He's been performing without live audiences, appearing on all kinds of TV programs and promoting his new album, "Fun," which drops Friday. But Garth Brooks isn't having any fun himself.
It was apparent in his voice on the phone.
"I understand these football games can go on without the crowd, and you hear the simulated audience and you forget. It just doesn't work that way for concerts, man," he said Wednesday. "Nothing replaces getting to play for people in the same room. That's the fun about entertaining."
The country megastar, who thrilled two sold-out crowds at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis last year, insists that he misses concerts more than his millions of fans do.
"Ain't nobody on this planet who misses it more than me. That's your gas," he said with the kind of Garth-gantuan hyperbole that juices his outsized personality onstage. "When I retired to be home with the girls [his three school-age daughters for nearly 10 years in 2001] or taking a year off your band and crew need to get fueled back up, those are things you can live with. But when you were on a roll and someone else throws the red light up on you like COVID has, that's hard to take. But at the same time, I can't bitch about it because people are suffering really, really bad."
He knows firsthand. His youngest daughter has recovered from COVID, though he's concerned about any subsequent repercussions.
In a time of crisis, Brooks understands the role music can play.
"We sometimes seek for answers in music," said the singer-songwriter, 58, who is prone to deep thoughts and sincere pronouncements when the spotlights are off. "I know we seek for comfort."
With "Fun," he's serving up a smorgasbord of Garth Brooks comfort food — honky-tonk stomps, sentimental ballads, a cowboy song, an island tune, a New Orleans romp, message music and a cover of a pop hit.
But one selection stands out — the topical "Where the Cross Don't Burn," a duet with country legend Charley Pride.
It's a true story about the late songwriter Troy Jones, a white Southerner, and his friendship with a Black kid from the other side of the tracks. The song has been around for about a decade.
"I can't imagine not having this song as part of the Garth Brooks catalog 100 years from now," he said. "I love that message."
The album-closing "(Sometimes You've Got to Die to) Live Again" is a signature Brooks power ballad with a different twist: He uncorks a striking falsetto, previously heard on his 1999 project as alter-ego rocker Chris Gaines. He didn't blame the high voice on tight jeans, though.
"My jeans can't get any tighter," he said picking up on the straight line. "Especially in the pandemic with as much weight as I've gained."
"Fun" also features a duet with his wife, country star and cookbook author Trisha Yearwood, on "Shallow," the smash made famous by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the 2018 movie "A Star Is Born." Yearwood's stunningly soaring voice reminds us how few women artists are being heard on country radio these days.
Brooks said country programmers think that female listeners, the format's dominant demographic, want to mostly hear male singers. He disagrees.
"What I've always enjoyed as a country music fan is the different opinions from the different voices. I find that women sing about a lot more poignant things than men do," he said. "They've picked those harder subjects to listen to, and I think we become better people by hearing it. Country music is a family, and it takes all kinds in this family."
During 2020, Brooks has been collecting prestigious hardware — Billboard's Icon Award and the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the youngest recipient of an honor bestowed on the likes of Smokey Robinson, Carole King and Paul Simon.
"It should have been James Taylor or somebody else standing up there," said Brooks, putting on his familiar Mr. Humble hat. "What I loved about it was to look out and not be able to tell the Democrats and Republicans from each other in D.C. because they were all just dancing together. It just made me feel like music might be the voice of hope or reason."
He knows the stereotype of country fans, that they're pickup-driving, flag-waving, red-voting conservatives.
"We're probably divided 50/50 like everybody else. But because it's country music and they think it's 90/10, it's not. It's just voices," he said. "That's why everyone pushed so hard for the vote. The only way you're going to break stereotypes is let your voice be heard within the stereotype. I was raised where I speak for myself. That's all I can do. My message forever is tolerance. And don't vote party, vote person."
Then Brooks stayed on his soapbox for a moment.
"Is it in our nature to divide? Are you Democrat or Republican? Are you Black or white? Are you Ford or Chevy? I think it's in our nature to build a wall between us. We set up cliques. We should be focusing on inclusion. We immediately set up walls to not like people instead of finding reasons to bring them in like family."
Brooks got into a little political hot water when he was photographed in February wearing a football jersey emblazoned with the name "Sanders" and the number 20. Social media pundits thought he was endorsing Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. No, he was acknowledging his fellow Oklahoma State University alum Barry Sanders, the Hall of Fame running back of the Detroit Lions.
"In 'Forrest Gump,' Tom Hanks says, 'Stupid is as stupid does.' Music can't fix stupid. I'm sorry. The whole Sanders thing was nothing other than just ignorance and just silliness. You're in Detroit wearing a Barry Sanders jersey. The whole thing that made it fun for me was here comes a tweet from Barry Sanders saying: 'I'm running for office; won't you [Brooks] be my vice president?' And that put everything in its place. It was very funny."
Brooks is well aware of what the Twin Cities — his biggest concert market — has gone through this year with the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police. His message?
"Try to remember that one day doesn't paint an entire existence. One act doesn't paint an entire life. We're all learning. We're all growing. If there can be a blessing in the curse, reach for it. Find it."
He's been to Minneapolis, playing to more than 500,000 people during his last three engagements here. He thinks he knows Minnesotans.
"That community is a community we should all try to be like," he continued. "Things aren't ever always going to be roses. So you got to face these things and hopefully you become better people for them. If not, then we live and die for nothing.
"And the pandemic has not helped. The election has not helped. But my thing is bet on us. Bet on the human race. Find your purpose. And what you're going to find is the thread through all of us is love, and I'm not talking about hugging one another. I'm talking about forgiveness. I'm talking about empathy. Those big words that mean so much. To walk in each other's shoes, to feel each other's color, to feel each other's culture. And listen. Those are big, big things to do right now."
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719