[Nashville Skyline is a column by Sonicnet.com country editor Chet Flippo]
Chet Flippo writes:
NASHVILLE It wasn't quite "The Day of the Locust," but the scene outside the Gaylord Entertainment Center wasn't downhome Nashville either.
Fans clutching cameras lined up at the edge of the red carpet leading inside, hoping for a glimpse of the arriving stars. A long line of glittering limos and elegant horse-drawn carriages delivered Music Row's most beautiful and most powerful. Klieg lights stabbed white beams into the night sky with the enormous, almost-finished facade of the new Country Music Hall of Fame as a backdrop.
Garth Brooks will someday be enshrined in that Hall of Fame, but on Thursday night, the gala event at the Gaylord Center was a celebration of Brooks' reaching 100 million in album sales and his retirement. In an industry known for its practitioners' longevity Bill Carlisle still plays the Grand Ole Opry every weekend, at age 92 Brooks, 38, is the first country star to voluntarily walk away from stardom.
For starters, the retirement is not total and absolute. And, it's been gradual he first talked about it well over a year ago. And he hasn't released a studio album since 1997.
At a press conference earlier Thursday, Brooks mentioned several loose musical ends that he will pursue: the release in November of a 10-year-old song, "Wild Horses," as a radio single because it bothers him that it was never released; one final studio album to record and release next year; a possible TV mini-series next summer; completing a movie about his pop alter ego, Chris Gaines, and maybe recording a soundtrack; continuing to occasionally guest at the Grand Ole Opry; performing at the upcoming Country Radio Seminar, and perhaps a long talked-about duet album with Trisha Yearwood. His marketing wheels are still spinning next month, he'll re-release his first six albums, which were pulled from release two years ago, each with a bonus track.
There is no doubt that Brooks forever changed the face of country music. He energized what was becoming a moribund genre. He proved country acts could consistently sell multiplatinum. He brought arena-rock standards, techniques and style to country. He proved country music could attract pop audiences. He killed the notion of a static country band rooted in one spot and lifelessly delivering a concert. His road operation and ticketing procedures were top-of-the-line and showed Nashville some new things. He introduced modern marketing strategies to country, in stores and concert halls.
And, as he says, he stirred the town up. He single-handedly got rid of not one but two presidents of Capitol Records Nashville. In a fraternal industry, he went his own solitary way, damn the consequences. "Between (former Capitol heads) Jimmy Bowen and Pat Quigley and myself," he joked Thursday, "we've done a good job of alienating Music Row."
Because of Brooks' lingering power, it's an all-day job today to find anyone on Music Row who will willingly be quoted about Brooks, save those who have worked with or for him and have only positive things to say. At his press conference, he said he was retiring for family reasons his mother's recent death, his admitted neglect of his marriage and his failure to be an at-home father to his young children. Part of that must have to do with his three-year tour. From 1996 through 1998, he toured almost non-stop, playing before 5.3 million people.
Hubris in the form of the fictitious Chris Gaines killed this career. Brooks created a strange alter ego in pop singer Gaines, with a bizarre album of Gaines' "greatest hits" that the public didn't want, although Brooks says he still believes in it and will fight to get his Gaines movie, "The Lamb," made. The record puzzled Brooks fans and didn't sell got up over a mere 600,000 copies and that had to have been a shock to someone who's used to selling in the diamond category. He has four diamond albums the RIAA's designation for albums with shipments of more than 10 million copies.
Conquering country music in the end was not enough for Garth Brooks. One hundred million albums sold, country's only $100 million tour, the Central Park concert all of that was not enough.
What will his legacy be? More commercial than musical, as even he has admitted. He made some good music, some that will be remembered and some that will not. Such songs as "The Dance" (RealAudio excerpt) and "If Tomorrow Never Comes" are as strong and lasting as anything that has come out of Nashville in recent decades. He championed good songwriting, for which Nashville is a better place. In the end, what he did for and to country was to upgrade a reluctant industry.
He went out with a hell of a party. The Gaylord's hockey arena was transformed into an elegant silver and black salon with chandeliers, an entire wall of Brooks' platinum record plaques, other walls holding his framed stage outfits and other memorabilia, and video highlights of his career playing on two dozen screens.
President Clinton sent a letter, and Jay Leno provided a long congratulatory video, as did Babyface, Whitney Houston, John Travolta and other friends. Floral arrangements held 12,000 red roses, 4,000 gerber daisies, 4,000 belles of Ireland and 8,000 lilies. Open bars poured lavishly all night and the roast beef was succulent. The 1,150 guests included Yearwood, Wynonna, Steve Wariner, Charley Pride, Tanya Tucker, Crystal Gayle, Martina McBride, Jim Ed Brown, Mindy McCready and banks of country executives. Baseball stars Larry Walker, Wally Joyner and Wade Boggs flew in.
Brooks provided the entertainment by singing casually with a number of the songwriters who have provided his hits. On their way out, guests received Garth CDs and glass paperweights etched with Brooks' logo over a diamond, reading "One decade, one artist, one hundred million." It was the perfect way to retire. If he really retired.