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Interview:
Garth Brooks brings some "FUN," and fun, to a very tough year
 

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Garth Brooks acknowledges that putting out a new album called "FUN" right now is a bit challenging.



"COVID hit, and the fact the album was called 'FUN' — how can you celebrate and have fun when the world is struggling?" Brooks, 58, says by phone from Nashville about his 14th studio album, which came out Friday, Nov. 20, along with an expanded version of his 2018 "Triple Live." But as the pandemic "kept going and going," Brooks began to think that some "FUN" was maybe just what the world needed.



"It shifted, I think, to hopefully saying, 'Hey, can we have a little fun in all of this struggling?'" he explains. "Maybe it's hopefully a way to end the year on a fun note." He chuckles as he adds that, "I'm sorry — I'm gonna say 'fun' eight thousand times during the interview. I never knew the curse it would bring by naming the album that."







The 14-track "FUN," produced by Brooks, is the latest entry in a 31-year recording career that's established him as the most successful artist in country music — and one of the most successful in all of music history. Since his self-titled debut in 1989, Brooks has sold more than 170 million albums worldwide, scored 19 No. 1 country hits and has an awards case brimming over with seven Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year trophies and, as of March, the prestigious Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress.



The album follows 2016's "Gunslinger" and was designed, as its title indicates, to be a good time.



"There wasn't much room for ballads on it," says Brooks, who co-wrote eight of the songs. "It was just more of an upbeat, fun record. My stuff's honky tonk, y'know? We're lucky enough to get to play in arenas and stadiums, but it's honky tonk stuff."



That's certainly borne out by the bulk of "FUN," from the buoyant "Dive Bar" duet with Blake Shelton to fare such as "That's What Cowboys Do," the Caribbean-flavored "Message in a Bottle," the anthemic "The Road I'm On" and the boozy "Party Gras." "Amen," meanwhile, takes him in a soulful, gospel-flavored direction, pumped up with a brass section and choir.



Some late additions, however, balance "FUN" with a bit more poignancy.



Brooks cut "Where the Cross Don't Burn" during the spring after reading what turned out to be bogus reports of fellow country singer Charley Pride's death. "I've had that song for 10 years and wanted him to sing on it," Brooks says. "I waited and waited and thought I blew my opportunity. So I called him ... and flew down to Dallas and did the session. That's a karma thing. Maybe that song is the whole reason this album's been waiting.



"If that's it, for me it's worth it."



A rendition of "Shallow" from "A Star is Born," a duet with his wife, Trisha Yearwood, was the result of a Facebook live request, and then a subsequent performance on the "Garth & Trisha Live!" CBS special during April.



"She's watched the ('A Star is Born') movies, like, 1,000 times. She was ready for it," Brooks says. "Me, I was lost as last year's Easter egg on it. Thank God I only had four lines, then you get out of the way and let the queen take over.



"When we did the CBS special people started to say, 'Hey, can you put it on the album?' and I told them, 'Yes, we will try it for the album,' knowing it was never gonna make the album (laughs). But, damn, between Ms. Yearwood's performance, between the band, the record feels really, really good, so of course it made the album."







Expanding "Triple Live," meanwhile, brought the concert souvenir up to date by adding several songs from the stadium tour — including "All-American Kid" from The Detroit Ford Field show. "We joke that size doesn't matter, but it does," Brooks says. "When we started adding the stadium cuts, it just made the whole record pick up. They're, like, little magic moments that just kill you."



Brooks has managed to stay busy despite being prematurely booted from the road — and has, in fact, been highly visible with his weekly "Inside Studio G" Facebook sessions, TV specials — including a two-part A&E documentary — and a concert film that screened at drive-in theaters during the summer.



"I guess it's like somebody going on a diet. You're gonna find a replacement for sugar, or whatever," Brooks notes. "But at some point you're gonna have to eat the real thing. There's not one of us that wouldn't trade everything we've done this past year just to have one more chance to play for people."



No one knows when that will be, of course, but Brooks is already planning for a return to the stage. He has Stadium Tour dates booked through the summer of 2022 — though, he notes, some are in flux — and when "the flag drops" to allow them to happen he's already looking at a new wrinkle for those.



"There's something that's gonna become a staple in this — virtual reality," he says. "What virtual reality gives you is the chance to play not only for people who want to show up in person but also for those people who are not confident yet or those people who don't want to fight traffic or whatever. It's coming and it's going to be a leg of all concerts, so what we want to do is jump on it with all the heart and soul and make sure if and when we do virtual reality it's sincere, it's warm, it's inviting."



Brooks also is anxious to play more on his 360-degree stage, which made its debut in Detroit and, because of the pandemic shutdown, hasn't been seen since.



"I sincerely want a rematch with Detroit," Brooks says with a laugh. "We did the new opening and I felt the whole crowd on their heels and I thought, 'Oh, I've got ’em exactly where I want ...' but when they came back off their heels they kicked my ass for two and a half hours. I felt like I was always catching up. It was the most fun I've ever had getting my ass kicked — but I don't like getting my ass kicked.



"When you get a crowd that good, you just want to go back and take the ride one more time."



The next time we see him, however, will be when Brooks and Yearwood host "Garth & Trisha Live! A Holiday Concert Event," a one-hour special slated for Dec. 20 on CBS. The songs will come mostly by request during "Inside Studio G" — with, Brooks promises, a few things that may swerve from the expected path.



"It's all holiday, but that doesn't mean you can't do 'I've Got Friends in Ho Ho Ho Places'," he says, referencing his 1990 hit "Friends in Low Places." "The main thing is that hopefully for an hour we can all be together apart and kind of celebrate.



"This COVID thing, it's rising at the time when what saves the year for us is being together with friends and family at gatherings. And that sucks. So we're gonna have to be stronger than ever as people and find a new way to be together, apart. Music has always been part of the healing, so hopefully this will contribute to the good time."



Garth Brooks' new albums, "FUN" and the expanded "Triple Live," released on Friday, Nov. 20. Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, host "Garth & Trisha Live! A Holiday Concert Event" at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, on CBS (WWJ-TV, Channel 62 in Detroit).

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