- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There are so many huge tours by country artists these days — George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean and at least a half-dozen others — it’s easy to think it’s always been this way.


SEE ALSO: Country Times: Leno to put Nashville spin on final shows


But the truth is the idea that a country artist could regularly fill a stadium was, well, pretty much invented by Garth Brooks.

Throughout the 1990s, Mr. Brooks ruled country (and a big chunk of rock and pop, for that matter) before pulling a John Lennon and walking away from the industry to spend time with his family. He said he didn’t want to miss seeing his three young daughters grow up.

And, poof, just like that, he was gone.

Depending on whose numbers you trust, he was the third or fourth best-selling musical act — behind The Beatles and Elvis, right there with Michael Jackson.

That was almost 15 years ago. Today, with his youngest daughter about to graduate from high school, the 52-year-old Oklahoman clearly seems to be laying the groundwork for what would be one of the entertainment industry’s most extraordinary comebacks.

In November, Mr. Brooks released “Blame It All on My Roots: Five Decades of Influences” — a six-CD/two-DVD box set of 77 (count ‘em, 77) cover songs and 33 music videos featuring his takes on a handful of country standards, an entire album of classic R&B and his favorite singer-songwriter odes of the 1970s.

Eclectic? Definitely. Indulgent? Uh … did I mention 77 songs? No matter.

Fans showed immediately they hadn’t forgotten the superstar who had dropped only a smattering of new recordings in more than a decade: “Blame It All on My Roots” shot to the top of Billboard’s Top 200 and Top Country Albums charts. It’s still comfortably nestled in the top 10 on most country charts, even though it retails for $25 to $35 and, again, it’s four CDs of covers, two cds of hits. That’s a lot of Brooks for your buck.

Later in November, he confirmed on “Good Morning America” that, yes, he is getting the band back together. He told country music fan Robin Roberts that he would do a “world tour” in 2014, but offered no details.

Then last month, two shows were announced for July 25 and 26 at the 80,000-seat Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland. Tickets sold out in 90 minutes. A third show was added, then a fourth, then a fifth. Promoters said they’d never seen anything sell so fast.

Almost a half-million tickets were sold in all, so many that residents near the Irish soccer stadium are threatening to sue over the Garth-a-thon.

For five days in late July, Dublin, of all places, becomes the epicenter of all things Garth — an Emerald Isle launch pad for a tour that will be as anticipated and as scrutinized and anything The Stones or Katy Perry or Tim McGraw has on stage this year.

How scrutinized?

In a story that reminds me of Beatle-ologists who played records backwards and used magnifying glasses to pore over album photos, ticket industry writer Jesse Lawrence uncovered a clue in Mr. Brooks‘ emotional appearance this month on Jay Leno’s final episode of “The Tonight Show.”

A “B” emblazoned on Mr. Brooks‘ guitar, the eagle-eyed Mr. Lawrence noted on Forbes.com, looks like the stylized “B” from the Boston Red Sox logo. Perhaps a sign that Fenway Park is on the list of still-unnamed tour venues?

Remains to be seen, as the incremental, buzz-building roll-out of information reminds us that Mr. Brooks, who graduated with an advertising degree at Oklahoma State University, is as much a marketing whiz as he is musical genius.

Wherever he goes, look for repeats of what happened in Dublin — sellouts in minutes, added shows.

And when he comes to town, look for a show like nothing else in country music. Every scruffy, would-be tough guy in Nashville — from Eric Church to Jason Aldean — is welding heavy metal riffs into their live shows these days. But Garth? When they invited him to participate in a KISS tribute album in the 1990s, he was the only act who brought in Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley as his backup band.

It will be interesting to see what the second half of Garth Brooks‘ career looks like when it comes to recording: For a man who has sold so many records and had so many hits, he has not necessarily had a huge influence on the canon of country music.

But on stage, which is where today’s artists make most of their money, he has always been a force.

He’s older, but country fans — all music fans, for that matter — are willing to shell out big cash to see “legacy” acts. The aforementioned Stones, Billy Joel, Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Eagles — they break records seemingly every time they go out on the road.

George Strait, an early inspiration for Mr. Brooks, is 61, and if there’s anyone on the circuit who could steal a little of Mr. Brooks‘ thunder, it’s the “King of Country.” Mr. Strait, a legendary road warrior himself, says he’s retiring from touring, and his last 20 shows are as hot a ticket as anything out there this summer.

Older artists like Mr. Strait, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash have always been welcomed in country, and often afforded an opportunity to make relevant music late into their careers. Look at Cash’s acclaimed twilight sessions with producer Rick Rubin. And Mr. Strait was last year’s Country Music Association entertainer of the year. Again.

The balding Mr. Brooks may look a little older, a little more ordinary compared to matinee idols like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton — who both are headlining big tours this summer.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if the one-time country superstar comes up with a little 1990s magic: Not just a comeback, but the tour of the year.

Now, how about a show at FedEx Field.