In a long-ranging interview with Billboard about his career, country music megastar Garth Brooks reflected on what it means to be an artist, and how his music is more important than his image. It’s why, he says, he could never run for president because he cares more about substance than style.
The interview covers a wide range of topics. This includes his 13-year hiatus to raise his daughters, his turn as Chris Gaines, his “top-secret project” with Chris Pratt, and much more. But Brooks gets philosophical when discussing his controversial song “We shall Be Free,” from his 1992 album “The Chase.”
The song peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard charts, breaking a 13-song streak of top 10 hits for Brooks. Part of the reason why is because some radio stations refused to play it, Rolling Stone said. It was too political. Brooks wrote the song with Stephanie Davis while in Los Angeles during the riots following the Rodney King verdict. The song discusses racism, homelessness, and a number of hot-button political issues at the time.
The song took a beating in the press, Brook recalls, and that’s one reason he loves it so much.
The politics of being an artist
“You get caught up into the numbers, but the truth is this: You never care about it. I’m not running for president, so I don’t care what people as a whole think of me as an artist,” he said. “What I care about is, is this music that I’m getting to be a part of changing somebody’s life for the better? If you start trying to please everybody, then you’re just going to water yourself down.”
“I didn’t expect the backlash I got from “We Shall Be Free” because it was just common sense. But yeah, man, here it comes. People going, “Don’t preach to me,” and I’m going, “Oh sh–, I didn’t feel like I was preaching.” I just did a real feel-good song that was inspired off of what I was feeling pulling out of Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict and watching those fires and going, “Hey, man, everybody just settle down for a second and focus on loving one another.” … “The Chase,” by far, is my most sentimental favorite, just because it got the sh– kicked out of it and you protect it like it’s a child.
Most of the controversy stems from a single line in the song. The line “When we’re free to love anyone we choose” was problematic for some as it appeared Brooks was taking a stand on homosexuality, Rolling Stone said. Though Brooks told Billboard that it was larger than that.
“That line was about everything from interracial marriage and marriages crossing religions to same-sex marriages. If you truly love somebody, that’s what I’m hoping, as a child of God, that we’re doing,” he said. “That whole line was just about, “C’mon, man, see past the walls and love each other.”
Garth Brooks discusses his personal politics
That doesn’t mean Garth Brooks is going to shy away from discussing his own politics. He laughed off running for political office, but he still tipped his hand on his political ideals.
“Trust me, no one would know which way to go with me because I am so both. I really am “Let’s love one another, but don’t forget we’re the defender of freedom all around the world, so let’s beef up,'” he told Billboard. “People don’t think you can do both. And that’s right down my alley. That’s why you can have “We Shall Be Free” and “American Honky Tonk Bar Association” at the same concert. Let’s love one another and let’s pull our own weight.”
But Brooks said he wouldn’t force his political beliefs on to anyone. He’s grateful to be an American, but it’s too personal to be used as a wedge.
“I’ll do my patriotism pretty much the way I’ll do my belief in God,” he said. “People say, “Are you ever gonna make a gospel record?” and I say, “I don’t feel worthy of getting to do one.” So my songs like that are “Unanswered Prayers” and “The River.” Same way with patriotism. I’m not going to shove it down your throat, but I don’t think you have to be around me long to realize that I feel lucky to live where I live.”
Crossing boundaries to make a connection
Brooks hosts a weekly chat called “Inside Studio G” on Facebook. The point, he said, is to find another way to make a connection with his fans during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s that push to find common ground that has driven his career, he said.
“Connecting makes us throw off our defenses,” he said. “So especially in this time where Republican versus Democrat, color versus color, I think what we all want when we look across at somebody else is to know I’m safe with this person and this person loves me and I love them. That’s connection. So add music to it, sure, but I think I’ll spend the rest of my life looking for connection.”