by Alison Bonaguro
After more than 30 years of releasing records, Garth Brooks has got this. He shows up, writes the songs, makes the music, and all is right with the world. And somehow, he has a way of making it look easy — and in this case even Fun — even when his fans know that he pours blood, sweat and tears into everything he makes.
A few days before the November 20 release of Fun, Brooks and I had a very long conversation about how to make this music sound like when the old stuff was new. There’s an art to it, obviously, but there’s also some science in how you can go back to what led you to the top of the charts in the first place, back in 1989.
CMT.com: I know I ask you about songwriting a lot. But it’s important to me because I know it’s important to you. In 2015, when I asked you if you were doing any songwriting after you’d unretired, you told me, “I don’t trust my pen yet.” And then 2018, you told me you wanted to “make sure you had the right cowboy songs.” Well, mission accomplished. You’ve done exactly what you set out to do.
Brooks: It’s what I needed to do. I’m gonna compare this album to Sevens. That was a joyous record to make in a time that was really tough for me: the label was going through a bunch of changes, my show in Central Park was coming up, and so there were a lot of expectations. And with this record, I just found that same joy in making it. Especially when you hear the first line in the first song about “the hummin’ of this bluebird is something I’ve been missing” (from “The Road I’m On”). It’s so warm. It’s like, “Oh good, we’re on to the record now.”
I have to admit I was a little apprehensive to listen, because so many artists right now are striving for songs that are relatable. But I’d rather not relate to a song and instead live another life vicariously through it. I want to pack up all your buckles and ship your saddle to your dad, I want to be the lonely widow woman hellbent to make it on her own, and I want to be the one who ain’t going down ‘til the sun comes up. Those kinds of cowboys songs just hit different for me, in the best way.
There’s a lot of stuff like “The Road I’m On,” “(A Hard Way to Make an) Easy Livin’” and “That’s What Cowboys Do” that are pretty much your life now and your life when you started this thing. “That’s What Cowboys Do” — that song right there could’ve been on a George Strait record in 1983. It just feels good.
Were all those cowboy-life themes important to you because you’d heard Strait on the radio in high school and he had that influence on you? Is this album kind of your way of being like George Strait, but here in 2020?
No. I don’t want to be the George Strait of right now. I want to be George Strait. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. And so much so that my producer Allen (Reynolds) pulled me out of the very first session we ever did — I think we were recording “Not Counting You” — and he goes, “What is this voice I’m hearing? There’s already one George Strait. No one’s gonna do it better than George. You just be you.” Since then, I’ve been me, but I love Strait and that’ll always be in me. And I’m really proud of that. You do cowboy stuff all the time, but it was playing at the rodeos that was my thing. So the whole cowboy life, like the art of roping and cutting cattle and branding cattle, was my life.
But my thing is, those are the people who fed me. Those are the ones who showed up when no one else did. So every album is gonna have cowboy songs on it. And on this one, those just might stand out a more now because cowboy songs are a little rare. So when I said I didn’t trust my pen, and now my name’s on a lot of these songs, it isn’t because I think I’m a great writer. It might be because music is in a place right now that maybe isn’t as suited for this artist as much as it is for a snap loop kind of artist. We found ourselves going through a lot of songs and just coming back to the songs that seemed to feel more like me.
It was good to see some familiar names in the Fun songwriting credits, like Jenny Yates, Bryan Kennedy, Benita Hill, and even Kim’s Williams’ daughter Amanda Colleen Williams. But there are also a lot of new guys. How did you find these new writers and what made them pass the test?
The new writers came into my circle the way the rest of the writers did: you just are calling for songs and calling for songs and calling for songs, and then you keeping thinking, “Shit, this guy’s name is on everything I’ve been listening to twice.” That was Bobby Terry. I’d heard legends about him, but damn, even his demos are better than most of the records I hear. He has a tremendous gift. And Matt Rossi? He wrote “Midnight Train” for me, and that kid’s so freaking talented. He was living up in the Northeast taking care of his dad, and when his dad passed away I called him and said, “Hey, I don’t know what your future is but you belong here.” And he is living here now, and that’s the best thing for Nashville: to get the best songwriters here. And if you’re a co-writer on “Stronger Than Me,” which he is, you’ve written the greatest song I’ve ever been able to put my voice on. Those words and the way they put them together? It’s crazy how well that song is written.
I hear that. Literally. When I listen to these new songs, it sounds like all of you were very careful with your words. Is it safe to assume that that is always your intention?
Dewayne Blackwell and Larry Bastian literally beat that into me as a young writer. So whenever I’m with any writers now, no matter who they are, I say, “Let’s go for the pure rhyme. If we can’t find the pure rhyme, then we’ll go. But no way is ’beer’ gonna rhyme with ’mechanic.’ It’s just not gonna happen.” Everybody takes on the challenge, and they never mind the extra work.
Something I’ve always loved about your songs was the gravitas. They are somehow heavy, even when the subject matter is light. Your music has always had that, and still does, and that’s why it stands out. In fact, the songs were the only way you could stand out when you were making your mark, and it seems like you haven’t strayed from those roots.
You’re right. When I was playing baseball, if you were only gonna go in as a pinch hitter, well that’s impossible. You’re gonna hit once every five games. And you’re facing the greatest pitchers on the planet. There’s no way anything’s ever gonna happen for you. It’s like that for me in music. With new artists who are streaming songs instead of making albums, these guys kind of live from single to single. That’s a pressure I never could’ve handled. That’s a pressure I don’t think some of the greatest artists could’ve ever handled. But that’s what those guys are doing: they’re looking for a home run every time they’re at bat.
And home runs don’t come easy, I know. But I think I know one when I hear one, and it has piano, fiddle, steel, twang and growl in it. All the things I consider essential to country music. I’m old school like that, and I know you are too.
Man, I’d love to be the hottest thing year in and year out. I would. But if that means not being me, then what fun is it, right? So just be you, and the people who seek this kind of music will find it. And the people who don’t? You don’t want to force it down their throat. That’s always been that way. What you can do is you prepare for the world to see it. Like with No Fences, you prepare for an album to go to 18 million in sales. Because if it does, then you’re proud of the quality of what you put out. But the truth is, if out of 18 million sales, only two million worship it and the other 16 million just got it because it was the thing at the time, what have you reached? You just have to do it for the music, do it for yourself as an artist, and do it for the musicians and writers. And then what happens next the people will decide.
You’ve said before that you’d worried that “The Dance” wasn’t going to be country enough. And after listening to all your songs, and this new album, I feel like you made damn sure they were all country enough and then some. How have you been able to stay true to that for so long?
Allen used to quote Waylon Jennings — he was a huge fan — and evidently it was something like, “I’m country, so whatever I sing is country.” So Allen was never afraid of taking on a song that might not be country, because he knew that by the time the artist got through with it, that if the artist was country, the song would be country.
And for the past five years, night after night after night, you’ve been singing those country songs all over the world on tour. Your home has been on the road. So once Covid-19 arrived, and touring was put on hold for the foreseeable future, has that break been a welcome breather for you?
Okay. This is gonna be tough. Because nobody’s asked me that question in nine months. When it’s your choice, when you say I’m going home to raise my kids, it’s okay. When it’s your choice to take a year off, you’re doing it for your crew, for you, for everybody to rejuvenate so when you come back you’re the best you can be for those people. But when something else takes it away from you? It’s been rough. Really, really rough.
Because before, when you wanted it, thank God and the people, it was there. So am I looking forward to getting back? You bet your ass I am. All I can say is that when the green flag drops and as long as everybody is safe, I’m gonna tell everybody, “Get the hell out of my way.” Because you’re running to the buffet line like you haven’t eaten in years. This is gonna be amazing for me. It’ll be way over the top for the people, but amazing for me to get back out there.
You have a dedication in your Fun liner notes to Layla. Is it the Layla, of the Nashville honky-tonk Layla’s?
Yes. Layla Vartanian. She’s the one we worked with when we did a CRS show in 2018 at Layla’s for a handful of radio people. That was the first time we’d been in a honky-tonk in years. Hearing “Friends in Low Places” and “That Summer” bouncing off those brick walls like it used to when you first started, you realize that’s what the music was built for. She gave me a gift she doesn’t even know she did. I just worship her.
The full track list for Fun:
1. “The Road I’m On” (Randall King, Garth Brooks)
2. “That’s What Cowboys Do” (John Martin, Mitch Rossell, Brooks)
3. “All Day Long” (Bryan Kennedy, Rossell, Brooks)
4. “Shallow” feat. Trisha Yearwood (Stefani Germanotta, Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando, Mark Ronson)
5. “Dive Bar” feat. Blake Shelton (Rossell, Kennedy, Brooks)
6. “Amen” (Bobby Terry, Matt Rossi, Brooks)
7. “The Courage of Love” (Martin, Brooks)
8. “I Can Be Me With You” (Benita Hill, Amanda Colleen Williams)
9. “Message in a Bottle” (Jenny Yates, Garth Brooks)
10. “Stronger Than Me” (Rossi, Terry)
11. “(A Hard Way to Make an) Easy Livin’” (Rossi, Terry)
12. “Where the Cross Don’t Burn” feat. Charley Pride (Troy Jones, Phil Thomas)
13. “Party Gras (The Mardi Gras Song)” (Rossi, Brooks)
14. “(Sometimes You’ve Got to Die to) Live Again” (Gabe Dixon, Wayne Kirkpatrick)
The track list for Triple Live Deluxe:
“Friends in Low Places”
“Two Of A Kind (Workin’ On A Full House)”
“People Loving People”
“Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)”
“Ain’t Going Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up)”
“Standing Outside The Fire”
“The Thunder Rolls”
“Ask Me How I Know”
“Fishin’ in the Dark”
“In Another’s Eyes”
“Papa Loved Mama”
“Guy Going Nowhere”
“Callin’ Baton Rouge”
“Beaches Of Cheyenne”
“More Than A Memory”
“Dive Bar” (the duet with Blake Shelton)
“Two Piña Coladas”
“Cold Like That”
“Whiskey to Wine” (the duet with Trisha Yearwood)
“We Shall Be Free”
Alison makes her living loving country music. She’s based in Chicago, but she’s always leaving her heart in Nashville.