the back of the stage to roof-rattling screams, stands the king of pop.
Wearing jeans, boots and a cowboy hat.
Michael Jackson may have given himself the title, but in the Nineties the real king of pop is a stocky, unprepossessing Okie with what was once described as a "face like a thumb with a hat on it." Since his debut in April 1989, Garth Brooks' six albums have sold some 35 million copies, more than anyone else in any field of music. Two of his albums, 1990's "No Fences" and the following year's "Ropin' the Wind," are around the 10 million mark. Moreover, "Ropin' the Wind" and 1992's "The Chase" were the first and second albums ever to enter "Billboard's" pop and country charts at number one. Every one of his 18 singles has hit the top ten on the "Billboard" country chart; 16 of them have hit number one. He has sold more than a million copies of his two long-form videos. He's won a Grammy, four People's Choice Awards, six American Music Awards, nine Country Music Association Awards, ten Academy of Country Music Awards--you get the picture. His first prime-time NBC special, 1992's "This Is Garth Brooks," was such a ratings success that a second concert special aired this spring.
Country musicians have topped the pop charts in the past: Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell in the late Sixties, Dolly Parton and the soundtrack of the movie "Urban Cowboy" a decade later. But since those days, country has become America's most popular style of music: One recent radio survey found that 42 percent of all adults regularly listen to country radio. And in the midst of the biggest boom in country's long history, Brooks is the genre's standard-bearer. Sales of country music have doubled since he released his first album, and at one point sales of his compact discs and tapes alone reportedly made up an astonishing 26 percent of all country-music purchases.
But facts and figures don't explain the bond Brooks has forged with his fans. For starters, look at the audience at his shows--or, for that matter, at almost any other country show these days. It's the uniform that gives them away: boots, neatly pressed blue or black jeans, cowboy hats and checked, striped or patterned long-sleeved shirts a touch more flamboyant than those country fans used to wear. If pop music once hosted a plethora of madonna wanna-bes, the world of country music has been taken over by the Garth look.
And when Brooks steps in front of his audience, he does so with a show loaded with the kinds of pyrotechnics and flash honed on many a rock-and-roll tour. He doesn't just make an impressive entrance; he keeps it up with lighting effects and tricks such as his nightly swing over the audience on a rope. Some critics complain that Brooks simultaneously waters down and glitzes up real country music, but the crowds respond to both the showmanship and the quiet moments with a fervor that's hard to dismiss.
He was born Troyal Garth Brooks 32 years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the youngest of six children. He was raised mostly in Yukon, a small town outside Oklahoma City. His father worked as a draftsman for Union Oil; his mother had recorded a few singles for Capitol Records in the mid-Fifties.
As the baby of the family, Brooks was exposed to a wide range of musical influences: George Jones and Merle Haggard from his father, Harry Belafonte from his mother and, from his siblings, a potpourri that included Peter, Paul and Mary, Janis Joplin and Rita Coolidge.
None of this meant that Brooks wanted to pursue music. Instead, he played football, went to college at Oklahoma State on a track scholarship and only intermittently toyed with music. But while he was in college studying advertising, he heard the straight-forward, traditional country songs of George Strait, and suddenly music was a passion. Brooks wrote songs and then played them in bars where he also worked as a bouncer. In fact, he met his wife, Sandy, when he was called to break up a fight in the women's rest room.
In 1985 he went to Nashville to try his luck and lasted one day. He returned home, hid out, licked his wounds, played more bars and tried again. The next time, he got work singing on demos and playing in clubs, and even though every label in town turned him down, he kept at it. He finally signed with Capitol in 1998 and recorded "Garth Brooks," which included the hit singles "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" and "If Tomorrow Never Comes." But the song that turned the album from a promising debut into a phenomenon was the gentle ballad with which it ended. "The Dance" has a simple message--that despite it's pain and uncertainty, life is worth the risk. "The Dance" was the kind of song that can make and define a career. Amazingly, so was the first single from his second album, "No Fences." This time, though, the song, "Friends in Low Places," was a raucous bar-room anthem. With two huge but different songs released back-to-back, Brooks was unstoppable-- even if many country-oriented TV outlets refused to show his violent video for "Thunder Rolls."
His third album, "Ropin' the Wind," was nearly as big; a Christmas record, "Beyond the Season," was next; the one after that, "The Chase," sparked another controversy when its opening song, "We Shall Be Free," made a strong statement in favor of racial and religious tolerance and gay rights, not a stance calculated to endear him to much of country's core audience.
But controversy neither helps nor hurts Brooks anymore. The newly slimmed-down singer (from a high of 237 pounds) rolls on. His latest album, "In Pieces," produced such hits as "Ain't Going Down (Till the Sun Comes Up)." It was followed by a smash American tour and his first European shows, returning home to await the birth of his second child. All of which made this an opportune time to check in with the man "Rolling Stone" dubbed "the cat in the hat." We sent writer Steve Pond, who reports:
"After spending time with Brooks, I kept thinking of a proposition a friend of mine made. 'When rock stars like Axl Rose misbehave,' she said, 'they shouldn't be sentenced to community service. They should just be sent on the road with Garth Brooks to learn some manners.'
"Certainly, Brooks could have taught courtesy lessons during the time I was with him. We met in the greenroom of the 'Live with Regis and Kathie Lee' show in New York City, and while his opening line--'How do you do, sir?'--made me feel old, it was indicative of the deference with which he treats everybody, including his fans.
"Regis and Kathie Lee's guests usually enter the studio through a back door, but the morning Brooks was there a truck was blocking that entrance, so he came in by the front, through a crowd of fans asking for autographs. He didn't have time, so he promised the fans he'd take care of them after the show.
"When he was ready to leave, the talent coordinator told him that the studio audience had just been let out the front door; if he tried to get out that way, it'd be a pandemonium. 'OK, I'll leave by the back door,' Brooks said to his road manager and boyhood friend, Mickey Weber. 'But I want you to tell the people out front that I'll be leaving by the back, because otherwise they might think I'm trying to duck out on them.'
"An hour later, after seeing other examples of Brooks' graciousness, I asked Weber if his boss was always the nicest person on earth. 'Oh, he has moods like everybody else,' said Weber. 'In private, you'll sometimes see the other side of him. But when he's in the public, he'll never let it show.' We started there."
PLAYBOY: Do you hold yourself to a higher standard of conduct when you're in public?
BROOKS: You bet, I did before I was ever an artist, because I'm representing my father's name and my mother's name and I don't want anything to get back to them. I was afraid my dad would spank my butt as a kid. And the bigger fear was breaking my mom's heart.
PLAYBOY: You've told people around that all of them, including you, make up the entity called Garth Brooks.
BROOKS: Yeah, Garth Brooks is an organization of people. I was signing autographs in Arkansas, and this guy came up and said. "Man, I can't believe you're signing autographs." I said "Why?" He said, "Travis Tritt told me to go to hell when I asked him for an autograph." And I said, "Travis Tritt said that? That doesn't sound like him. Travis is a cool guy." He said, "Well, I heard that one of Travis Tritt's crew members told somebody to go to hell when they wanted an autograph." Now, in a fleeting second it went from Travis Tritt telling this guy to go to hell to one of the crew members telling somebody else to go to hell. I tell my people that how they act is how Garth Brooks acts. If my people who tear a bar down, it's Garth Brooks who tore that bar down.
The flip side of that, which is just as bad, is that if you're a crew member and you bust your ass to do something good, you won't get any of the credit for it. We were driving through Oklahoma, and I noticed the bus slowing down. I peeked through the door and said to the driver, "Jim, what's wrong?" He said, "There's a lady back here with a HELP sign in her car," He and the crew-bus driver got out and fixed her flat tire in the freezing cold. The headlines the next day were that I was driving the bus, I got out, I changed the flat tire. In fact, I was in the bus just sitting there talking.
PLAYBOY: You've said you never dreamed about this level of success, but everybody who picks up a guitar has some fantasies. In your wildest teenage fantasies, were you having hit records? Playing arenas?
BROOKS: That was in my 20s. As a teenager I dreamed about being in coliseums trying to catch the winning touchdown. When it came to music, I never saw the crowds of people. I just wanted to get my music out there. I wanted to be an artist the American people could relate to. I wanted to be America's guy.
PLAYBOY: Was there a point, on your way to being America's guy, when you felt as if things had gotten out of control?
BROOKS: I'll be honest with you, man. I'm not really sure that for the past three years anybody's been at the helm of this, other than God. Believe me, if there were hands on the wheel, they weren't mine. I pretty much think this thing was dragging us along. And right now, it still feels out of control.
PLAYBOY: When did that feeling begin?
BROOKS: It started with a video for The Dance. All of a sudden we were in a different light. People said, "****, this guy might have something to say" or "He's trying to say it in a different way." And the next thing out of the shoot was Friends in Low Places. The day it came out is when it broke loose for us.
PLAYBOY: And the next thing you knew, everybody was wearing cowboy hats and loud shirts.
BROOKS: [Laughs] I went into a Western-wear store the other day. I got my baseball cap and my sunglasses on, and a lady's across the rack from me. She goes, "I'll be damned." And her friend goes, "What's wrong?" She goes, "I come here to buy my husband a Western Shirt, and all they got are these damn Garth Brooks things." So I started sinking real low.
PLAYBOY: Have you come to terms with the fame you've achieved?
BROOKS: No. I am definitely confused about why this is happening.
PLAYBOY: Why? Do you think, I don't deserve this?
BROOKS: Oh, yeah. 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? I'm sure a lot of people still have problems with that.
PLAYBOY: Why are you--and country music in general--crossing over to a larger audience?
BROOKS: I'm trying to figure that out. What's weird today is these junior high kids who come to the show, and they have on LL Cool J shirts or something like Cinderella or Slaughter. I can't believe these guys actually listen to that and listen to me, too. When I was a kid you listened to one thing, and it was probably rock and roll. But it's pretty neat now, for some reason, country music is speaking to a lot of different ages and different cultures. It's something people can relate to. I'm not sure they're finding that in other new forms of music, and country music is filling that gap.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel like a representative of country music?
BROOKS: Yeah, I'll stand up forever for country music. A lot of people say, "We Shall Be Free" didn't get country radio behind it, and you got left out of the last awards show for country music. Why do you stick up for country music?" I love country music. It's my home. I have never felt that it has slighted me. It was the format that held the ladder while I got to climb as high as I could. I don't know if you heard the story about Randy Travis. His album was selling so well that it charted on the pop charts. And his first reaction was, "Pop charts? Get it off there." [Laughs] I like that. I sure don't feel like a top pop performer.
PLAYBOY: In the past, the feeling has been that country artists have to cross over to pop radio to really sell records.
BROOKS: Yeah, they've always told us we need to cross over and go into more mainstream radio. And my ***** and gripe the whole time was, "If you guys will wait six months, country music will be mainstream radio."
PLAYBOY: How long can the country boom last?
BROOKS: That's the big question. 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. And I'm saying this knowing that there will soon be a second chart in country music. It's called the Young Country chart. I think that's a huge mistake.
PLAYBOY: Isn't most country radio these days devoted to performers who came up after 1980?
BROOKS: After 1987. Somebody at a radio station told me they're not playing anything pre-1987. They've found that the majority of their fans don't recognize music pre-1987. That's scary.
PLAYBOY: When people like Merle Haggard can't get played on country radio, it seems that those stations are denying a rich tradition.
BROOKS: Amen. Unfortunately, a lot of these people think the only way they can stay successful is to play the youngest and the newest stuff. And there begins the fall.
PLAYBOY: Country music has had other periods of immense success: Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, the movie Urban Cowboy. Do you think things are different this time around?
BROOKS: Well, Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell were undeniable talents who were going to rise up no matter what field they chose. The Urban Cowboy thing was more money-driven. It was a fad, and it was almost the death of country music. If it weren't for people like George Strait, Ricky Scaggs and Reba McEntire, I'm not sure country would've held on until the guys like Randy Travis came and country music in it's purest form was saved. I'm sure Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash were showing phenomenal sales, but I'm not sure a lot of other people were. But now, Strait's last hit sold 4 million, Wynonna's was 3 or 4 million, I believe. Billy Ray Cyrus sold 9 million copies of Some Gave All. Some people say that happened real quick and then he was gone. Nevertheless, the guy sold 9 million out of the country market. I don't see it as a spike. I see it as something that could be the face of the future.
PLAYBOY: Achy Breaky Heart sold millions, but it also started an anti-country backlash. Was that kind of song healthy for country?
BROOKS: I don't think it's healthy for any music. And the person it's most unhealthy for is Billy Ray Cyrus. I don't know how much control he has over his stuff, but the guy's material was getting better. And it wasn't Achy Breaky Heart, it was the stuff that was saying things. But because of Achy Breaky, now it seems like everybody is thinking that he's a fad, he's come and gone. And that's sad. Same with Vanilla Ice. I was amazed at the record sales that guy was pulling off, and now where is he?
PLAYBOY: You have had your share of battles with the country-music establishment. You got flak for the violence in your video the Thunder Rolls, and for your support of gay rights in We Shall Be Free. Is country as conservative as its image?
BROOKS: I don't know. There are a lot of ifs in this statement: If The Thunder Rolls and We Shall Be Free are about real life, and I believe they are, then hiding your head in the sand isn't going to make real life go away. And if the industry did turn its back on both of those issues, I don't think that's healthy. If that makes them conservative, then, yeah, I guess they are. I don't have a problem with people having morals and rules that they won't break. But if something's not being looked at simply because it's too ugly to look at, but it still exists, that only means that the problem's going to get bigger.
PLAYBOY: You've already done a televised concert special. Why do another one?
BROOKS: It was something I enjoyed doing the first time, even though it was a lot of work. I'd have enjoyed the second one a lot more if it weren't for the tragic thing that happened seven days before the show was to go on.
PLAYBOY: You mean when part of the lighting rig collapsed onto the stage, injuring several workers?
BROOKS: Yeah, a huge space-frame that everything hung from just snapped right in the middle, dropping around 120,000 pounds on to the stage.
PLAYBOY: Were you there?
BROOKS: I was in Dallas. We were doing an autograph session, and they came to me and said, "We have an emergency at the stadium. They're on the radio talking about ambulances, everything." Man, my stomach just went down through my pants, and all I could think of was, I'm going to have to take one of my guys home in a box and explain to his people what the hell happened. The fact that the show came off was a bigger event for me than the show itself.
PLAYBOY: How hard was it to focus your attention on the concert?
BROOKS: It was hard to do anything but think about the accident. And also, for the first show, on Thursday, we all had opening-night jitters. We were so scared, and we wanted to see the special effects work. And when some of them were working and some of them weren't, we were kind of disappointed.
Then I was so fired up Friday. It was ten times louder than it was the night before, and I thought, This is going to be one of those nights. I can feel it. The first song was Standing Outside the Fire, and this ring of fire is supposed to come up all around the stage. So the song kicks up, and the back wall blows into this big wall of fire, but ther's no fire in front for me to walk through. And damn, of all the nights I feel like I could walk through fire, tonight is it. So I look over, and I go, "Where's the fire?" The guy says, "You're standing on the pipe." I was so fired up--- and so pumped-- that I had forgotten to move back. I look down and I'm standing right on the gas pipe. Thank God he was watching, or he would've torched me.
PLAYBOY: Does the satisfaction of doing a good show last as long as the satisfaction of making a good record?
BROOKS: I think so. Something happened to me the other night that I've only really dreamed of, but it was so flagrant that I couldn't miss it. It was during the last song, within the last ten seconds. I was going for the peak of the show, and everything dropped into slow motion. Everything. And I was at full speed, so I could be ahead of everything that was happening. I noticed the guy down front in the white shirt with the maroon lettering and the maroon baseball cap, who was just going nuts. I noticed the little kid over there with his mom holding him up. I noticed the older lady who had been sitting down the whole show but was now standing up. I could see each individual. Everything was right in the sweet spot of the bat. I could feel it in my shoulders and in the joints of my elbows. And all of a sudden it felt like somebody had a hold of me, like a perfectly tailored suit. If I raised this arm, that side of the coliseum I would rise with it--the seats, concrete, everything, would rise an inch. I know you're probably thinking, This ****er's nuts. But I **** you not: I felt it. And those seconds are why I got in the business.
I mean, I watch games on TV, and I wonder how the quarterback, with a minute and a half left and 80 yards to go, is going to pull together the greatest drive in football history. And his eyes never get more than half open. For the first time in my life, I see the zone they're in. I've walked in that zone, and I live now as an entertainer to keep walking in that zone. And I'm already thinking, Is there another zone? [Laughs] It's sad that I don't appreciate what I have.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever get carried away onstage and do things you regret later?
BROOKS: Sure. Houston two years ago, right after the first Dallas special. First time I ever smashed a guitar was in Dallas for the TV special. Two weeks later we were in Houston, and the crowd was right at the point where we were going to break them over and go for the big one, or it was just going to stay where it was. And I forced it. I turned around with the guitar and just started smashing it into the drum kit. It was forced, and the people knew it. I haven't smashed another guitar.
PLAYBOY: Do you have to force something to stay excited about hits like Friends in Low Places night after night?
BROOKS: James Taylor said something in a video that made a lot of sense. He said, "We've done Fire and Rain a thousand times. When I do it in sound check, we make up different words and stuff, screwing around with it. But in the show, because it is the first time some people have heard me do it live, it's fresh to me again." When I heard that, I said, "That's exactly it." I mean, I've heard Friends in Low Places more than anybody has. At sound check we can't even run over a part of it. Nobody wants to play it, nobody wants to think about it. And I've thought, Man, I'll never make it. I'm finally just gonna pull out a gun at some concert and go crazy on that song. But what I find every night when Friends in Low Places comes around, the smiles, the laughter--it's a blast to do.
And then there's a song that you look forward to all night, like The Dance. I could play it four or five times a night, and I'd still be OK with it. I think Friends in Low Places will probably be the biggest commercial success we'll ever have as artists. But I'll go even further than that and say that, unless I am totally surprised, The Dance will be the greatest success as a song we will ever do. I'll go to my grave with The Dance. It'll probably always be my favorite song.
PLAYBOY: As a new father with another baby on the way, do you ever worry about taking too many risks onstage?
BROOKS: When the first baby came, my first thought was, Well, you're going to have to really pull back on everything you do, and you can't be as wild and as carefree onstage as you were. But I think that's what my wife likes about me, and I think that's what I am. So that 90 minutes onstage, I'm me. And my family realizes that if something happens to me during that 90 minutes, it was a decision I made a long time ago.
PLAYBOY: How did you feel when your daughter, Taylor, was born?
BROOKS: I really wasn't looking forward to it. I was scared to death. I didn't think I'd be a good father and I didn't think that I really knew what love was enough to take care of a child. My theory has always been, If you don't go out to be the best there is, why dress up and go out at all? And I knew there was no way I could be the dad my dad was to me. But when that kid came, it was like the instructions came with her and they were just "Love me." And, whew, that's cool.
Also, my respect for my wife went up six bazillion notches. I used to think my wife was a puss. But, my God, I could never even think about going through that. If it'd been me who had the baby, I'd still be lying there today.
PLAYBOY: Does your daughter go on the road with you now?
BROOKS: Yeah. It's the coolest thing in the world. For my whole career I felt guilty because I was somewhere having a good time and they were home alone. Without the guilt, it's like somebody's untied my hands from behind my back. I'm out there just swinging as hard as I can and loving every second of it, screaming my guts out, running everywhere I can. Then going back to the hotel, the first thing you see when you walk in is your little girl asleep. Kiss her goodnight and go snuggle with your wife. Taylor wakes up early, and Sandy gets her and lets me sleep in. But I don't get to sleep in too long, because before I know it there's a finger shoved up my nose or something. I open my eyes and the first thing I see are those big old blue eyes, those little bitty hands. Now I get to go on the road and have all that.
PLAYBOY: But in the past, you felt guilty touring?
BROOKS: Oh, man, yeah. I felt guilty out there trying to rip the hell out of everything, just singing and screaming and kicking around. You think, I'm out here, and my wife's at home taking care of the bills, the house.... When the baby came it finally got to be too much for me. I didn't want to spend any time away from her, and I didn't want to spend any time away from my wife because of the new respect and love I'd found for her. I had been selling her short for quite some time. And I think Sandy was OK with being alone, because she grew to be independent. We grew independent of each other.
PLAYBOY: But Sandy was not OK with being alone when you went on the road after your first album and reports got back to her that you were unfaithful.
BROOKS: My wife knows me inside out. She knows me well enough to know that it's not the screamers who get me, it's the ones who sit in the corner glued to what you're doing, who are hearing what you're saying and can talk to you about it. That's how Sandy is. She's not a screamer, she's not a showboat. She's just someone who's right there, intense. And that was the problem. I was really lost. It's the same old thing, "I'm working all the time and I'm misunderstood." It was one of those times that you look back on and say, "What a crock of ****." Everything you justified it with is about as thin as water. It was a time that I am not proud of. It was a time that I learned from, so I will not go through it again.
Barbara Walters asked me what I learned, and I was disappointed that the answer I gave her was edited. The answer they showed on TV didn't make any sense. But the one I gave her has a very important message for me. I apologized to both sides for what I did, because one, I betrayed the trust of a woman who truly believed in me. And two, I lost people who could've been good friends to me and my wife, and could have helped me as a person and in my career, too. I lost those by pushing them over the edge of friendship, and it was totally my fault.
PLAYBOY: Would you have changed your ways on your own, or did it take the phone call from Sandy telling you that her bags were packed and she was leaving you unless you straightened up?
BROOKS: I have no idea. I would like to think that I would have come around on my own. But to be honest, I don't know. I don't know why my wife stayed, either. I really don't, other than the fact that I feel she truly loves me. If I'm too honest here I'm sure it will come back and kill me, but I don't know if I would've stayed if the shoe was on the other foot. [Phase] Yeah, I do know. I would not have stayed if the shoe was on the other foot.
PLAYBOY: After Taylor was born, you made an announcement that was widely interpreted to mean you might retire.
BROOKS: The statement was exactly this: Now I am a father, and if my fatherly duties are being neglected because of my work on the road, then I must leave the road. As it was handed from paper to paper, it just kept growing. And the statement today is still simple and plain. As long as Taylor's doing OK on the road, we stay on the road. As long as the new baby's doing fine on the road, we stay on the road. But the second that it's hurting the children, that's when we seriously sit down. In the mirror I see "dad" first and "entertainer" second, and if that offends people, I'm sorry.
PLAYBOY: According to one story, you were so uncertain about fatherhood that you offered your dad a million dollars to raise your daughter for you.
BROOKS: [Laughs] No, that was a joke. But I thought it was a good idea, because I love how my folks raised me.
PLAYBOY: To hear you describe it, the house where you grew up in Oklahoma was a remarkable happy place.
BROOKS: Everything I know about my childhood, everything I feel about my childhood, was nothing but Disneyland. Great place. Growing up in a family that didn't have wealth, a family made up of three families coming together. Mike is from Dad's first marriage, and Jim and Jerry and Betsy are from Mom's first marriage. Then they had Kelly and me. It's three different families coming together, but it worked.
PLAYBOY: You've said your father was gentle but commanding.
BROOKS: You know where Dan Fogelberg, in Leader of the Band, says "a thundering velvet hand"? That's exactly what he was. My dad was a cool guy who never had much of a knack for bull****ting. He pretty much cut straight to it. And Mom could make the worst things sound great. They were a great pair, because they'd level each other out. One was an extreme realist, one was an extreme dreamer. And both were extreme doers.
PLAYBOY: Did you have to try extra hard for attention, or did you get it because you were the baby of the family?
BROOKS: I think I got it because I was the baby. But everybody had their moments of brilliance in our family. And it wasn't like six kids. It was like eight kids, but two of them had to be adults sometimes.
PLAYBOY: What kind of music first had an impact on you?
BROOKS: It was definitely George Jones. From my dad. I remember exactly how his room smelled--like pencil shavings and erasers, cigarette smoke, a lot of leather, because Dad liked to do leather work. I remember when we got him an eight-track player for Christmas. Had George Jones on there. Before that, it was the vinyl stuff: Haggard, Jones, Johnny Horton every now and then. Great stuff.
PLAYBOY: Did everybody in your family play an instrument?
BROOKS: Friday and Saturday nights at the house, Jerry played guitar, Jim played the harmonica, Mike played guitar, Betsy played guitar, and, of course, Dad played guitar. Mom sang her butt off, Dad sang, Betsy sang, Jerry sang, Jim sang, Mike sang. Kelly and I played the wax comb.
PLAYBOY: A couple of you stuck with it.
BROOKS: Betsy was the one who really took it to the extreme. She was playing music in junior high. Betsy couldn't have cared less about high school, couldn't have cared less about anything. She just wanted to play music. And for the past 25 years, Betsy's played every grungy dump to every nice place you could think of. If I had a dollar for every time Betsy played for free, I'd be doing pretty good.
PLAYBOY: You are doing pretty good.
BROOKS: [Laughs] If you say that, it's funny. If I said it, I'd get killed.
PLAYBOY: Growing up, did you have many nonmusical heroes?
BROOKS: John Wayne, for sure. I know nothing about John Wayne the man, but the thing that I loved best about him is probably the same thing I love best about my dad: John Wayne's characters knew what was right and wrong, whether they were the good guy or the bad guy. They might not admit it, but they knew it, and you could see it.
But the numero uno guy I fell in love with when I was ten years old was Roberto Clemente. After hearing about his death, hearing he was on his way to work with kids, I just fell in love with him. He went out the way I want to go out: making the last catch, hitting your head on the goalpost and dying in front of 65,000 people. He was flying to help children, and his plane crashed. What a way to go.
So he was my hero, and what came from that was an unbelievable love for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Then in 1974 the Steelers, and in the mid-Eighties the Penguins. I don't know what it is about Pittsburgh. I'm not from there, I have no relatives there, but those are my teams. I don't even have a favorite basketball team, because Pittsburgh doesn't have one.
PLAYBOY: So sports was your passion before music?
BROOKS: Yeah, but the difference between sports and music, which makes me feel like I'm doing what I should be doing, is that in sports I could always see what I needed to do, but I could never do it. One of the greatest minds, to me, is Joe Montana's, because he knows what he needs to do and he does it. There's a saying that many great athletes, especially quarterbacks, live by: I'd rather be behind with two minutes to go and have the football than be ahead and not have the ball. When you have that attitude you know you're going to win. And I could never do that as an athlete. I'd much rather not have the ball and be 150 points ahead with two minutes left. Sports didn't last long for me. I was fortunate that sports paid for some of my college, but that was pretty much the end of it.
PLAYBOY: When did you discover sex?
BROOKS: As in virginity loss? Ooh, that's a tough one. [Pauses] The reason it's tough is that kids today need to know, especially since it's a matter of life and death, that holding off is all right. They don't need to hear that people who are role models, whether they want to be or not, lost it maybe before they were ready to handle it.
PLAYBOY: Are you hinting that you had sex before you were ready?
BROOKS: Well, I'll just tell you that I waited until I thought the time was right, and it was.
PLAYBOY: You've been described as having been a "polite womanizer" when you were in your teens and 20s.
BROOKS: A polite womanizer? I'm not sure what it means to be a womanizer, but I've always enjoyed females. I've always thought they were extremely intelligent, extremely sensitive. I just always want to be around them. Something about them is so cool. Back when we were just starting out, I was at a dinner, and Emmylou Harris was at the same table. And her date was all over her. I don't know if this guy was her husband or what, but he was not conducting himself in a manner you would think would be right at the time. He leaned over to say something to her, and she didn't look at him, she just held up one finger. And bam, he was a perfect guy the rest of the night.
[Laughs] I enjoy women.
PLAYBOY: Were drinking or drugs ever a problem?
BROOKS: No, not at all. I've always despised drugs. I don't know why. Just hated them with a passion. And alcohol, for some reason, has never been a big thing to me. I guess it's from working in clubs and working as a bouncer. You had to clean up every night, and you'd go out and dump the trash. And when you mix all that alcohol together, it makes the worst smell in the world.
PLAYBOY: And as a bouncer you spend a lot of time dealing with drunks--
BROOKS: Yeah, and I sure didn't want to be like them. That's a gig I'd never, ever do again. Even if I didn't have a dime, I'd never do it.
PLAYBOY: Why did you do it then?
BROOKS: I thought it was cool. It was something neat to do, and you got paid for it. And all my buddies were there, because the bar owners hire all the athletes to do it. It was safe, because I had a lot of friends around me. Also, I learned that it's not too bad to be a small bouncer, because the customers want to pick on the big guys. They want to take the bug guy out. So I danced a lot, shot a lot of pool. It was like a vacation for me.
PLAYBOY: In the mid-Seventies, you went to a lot of rock concerts. During that time, did you ever think that's what you wanted to do?
BROOKS: When I saw Queen I pretty much thought, Man, this is the feeling I want. But I didn't know how to get it. And when I heard George Strait in the early Eighties, that was it. I said, "There's my way: country music." But I was worried, because when you play country music you pretty much stand there. Then I saw Dwight Yoakam and I said, "Hey, he ain't just standing there. He's all over the place. We'll pump it up and do everything that a late-Seventies arena rock show did, except that what comes out of the speakers will be pure country." And that's what happened.
PLAYBOY: The first time you went to Nashville, you lasted less than a day. Were you expecting doors to open immediately?
BROOKS: I really thought there'd be a line where you go and play.
PLAYBOY: You had a meeting at the offices of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers with Merlin Littlefield, who said, "Maybe you should go back home." And you did. Why did it take only one person to send you packing?
BROOKS: I am not being funny when I tell you that I was just naive as hell. I had never been out of the state of Oklahoma until I went to Nashville. I was naive and blind to how things work, and I thought this guy's word was law.
PLAYBOY: When you went back a couple of years later, what did you have that you didn't have the first time?
BROOKS: For one, I had my wife with me. And you know how if something's really good in your history, it just gets better over time, and if something's really bad it just gets worse? I figured I had seen the animals as ugly as it could get. So I thought, "Well, let's see what else is out there."
PLAYBOY: It took a couple more years, but you finally got a record deal and a $10,000 advance.
BROOKS: More than I was making in a year, right there in one day.
PLAYBOY: Did you run out and buy extravagant things?
BROOKS: My lawyer's bill and my management concession were $4000. So I had $6000 in the bank. The night I got the check, I went home and said, "Honey, what is wrong with your face?" And Sandy started bawling. She had lost muscle control on one side of her face. So I took her to the hospital, and they had to run an MRI on her and a CAT scan. We had no insurance. The bill was $6000. It was Bell's palsy, but Sandy was over it in two months. And by that time, everything was pretty cool and rolling.
PLAYBOY: How did you feel making your first album?
BROOKS: I felt like we were getting ready to do what nobody does: George Strait meets late-Seventies rock and roll. Looking back, that album seems stone traditional compared with everything else I've done.
PLAYBOY: Your first number one hit, If Tomorrow Never Comes, was written after you watched your wife sleeping and imagined what would happen if you died that night. That's a pretty morbid inspiration for a love song.
BROOKS: Early in my career, long before the record deals came, I had a severe problem dealing with death. A friend of mine died, and a roommate was killed. And for some reason, all my songs were about mortality. I had a buddy from home who said, "What’s the deal with death you got going here?" I said, "It's really no deal with death. It's just real life to me, and I'm accepting that." I had a song called Lord, Let Me Wake Up Alone, about a guy who goes to bed with a woman for the first time after his wife has died. And he knows that his wife will never be the last woman he's slept with. Now, that's pretty dark and morbid. [Laughs]
PLAYBOY: Your breakthrough album was your second, No Fences. Did that album feel special to you when you were making it?
BROOKS: Yeah, very special. In fact, I rehearsed a proposal for that album to my label. I had Boston's Boston, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and one more album. I think it was Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive. I was going to show them those album covers, and then show No Fences. I felt like that was the class the album was in, meaning what it could sell. And the difference between No Fences and my other records is that Fences never went away. It's still there and still moving product. It's amazing. I truly love Fences.
PLAYBOY: Which must have made it a hard act to follow.
BROOKS: Just the pressure I put on myself. But Ropin' The Wind did extremely well. If there's an album that I'm most proud of in terms of how it competed with other albums, it's Ropin' The Wind. I called it the Cheerios of country music, because at that time, Cheerios was doing an ad where you push a Cheerio down in a bowl of milk and it pops back up. What happened was that U2 came out, slammed in at number one, and Ropin' popped back up. Michael Jackson did the same. They just kept coming. I think it traded places six or seven times. That album spent 18 or 19 weeks at number one, while six or seven of the world's biggest artists released things. So I was extremely proud of that. And that was the attitude I had with The Chase. We came in at number one. Then came an album called The Bodyguard. I thought, OK, come on. We'll take your best shot and we'll get back up there. Now, I am a Whitney Houston fan till the day she dies, I am a Kevin Costner fan till the day he dies, but at the same time I was like, "Bodyguard, move over." But it stayed at number one.
PLAYBOY: Before The Chase came out, hadn't you planned to call it Let It Ride, as a sign that you were becoming less competitive?
BROOKS: Yeah. I thought maybe what I should do was just quit with Ropin' The Wind and No Fences and go be with my little girl. I said, "Shoot, man, everything's gone well for you. Roll the dice one more time and let it ride." And then it hit me that I was nowhere finished until God told me I was finished. And I said, "You fool. You ran so hard, and right now, in the middle of the chase, you're thinking it's over." The chase, that's what I'm in. That's where the title came from. And The Chase, to me, is such a relaxed album, despite coming at a time of almost personal crisis for me.
PLAYBOY: The crisis over becoming a father?
BROOKS: The war within me. Sandy had trouble with her pregnancy, and I was wondering from one day to the next, am I going to have a wife at all? Am I going to have a wife and a baby? Is the baby going to be OK?
Also, I felt like a chump at my record label. I love my record-label people, but what I saw was a label move from Music Row to the penthouse of one of the most beautiful buildings in Nashville. I saw two or three labels spin off of that one label, and I saw a report that said my sales were 64 or 68 percent of the bottom line of the label. And no one had come up to me and said, "Look, we don't owe you this, but here's a little something extra in thanks." Which they didn't have to do--but being an employer myself, it's one of the greatest compliments you can pay an employee. So I told them, "I want to put my heart and soul into this, but I sure feel like a chump, you know." I guess that's bad for me to feel that way, because the music and the reward from the fans and my God-given talent should be enough. But for some reason, and I can't explain it, I felt like a chump. So I started going through a record renegotiation at the same time all that was happening.
PLAYBOY: The deal you negotiated with your label went in the opposite direction of most other big-money deals in recent years. You didn't take any money up front, and you pay for all your recording costs yourself, but in return you get an extremely high royalty rate.
BROOKS: The deal showed me that these guys had faith in what I could do. There were no big bucks exchanged, just the promise of "The more work you do, the more you'll see for it." And I firmly believe that if every record label had the deal with its artists that my record label has with me, they would all break even or turn a profit, simply because my label is not out any cost when an item hits the streets. If it doesn't sell, I don't make a wonderful profit.
PLAYBOY: But most artists cannot afford to make a deal like that, because only successful musicians can pay their own recording costs.
BROOKS: True. But the artist should not be a slave to the record label. They should work together. And I think the first deal an artist signs with a record label basically makes him a slave. It's common that in a record deal for a new artist, the label gets a percentage of the artist's writing, and it gets a percentage of the artist's concessions. That's bull****. New artists get hammered. It's only fair that if the artist hits, the artist hammers back.
PLAYBOY: You're known for keeping the prices low on your concert tickets, which sell for about half the going rate.
BROOKS: Thank you.
PLAYBOY: But with Ropin' The Wind and The Chase, your record label raised the list prices a dollar more than other CDs.
BROOKS: [Sighs] Yes.
PLAYBOY: Should you have done anything? Could you have done anything?
BROOKS: Man, I did. I screamed, I begged, I pleaded with the record company. On Ropin' The Wind the answer was, "We'll give you a dollar for every complaint you have." And the guy took a dollar out and said to me, "You're the first one. Here's a dollar." Nine million copies later.... Then they did it on The Chase and I *****ed and screamed. And that time I got a lot of complaints about the price. The last one, they dropped the price 20 cents or something.
My record label is just a record label and it's its own company. I control my T-shirt prices and my ticket prices. The things I can't get ahold of are my CD and cassette prices. And if I had my way, I wouldn't compete with the other prices. I'd just blow the **** out of them. Now, if you look at it on a comparative basis--and I'm not defending the record labels at all--you can go to a movie, and if it's bad and you're with a date, you walk out with nothing to show for 15 bucks. But with a CD, at least you have something in your hand at the end. If you don't like it, that's going to lead to reselling that CD. And I have a big problem with that. So it's a tough call for me.
PLAYBOY: You're an outspoken opponent of selling used CDs, but you've just hit on a prime argument in its favor: At $15 apiece, new CDs are too expensive for people to take many chances, especially on new artists.
BROOKS: And 15 bucks, I think we all know, is a pretty midline price.
PLAYBOY: It doesn't hurt you, because your fans are devoted enough to spend that $15. But you're also a big fan of Chris LeDoux, a singer a lot of your fans would probably like if they heard him. Banning the sale of used CDs might eliminate a way for people to take a chance on lesser-known artists such as LeDoux.
BROOKS: I understand, but resold CDs have to come with compensation for the people who make the music. You know, I've heard people compare them to a thousand things, and the comparisons just don't hold up. I've heard, "Old money-grabber Brooks is at it again. If I go down and buy a car, I can turn around and sell that car. What's the difference?" The difference is plain and simple: A car will depreciate, where a CD, if taken care of, won't. Another thing is, you can't go home and reproduce that car in 30 minutes and bring back the new one. There's nothing that you can sell in today's market and still have it after you sell it. That's exactly what music is.
I'm sorry, man, I'm an average guy. If I can buy this CD, go home and make a perfectly great copy of it, and then you're going to give me money back on this thing--**** yes, I'm going to do that. I can't blame the people who buy used CDs. But used CDs are up to 20 percent of some people's bottom line, and mass retail hasn't hit it yet. What's going to happen then? It's going to go through the ceiling.
PLAYBOY: Is it? A mainstream record store needs to carry any album its customers are looking for. But used CD retailers are limited to whatever people don't want. That suggests that the market for used CDs won't grow the way you envision.
BROOKS: For the sake of the whole industry, I truly hope you're right. I hope the percentage is small. But so far everything I have seen points to the opposite. This thing is getting huge, and it could get so big that we can't fight it.
PLAYBOY: Your distributor, CEMA, along with several others, tried to fight it by withholding co-op advertising dollars from stores that sold used CDs. But some retail chains sued for restraint of trade, and all the labels backed off.
BROOKS: I saw so many things after the litigation saying that CEMA and Liberty Records and Garth Brooks lost, that they've changed their view on it. Let's make it very plain: I have not changed my view at all. People who sell used CDs are screwing people who write the songs and play on records and need that money to feed their families. And there's no way I can see that any different. If they want to compensate these people then let them sell used CDs all they want.
PLAYBOY: You felt misrepresented in the press on that issue. Do you often feel that way?
BROOKS: Well, I'm a happy guy, but, unfortunately, a lot of what the media focus on are dark things. I'd like people to see that I enjoy life and I'm happy. I mean, look at this gig. It's like the joke about sex and pizza: Even when it's bad, this gig is great. And when it's great, man, it's rockin'.
PLAYBOY: Were you ever bothered by labels like the Pillsbury Cowboy, or other comments and jokes about your weight?
BROOKS: Not really, but they had a tape going around called Girth Brooks. They changed all the songs, like Thunder Rolls was Buttered Rolls. Actually, a big turning point in my life was when this was playing on my bus. I was laughing at it, and Chris LeDoux and his bunch were on the bus. Everybody got through laughing, and Chris looked at me and in front of everybody said, "Man, doesn't that bother you?" and I lied to him. I said, "No, it doesn't bother me," when inside it was killing me. So the whole time I was losing weight, I kept remembering that tape, and I kept remembering Chris LeDoux, over the roar of the bus engine, no smile on his face, calling me out.
PLAYBOY: Do awards mean as much to you as they used to?
BROOKS: This is a tough one. There are things we have won that meant the world to me. And then I find the industry giving those awards to someone I don't respect. If they give an award that I've won in the past to the last person I'd have given that award to, then the award doesn't really mean that much. When they're working for you, awards and charts mean the world. When they're not, they mean nothing. I said that a long time ago, of course, but I didn't believe it then.
PLAYBOY: Last fall you were shut out at the Country Music Association awards ceremony, where you had won the Entertainer of the Year award two years in a row.
BROOKS: You can't help but wonder if the industry is telling you, "OK, Garth, it's time to get out of the way now." One of my teachers in college said if you're in the entertainment business, you have an ego problem. I agree with that. I like to be recognized, I like to be stroked, I like to be rewarded. So when you don't win Entertainer of the Year after winning it a couple of years, you wonder. But actually it feels good to see signs in the audience that say, YOU'RE OUR ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR. Wow, man, that feels like four years ago.
PLAYBOY: Except that four years ago you didn't have this much money, or a movie deal with Disney.
BROOKS: Yeah, I have a wonderful vehicle for movies coming up. The movie company allows me to direct if I want to and stuff like that.
PLAYBOY: Do you have strong ideas about the kinds of movies you want to make?
BROOKS: I think I'll approach it the same way I approach music. The movies I make have to be very real. And that's a big stumbling block in a lot of screen-plays. I understand that this is Hollywood, where dreams are 50 feet tall and 80 feet wide. But it has to be real. I mean, I'm the worst at sitting in a movie theater, loving the movie, and then something happens that just wouldn't happen. And no matter what happens after that, I can't enjoy the movie.
PLAYBOY: Any examples?
BROOKS: Well, you know, I've seen movies where the bad guy has the good guy totally disarmed and the good guy is hanging off a cliff or something, and then out of nowhere a flying squirrel happens to fly into a gas tank that has the lid off it, and the car blows up and flips and causes an earthquake and everything is crumbled except the one rock the guy's holding on to, so he's the one who lives in the end. That kind of thing really destroys me, man. [Laughs] It doesn't bother Sandy at all when things aren't real. The thing that bothers her is my saying, "Oh, come on." She says, "Shut up, Garth. I'm trying to enjoy the movie."
PLAYBOY: With another child on the way, are you going to take more time off?
BROOKS: Well, right before we took the six months off, my producer, Allen Reynolds, said, "You like to be a success in pretty much everything you do, don't you?" And I gave him the old speech: "Hey, if you ain't going to be the best, why dress up and go out there?" He says, "Well, pal, let me tell you something: you stink at relaxing." I was laughing, but I was pissed at the same time. I felt like, "I'm as good as anybody else at relaxing." And then it hit me: I did stink at relaxing. I'm an extremist, so I always thought relaxing meant wasting time. And relaxing simply means just that--relaxing. So I worked on it. I am proud to say I am now as good at relaxing as anybody. [Laughs]
PLAYBOY: Is there anything you stink at now?
BROOKS: Yeah. I stink at telling my wife exactly how I feel. I stink at being there for my wife and listening when she talks. I suck at communicating with the people I truly love and care for. And I have a bad problem of just running and expecting everyone else to follow. I do that a lot with my crew, and they are professional enough to keep up with me. But I need to work on that, too. I've never had any problem telling the press how I feel, but for some crazy reason I have a problem telling people who are real close to me how I feel.
PLAYBOY: Are you worried about losing some of the drive you had when you started?
BROOKS: Well, you're going to lose it. Our guitar player, James Garver, heard The Chase, and before he could catch himself, he said, "I don't understand why artists do something that makes them famous and then you never hear it again." He thought it hurt me, but it didn't. I knew the answer, because I'd asked myself that same question. I read an interview where Fleetwood Mac said they could have made another album like Rumours, but they'd already made one, so they made something that they enjoyed. And, as a fan, I never really forgave them for that. I was thinking, If you can make another Rumours, make five more of them. But then I thought about it, and I said to James, "Pal, what I have found is that if you're a mountain climber, once you climb a mountain, you really want to climb another mountain."
PLAYBOY: A bigger mountain?
BROOKS: I have totally new goals now. All the goals I used to have I was able to accomplish. So I needed to set new goals, and my first mistake was just setting larger numbers in the same industry. That was extremely shortsighted of me. Even if you reach those goals, you're still in the same place you were.
PLAYBOY: For the first time since you started, you're not planning to put out an album this year.
BROOKS: Yeah. The reason there won't be an album is that the head of my label said, "Look, since 1989 you've put out six pieces of product, not including videos. I think the market's ready for a break, why don't we not deliver in 1994 and see what happens from there on?" So that's the attitude we're taking. I'm going to record music, but as far as the future is concerned, I don't know. I hope it's family, and if it also includes music, then the luckiest man in the world just continued this streak.
PLAYBOY: Can you really envision a future without music?
BROOKS: I'll never see the future without music in my house. But, yeah, I can see the industry and the people being through with me. Sure.
PLAYBOY: But country musicians often have long careers. Look at Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash.
BROOKS: I don't see myself in that way. For me to stay in the business, I would have to do it with some kind of success. And yeah, man, if I had the talent of Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard, sure. But I'm not those guys. Those guys are legends, and those guys know how to be legends. It's like my not being in the same class with Joe Montana. I was right about the athletic thing, and I'm right about this. I don't know what the future holds, but as long as this thing is supposed to last, it's going to last. When it's over, it'll be over. Now, I guess it'll take us a little while to realize it's over. When you go out and play for five people in a 17,000-seat coliseum, you have to look for these signs. [Laughs]
Ever see The Man with Two Brains? Steve Martin is looking at his dead wife's picture, and he says, "If there's some sign for me not to marry this girl, let me know." And the picture starts spinning and the wall cracks, ****'s flying all over. Then it calms down and he says, "Any sign. I'll be looking for a sign." So yeah, I'll be looking for subtle hints.
A Special Thanks To DeeDee Wiitala (MTNGIRLCRAZY4GARTH) for providing the article to us!