On March 27, Garth Brooks will begin a six-concert juggernaut at Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena.
Brooks, 53, is breaking attendance records like it’s 1998, the year his last world tour concluded. The singer has been semi-retired since 2001, when he left the road to focus on raising his three girls. He has not been to Sacramento, where current ticket sales are at 85,000-plus, since 1997.
“You have a lot of pent-up demand,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert-industry-tracking magazine Pollstar. Brooks has said his tour might last three years.
Brooks’ hot period was confined to the 1990s, partly because of the semi-retirement. Yet his all-time record sales, like his current ticket sales, suggest a star for the ages. He has sold more albums in the United States (70 million) than any other artist in the Nielsen SoundScan era (since 1991).
Sales of “Man Against Machine,” Brooks’ first full-length studio album in 13 years, have not reached ’90s levels. But “Machine,” released in November, has gone platinum, and without the help of iTunes. Longtime iTunes holdout Brooks is selling it instead through the start-up digital service Ghost Tunes, of which he is a part owner.
Those are the hows of Brooks’ superstardom. That leaves the whys.
There are secrets to the success of this corny-as-heck Oklahoma native. The most prominent is the corny-as-heck part. Earnestness seeps into everything Brooks does, from his fan-friendly approach to touring to his vocal phrasing and sense of showmanship.
As a Brooks fan from way back – and aren’t we all from way back, since he’s barely been around the past decade and a half? – I know what makes him special.
I was not looking to become a Brooks fan when I was overtaken, in 1991, by his cover of Billy Joel’s “Shameless,” captivated by how much Brooks’ all-out performance of the song matched its overblown lyrics. Drawn by the ham, I sought the sandwich – the fine “Ropin’ the Wind” album – then nearly wore out the cassette tapes of it and its even better predecessor “No Fences.”
In honor of him performing six shows in Sacramento, I offer this list of six reasons for his stardom. The list is ordered in countdown fashion to honor Brooks’ flair for the dramatic.
SIX REASONS WHY GARTH BROOKS RULES
6. He was rock-country when rock-country was still cool. First, a distinction. Rock-country differs from country-rock, which suggests Gram Parsons, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, harmonies and Laurel Canyon. That sound is elegant. Brooks was never elegant.
So we will call what Brooks does rock-country. It starts with traditional Nashville twang and fiddle before muscling up with big drums and wailing guitars.
A fan of the flamboyant rock bands Queen and KISS, Brooks emulates their sense of theater. In the 1990s, he established himself as an arena-worthy act himself, donning a “hat mic” so he could move around the stage more easily, and hoisting himself by wire so he could fly over the crowd.
Brooks opened the door to the pop-rock sound dominating country radio today. Over time, that sound became more bland and less rooted in traditional country. Now most songs sound like Bon Jovi with a random fiddle note thrown in.
5. He understands that a country song should rip your heart out. Modern country music radio is so dispassionate. It’s Eric Church name-checking a highly emotional artist (in Church’s song “Springsteen”) instead of evoking emotion himself.
Brooks, though, always reaches for the heartstrings. Like his country hero – and duet partner on “Beer Run (B Double E Double Are You In?)” – George Jones, Brooks can bring a tear to the eye of the roughest roughneck in the most fistfight-prone bar in Bakersfield.
Brooks’ roiling “The Thunder Rolls” follows the great country tradition of fraught domestic drama. The bittersweet “The Dance” offers a benevolence we all would like to feel about failed relationships but rarely do. “What’s She’s Doing Now” is that song’s flip side, in that its protagonist can’t let go.
On “Mom,” from “Man Against Machine,” Brooks assumes the point of view of an about-to-be-born baby hesitant to go out into the world. God assures the baby that he is about to meet the person who will love him most. “Send ’Em On Down the Road,” also from “Machine,” tracks a parent’s struggle against an instinct to be overprotective, since it doesn’t serve the kid in the end.
These songs are so mawkish in their brazen attempts to … excuse me, does anyone have a tissue? These allergies are really affecting my eyes.
4. He’s an independent thinker. When Brooks left the road in 2001, he was not yet 40, and still a superstar. Who does that? Most entertainers milk their success until the public tells them it’s over.
Brooks also showed an independent spirit by helping launch Ghost Tunes as an alternative to iTunes, to which Brooks has objected because it emphasizes individual songs and thus denies songwriter royalties for other songs on an album.
Finally, let’s talk about the soul-patched elephant in the room: the Chris Gaines project. What a wild, weird experiment.
In 1999, Brooks introduced a new persona, the Aussie pop star Gaines, who came with his own mock VH1 “Behind the Music” documentary, a black shag wig and the album “Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines.”
The record let Brooks sing pure pop, some of it in a higher register than he usually uses. It was meant to be a pre-soundtrack to a film in which Brooks was to star as Gaines.
The movie never materialized, and the album did not sell as well as expected. But some of the songs were compelling, and Brooks’ voice sounded great.
So let’s doff our Stetsons to a degree of daring no other country star has displayed. That was some Ziggy Stardust stuff right there.
3. He sings one of the best drinking songs of all time. “Friends in Low Places,” named finest drinking song ever by the website tasteofcountry.com, has it all: heartache, defiance, a sing-along chorus and a melodic sense that enables the song to sound better the more slurred one’s singing becomes.
“Low Places” bridges the gap between heartbroken drinking songs such Hank Williams’ “Tear in My Beer” and Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and today’s frothier novelty songs such as Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane.”
2. He’s fan-friendly. On this tour, like his previous tours, Brooks will keep adding shows in a particular market until every fan who wants to see him can buy a ticket. By striving to meet demand, he undercuts scalpers who increase prices based on scarcity of tickets.
“He (has), to some extent, eliminated the effect of the secondary-ticket market,” said Bongiovanni, from Pollstar. “There are a lot more primary tickets available, so more people have a shot at getting a regular, face-value tickets.”
There also is an egalitarian quality to the tickets themselves, all of which are $74.88, no matter the seat. Usually, it’s more like $50 for nosebleeds and $150 or more for the best seats.
Brooks also offers a great deal on Ghost Tunes: For $29.99, fans buy a package that includes “Man Against Machine,” a forthcoming new album, the 1998 “Double Live” album and Brooks’ previous eight studio releases.
In concert, Brooks is known as the consummate crowd-pleaser, a trait that continues on his current tour, according to reviews from other cities. The crowd still goes wild for Brooks’ unbridled enthusiasm and that other vital element …
1. His songs are irresistible. At least to me and other fans. Music appreciation is fundamentally subjective.
Brooks lacks the deep, resonant voice some country fans prefer. But he compensates with range. Because his voice can go higher, he can impart emotions and sensitivity better than some baritones who can be powerful but inelastic.
Some of it is phrasing. Brooks’ voice has that little catch to it, like his contemporary Tim McGraw’s does. They’re both great stars partly because of those catches.
Brooks also shows an exceptional ear for a catchy tune, whether he wrote or co-wrote the song or found it elsewhere. It usually requires a single listen to appreciate a Brooks song. Maximum two.
Take “Man Against Machine,” the clanging, industrial-sounding title track off the new album. The first time I heard it, I thought, “What is this over-the-top monstrosity?” On second listen? “I like this over-the-top monstrosity.”
That’s the magic of Garth.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
What: The country superstar is playing six shows over five days at Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena. His wife, singer Trisha Yearwood, will make guest appearances at his shows. (Tickets are very limited).
When: 7 p.m. March 27; 7 and 10:30 p.m. March 28; and 7:30 p.m. March 29, March 31 and April 1.
Cost: $74.88 (including tax, facility fee and surcharge)
Information: www.ticketmaster.com, (800) 745-3000