A Conversation With Garth Brooks

Exclusive Interview Delves Into Life in Oklahoma and Offers Advice for Country Artists

(Editor's note: When Garth Brooks returned to Nashville recently for a special appearance, he consented to only one interview -- and only with columnist Hazel Smith. The following is a conversation between longtime friends.)

As I stepped onto the red carpet leading into the Grand Ole Opry, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and was face to face with Garth Brooks. "We're like twins," he blurted. Garth, dressed in a red shirt and black pants, matched my red and black top with black pants. It gave me a rush to have G.B. in Tennessee again.

Between Opry shows, behind closed doors in the confines of general manager Pete Fisher's office, Garth said right off the bat he probably could not answer half the questions I would ask. When details of his upcoming CD set for Wal-Mart are ready for the announcement, he promised to see that I got the scoop. Garth, who has kept his finger in every pie of his career up until now, tells me Wal-Mart is in charge.

When I asked why he decided to go back to the studio and record the new single, "Good Ride Cowboy," Garth replied, "Bob Doyle, Bryan Kennedy, guys who have been a part of my life forever, wrote the song, but I cannot tell you how it will be marketed and sold. I was at home in Oklahoma, retired, when out of the blue I got a phone call from the biggest retailer in America who simply said, 'Hey, we miss you.' It was a sweet phone call from Wal-Mart's David Porter. [Porter is vice president, general manager, movies and music for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.] A really good man ... a man I'd follow through hell and back. Great man. Up front and forward. Honest as the day is long. So he offered me this deal that I cannot talk about until the Wal-Mart announcement in November. David says we won't have a problem. And if we do, we're gonna bust our ass to fix it."

"You recorded 'Good Ride Cowboy' as a tribute to Chris LeDoux?" I asked.

Garth nodded and added, "I knew if I ever recorded any kind of tribute to Chris, it would have to be up-tempo, happy ... a song like him ... not some slow, mournful song. He wasn't like that. Chris was exactly what our heroes are supposed to be. He was a man's man. A good friend."

I shared with Garth about starting work on my celebrity cookbook and getting a manila envelope in the mail with two recipes and a note that read: "Chris asked us to be sure and get these recipes to you." Chris was in the hospital getting a liver transplant -- and Garth was trying to donate his part of his liver to Chris. I wept.

Again, I tried to get more information about his new album. And, again, Garth repeated, "Wal-Mart will make the announcement in November. I'm really proud of the way they are handling everything. They don't make announcements about it. You don't read anything in the papers about it. They allow me to stay in my retired status. I cannot believe I put this in their hands and trust somebody to handle everything, but these guys are in this for all the good reasons. I'm just a retired guy, and I get a phone call from David Porter, saying, 'Hey, we miss you.'"

"Please Garth!" I said. "David Porter is just one in a million that misses you. Did you see that Opry audience tonight? When they saw you, the audience sprung from their seats and roared like their team had won. Could you not feel the love from those people?"

"It's always that way here," Garth interrupted.

"They're always that way with you," I told him. The man still cannot take a compliment. Garth thinks all singers are worshipped like he is. Not true.

"Have you recorded an album?" I pushed.

"I can't tell you," he replied.

"Are you going to release a compilation of your songs with "Good Ride Cowboy"?

"I can't tell you," we repeated together and laughed. You can't trick Garth. He's too wise.

"The second they tell me I can make the announcement, I will tell you," he insisted. "I promise."

"OK," I said. "Can we talk about Trisha? I believe you told me tonight Miss Yearwood is in Norfolk, Va."

"Doing a concert," he responded. "She says she's right across the water from the USS Enterprise where we last performed together. She was happy. She's doing an outdoor gig there. She loves it."

When I asked about Trisha's well-being since her dad passed away, Garth replied, "You'll have to ask her." Then he enthusiastically asked, "Have you ever been to Trisha's hometown? ... They dream up things in Hollywood that they naturally do in her hometown. What I love is when I read the inner sleeve of her current album, Jasper County. All those faces, all those names, I knew them and knew their kids from her book."

I nodded and asked the proverbial question about their upcoming wedding.

Garth laughed one of his wonderful laughs and replied, "Well, she finally said yes, so now I've just got to make sure she's good on her word."

"No idea on wedding plans?" I said, laughing. "Hey, maybe I can get both of you together and maybe we can work that out. Wanna try that, Garth? Trisha's given you a lot of rope to work with. Maybe I can help you."

"I've been trying to talk her into it for a long time," he said.

"What are you doing now?" I asked. "Is your movie thing activated at all? How do you busy yourself?"

"I'm just a writer," he responded. "I've been hired to write scripts -- none of which have been developed yet. I'm like every other screenwriter. Just do my thing, and some day it'll happen."

"What else are you involved in that we can talk about?" I asked.

Garth grinned and answered, "I'm involved in lunches. I'm involved in soccer practice, I'm involved in cheerleading. ... Imagine me: 'Let me help you with that, honey,' teaching back handsprings. 'No, Dad, that's not the hold.' I pick up and recover from it. They're 13, 11 and 9.

"They've got homework! Unbelievable homework. My God, I can't believe how much. ... I don't see how the schools do it [the teaching] because kids are so different. You've got 30 kids in a classroom. I'll bet 10-to-1, the range of what kids are interested in is so vast, I don't believe they're hitting everybody."

Asked how his daughters are doing, Garth surmised, "The thing with the children, they are healthy. That's the first point. Secondly, they are happy. And as long as they are happy." He nods his head, pauses and thinks before adding, "I tell you, we're taking the kid out of our kids. They've got so much homework. They've got so much responsibility. My thing is, hey, let's not try to keep these kids up with the rest of the kids in competition. Let's see that these kids have some common sense, some fun, and let them be kids."

I thought, "Amen" but asked, "They're doing OK? Passing everything?"

"Well, yeah," he laughed. "But remember: They've got my genetics, so they're gonna struggle a little bit."

"Do you and Trisha exercise?" I asked. "Do you walk? Do you run? The reason I ask is that I know you've always been into exercise, and Trisha just looks tremendous."

"Thank you," he answered. "What I like about Miss Yearwood is she looks so happy. About exercise, she does it all the time."

Asked whether he's writing songs these days, he replies, "Not really." Then he adds, "I'll tell you, it's weird how the circle completes itself. I started as a fan, and now sitting on the other side of the radio, I'm starting to hear things that I like. ... But my girls have sort of taken over everything. So I'm trying to find something I like in their music, as well. It's very different.

"What do they like?"

"They like everything from [Christian rapper] KJ52 to Raven to Avril Lavigne," he said. "Of course, she's like the princess for them. They like a lot of stuff. They go to concerts. Their mom takes them. Really, I can't go to concerts."

Referring to his hit, "Friends in Low Places," I said, "I still think that is one of the all-time great country songs. Now, 15 years later, we've got a girl, Gretchen Wilson, with a single, 'All Jacked Up,' about her drinking until 2 a.m., bashing the car window out and backing into a light post. How do you feel about the contents of that song and her singing about being hung over?"

"You gotta remember Tanya Tucker," he said. "I'm not comparing the two, but you've also got to remember a little girl who came out of Washington state 40 years ago singing, 'Now I'm just a honky-tonk girl.' Loretta Lynn came out of the door singing, 'This is what I am, and this is what I'm standing up for.' I think all you're hearing now is somebody 40 years later, through all this mess, with her hands on her hips is saying, 'Hey, this is what I'm feeling.' And they're finding out people are related." He added, "One of the greatest gifts we have is our own mistakes and somebody singing about them."

"What are you seeing out yonder now?" I asked.

"Out in Oklahoma?"

"No, anywhere you look."

"You know what?" he said. "I think this is going to be my warning to all us as fellow artists. You come to the Opry ... you're gonna hear stuff without drum loops, without drum machines. I'm worried a lot of our workday as artists is a producer's creation -- not an artist's creation. All the artists out there, I ask you and beg you: Take over your ship. It's your career. It's your life. Your band members? Your band members don't want to be tied to a machine. They want to be playing. That's what the Beatles did. And the Beatles' stuff is timeless. That's what I would suggest. Just get back to sweating, playing hard, hammering and having a blast."

I mentioned all the girls releasing country albums this year -- Gretchen Wilson, Lee Ann Womack, Sara Evans, Faith Hill and, of course, Trisha's killer album.

"I'm so proud of her," he said of Trisha's latest project. "She's so from what country music is about. Monticello, Ga. -- that's what country music is all about. And one of the greatest guys we've had in our past is Randy Travis, and his whole thing was just wholesomeness and honesty. It's not square. And if it is -- you know what? -- it's hip to be square."

"Ninety nine percent of her questions I can't answer," Garth said to his publicist, Nancy Seltzer, when she walked through the door. "She's asked about everything, including the single and where it's going. We've talked about the Opry, and we've talked about home. We talked about Miss Yearwood a little bit -- because I can't help it."

"He won't tell me when they're gonna get married," I interjected to his publicist. "Of all the people on planet Earth, he knows he can trust me. I think I wrote the first word about him that was ever written."

"I think you did, too," allowed Garth.

"I'd like to be able to break the story of the marriage," I told the publicist. "See, you're looking at the fat girl who broke the story of Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman touching and kissing, knowing Keith had bad taste with that skinny woman. I mean, are you believing that?"

Nancy spoke up, "She's a nice person,"

"They're two pretty people," Garth said, laughing at my silliness. "And skinny, too."

"Keith's a good boy," I said. "A real good boy."

Garth and I talked about our friendship. Both of us know our friendship is like a circle without end. He told Nancy, "There's been several people in this town that's always there." Pointing to me, he said, "She's one of them." He adds, "Some of them have passed on. There's [journalist] Patsi Cox, [graphic designer] Virginia Team -- and her. They tell it like it is, and it's been that way since day one through thick and thin." He said to me, "The Kennedy brothers over at PolyGram Publishing ... that's where I first saw you."

Randomly, he added, "Remember the name, Betty Maxwell. The next time you see Trisha, say the name Betty Maxwell to her. You are Betty Maxwell from Monticello. Like two peas in a pod. ... Here's my phone number. When it's time to do this thing --time for Wal-Mart to do this thing -- you call me or I'll call you."

We embraced, said goodbye, and I felt grateful and thankful that Garth allowed one interview. But it made me sad, too, because it was over.

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