Editor’s Note: CMT Hot 20 Countdown will feature exclusive footage from backstage at Brooks’ Notre Dame concert on an all-new episode airing Saturday-Sunday (Oct. 27-28) at 9 a.m. ET.
In the 33 years that Garth Brooks has been an entertainer, everything has changed. But Brooks himself? He has not. That’s the epiphany I had when Brooks and I sat down for a backstage conversation before his history-making show at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (Oct. 20).
The concert later that night set the stage for Brooks’ upcoming North American Stadium Tour. And at the very end of the show, he took requests from the crowd. Which is exactly how he got his start in Oklahoma: taking requests from the crowd for everything from Billy Joel and Gordon Lightfoot to David Allan Coe and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
So in so many ways, Brooks is who he’s always been.
You’ve said before that playing for tips was your school. And that playing Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater, Oklahoma — with just a guitar and a small crowd — prepared you for what came next. But how do you ever prepare for something like a stadium? What’s your school these days?
This. Tonight. At Notre Dame. This is Stadium 101. I’m gonna learn so much. The band and the crew, they’ve got their parts down. So you don’t need to worry about them. But my job is, how do you make those people in the upper seats feel like they’re in the front row? And how do you get this many people to act as one?
Isn’t that always a struggle though, for any country singer on any stage?
Well in the honky-tonks, it’s easy. Because everyone is right there. And then in an arena, you start to understand it. But here the big thing is that we are in the round. And that’s the hardest thing to do, because you can only play to 50 percent of the audience at once. So how do you get everyone to be engaged and stay engaged all night long? That’ll probably keep me up at night until the very last show of this tour. Then we’ll have it down.
So maybe you had it easier back when the crowds were more like 84 instead of 84,000. But so much has changed since those days. Since your post-college gigs in the mid-80s and your debut single “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” in 1989. Do those days seem like a lifetime ago?
Not at all. I think George Strait said it best in “Troubadour”: “I still feel 25.” I do. I still always feel like the guy just starting out. We’re still just boys from Oklahoma and Kansas playing music. Time changes, but you don’t. Nobody really changes. When you see someone who has changed since becoming an artist, they might just be revealing who they really are. Because nobody changes.
Maybe that’s true, but the music does. It has changed so much since your initial heyday. And it seems like suddenly, and collectively, all the artists and fans now agree that 90s country was everything. We are all so nostalgic for that sound. Why do you think that is?
I can only guess. But try to understand that the top three markets for country music — for records, for tickets, for everything — are New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. So in the 90s, that was the first time that country music was played from coast to coast. And the people listening from coast to coast could all find something they related to. The guy going to work in New York City could relate to “The River.” And the guy driving a tractor in Oklahoma could relate to “The River.”
So it was just that 90s country was relatable to more people?
That, and the fact that we had things to say back then. Have you seen A Star is Born? When Bradley Cooper says to Lady Gaga, “They want to hear your voice, and they want to hear what you have to say.” We were saying things back then. And at the time, we also had the gift of new. Radio was going to play everything because they couldn’t get enough of it.
We were so lucky that that gift of new brought “The Dance,” “The Thunder Rolls” and “We Shall Be Free.” All those things become your voice. And then you have a decision to make in this business: try and do what’s hot and current, or just be yourself. And it’ll last as long as it lasts. That’s just where you’re at. When I’ve chased what’s common, it’s always come back to bite me.
The concert was filmed for a CBS TV special Garth: Live at Notre Dame!, which will air Dec. 2. And Brooks’ North American Stadium Tour will start in Glendale, Arizona in 2019, and he will continue to play about a dozen stadiums a year for three years, before heading back to Notre Dame to end the tour.