When he appeared in February at the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, Garth Brooks warned that the album he was working on would be extremely dark.
No one was surprised. Brooks’ marriage had ended, his mother had passed away and he had announced plans to retire to Oklahoma to raise his three daughters. Delivering a downbeat collection would have been a reasonable artistic response.
One of the songs he previewed that day, ” If You Ever Wonder,” included the lyrics, “There’s still only two choices/But which one is right/Stay for the children or show them the light.”
Scarecrow, the new album, arrives in stores Tuesday (Nov. 13). It does have some intensely personal moments — the final track, for instance, is “When You Come Back to Me Again,” a song inspired by his mother’s death. But “If You Ever Wonder” is not on the set, and the darker moments are balanced by sunnier fare like the George Jones duet “Beer Run” (so silly he pulled it as the first single in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks), and “Wrapped Up in You” a stripped-down, Beatle-esque workout. On the cover, Brooks sports a coat he wore on his first, self-titled album back in 1989.
“Somewhere in the spring it popped open. It was happy,” says Brooks about the change of mood during an interview with country.com at Capitol Nashville’s offices. “Somehow we have made a happy, hopefully entertaining album. At the same time, hopefully it has given insight into who we are as an artist at this point in our lives.”
Brooks last released a new set of studio material — as Garth Brooks — in November 1997. In the interim he issued a live set and the somewhat controversial and, for his fans, confusing Garth Brooks: In the Life of Chris Gaines.
Anticipation for the new set would have been great anyway, but when Brooks announced last October that he would no longer tour and that his next set would probably be his last album, the stakes rose.
With Scarecrow, he delivers a diverse album that ranges from the blues-rock of “Squeeze Me In,” a Delbert McClinton cover done as a duet with Trisha Yearwood, to the James Taylor-like “Thicker Than Blood” and the Celtic-flavored “Pushing Up Daisies.” The honky-tonkish “Big Money” was recorded first by Mark Chesnutt, and America’s “Don’t Cross the River” gets a bluegrass treatment inspired by a recording from bluegrass favorites Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
“The diversity might be a reflection of how hard we looked in all places for music,” Brooks said. “On this album, more than any [I've done], I felt like most of the stuff I heard was [more appropriate] for somebody else. To find it, we had to search in some very different places. We looked at twice as many songs as regular for us.”
Also different this time around was the fact that once the album was finished, Brooks would not be taking the songs out on the road for an extended tour. He has performed “Beer Run” with Jones already, on the recent CMA awards show, and he will do three hour-long CBS specials, on consecutive Wednesdays, beginning at 10 p.m. ET/PT Wednesday (Nov. 14). But songs like “Why Ain’t I Running,” with its Eagles-inspired steel guitar, and the up-tempo “Rodeo or Mexico,” sound tailor-made for Brooks’ high-energy stage style.
“All of our records are based on live coming back. … This one we did the same thing,” Brooks explained. “We did it as if we were going to go out and tour it live, because that’s how we’ve always done our stuff. So we did it with that mentality.
“And, yeah, it kills me because ‘Rodeo or Mexico,’ you could set up a four-poster stage out in the middle of just a field with no one, turn those amps just as hot as you can get ‘em, and just let ‘em rip, and it would be a blast.
“‘Why Ain’t I Runnin’ is ‘That Summer’ or ‘The Beaches of Cheyenne’ for us, that big driving thing that usually you would hear within the first five songs of every concert.
“You just stick to what you do. If you don’t do the tour anymore, you still play songs that, if all of a sudden night would be day and things would be totally opposite of what you think they are and you’re back out on tour again, then you would be ready with this kind of music.”
But with daughters Taylor, 9, August, 7, and Allie, 5, as his top priority, Brooks has no plans to give in to the urge to hire a band, load up the trucks and set out across the country.
His father is having trouble dealing with his mother’s death, Brooks said. Several lines added by Brooks to Kevin Welch’s “Pushing Up Daisies” make reference to that fact. “My mother died, but somehow she keeps living/She’ll never cease to amaze me/My dad turns his back on each day that he’s given/Because he’d rather be pushing up daisies,” Brooks sings.
At the time of his interview with country.com, Brooks had not played the song for his father. “It’ll be interesting,” he predicted. “What’s weird is, my dad’ll be the first one to tell you it’s the truth, as much as he hates it. … If he takes it negative, do I mean it negative? I don’t know. As a son, it’s tough to watch your father die while he’s still alive.”
Brooks lives near his father in Oklahoma, but they don’t see each other frequently. “My father’d be the first one to tell you this,” he said. “My dad died the day my mom did. When you ask him to come out, see the grandkids, let’s go to a soccer game, he takes it like you’re asking him to forget. I’ve never walked in his shoes, so I cannot condemn him for that. It’s just hard, as a son, to watch that happen.”
So Brooks will spend time with his own daughters, watching them grow and being a father, instead of being away for long stretches of time. In lieu of playing live, to make sure the public knows he has a new album out, Brooks has entered into a partnership with Dr Pepper, throwing his commercial clout behind a product for the first time. “Be you, do what you do,” he sings in a commercial airing frequently for 90 days beginning Nov. 3. The spot borrows its look and feel from Brooks’ video for “Wrapped Up in You.”
“If plans go like they’re laid out,” he said, “I don’t think anybody’s not going to know [the album's] out there. It’s whether we have created music that gets people motivated to go get it. That will be the whole thing, which is fair.”
Brooks tried to record “If You Ever Wonder,” the dark song he performed at the radio seminar, but he couldn’t. He even considered putting it in the CD booklet to let his fans know where his mind was, once upon a time. “It was going to send the message of where I wasn’t,” he said, “and I just couldn’t do it.”
Scarecrow takes its name from the character in The Wizard of Oz who, without a brain, let his heart lead him down the yellow brick road.
“I’ve never been a fan of myself,” Brooks insisted, “but when I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, I see a guy that’s taking his kids to school, taking his kids to soccer, that is treating everything in his life now with the utmost honesty. Not lying to anybody. … I don’t think I could ever say I feel good about myself, but I feel the best I’ve ever felt.”