Garth Brooks ominously implores his stage musicians and crew to gather around in a group as they prepare for Brooks’ 2019 Stadium Tour. What he proceeds to impart reveals the crucial element to his phenomenal success. Forget all the record-setting tours from the previous decades, Brooks tells the team. “This will be the roughest tour you’ve ever been on,” he says, with a steely countenance that assures everyone that Brooks isn’t just blowing smoke. “History is in the past.” Even for the best-selling solo artist in history, in any genre of music, there are still new worlds to conquer.
The group pep talk serves as the key opening segment of the new two-part A&E Biography, Garth Brooks: The Road I’m On, airing on the network December 2 and 3 at 9 p.m. ET. The documentary delves deep into the personal life and career of the kid from Oklahoma who went on to become country’s signature superstar. It’s a chronological journey to be certain, starting with Brooks’ upbringing in Oklahoma, his fiery baptism playing college bars and his initial (and ill-fated) trip to Nashville to pursue his musical dream. Family photos and concert footage help round out the biography, which takes viewers through Brooks’ runaway popularity in the 90s, his divorce from wife Sandy, self-imposed retirement and eventual comeback, right up to present day.
Brooks is clearly the proper subject for an in-depth documentary, and not simply for his superstardom. Aside from possibly Hank Williams, Brooks stands as the most fascinating personality in the annals of country music. Brooks was well-educated and spoke with a philosophical thoughtfulness instead of blurting out answers to interview questions. On stage, Brooks played the ever-grinning whirling dervish but would unabashedly cry at the drop of a Stetson when accepting awards or speaking about his family. Above all, Brooks did not coil at taking risks, standing up for racial and gender equality, starring in a controversial video for “The Thunder Rolls” and even simulating Hank Williams (or David Bowie) in creating a musical alter ego, pop star Chris Gaines.
The A&E series is as compelling as the artist himself because it allows Brooks to tell his own saga. For the first time, Brooks discusses his life story at length, giving viewers an insight into his parents, the relationships with his three daughters, the tough music business lessons he had to figure out and a myriad of other subjects. For extra context, Brooks’ daughters speak candidly about their dad – yes, he would occasionally ground them or take away their cell phones – while some of Brooks’ siblings and childhood friends also share on-camera remembrances. In a wonderfully amicable touch, Brooks’ ex-wife Sandy appears several times throughout both parts of the series, offering up her own memories and speaking glowingly about Brooks’ current wife, singer Trisha Yearwood. Other personalities featured in the program include Keith Urban, George Strait, Yearwood, songwriters Victoria Shaw and Tony Arata and producer Allen Reynolds, many in never-before-seen interviews.
As all documentaries must, Garth Brooks balances the interviews and show footage with plenty of “I didn’t know that” moments. For instance, we get a glimpse of Brooks’ childhood life, which was evidently quite chaotic though not destructive. As the youngest of six in a blended family, Brooks describes home life as, “A hundred-and-twenty miles an hour, twenty-four hours a day,” adding that his father “never had a second by himself.” In the past, Brooks often spoke of his mother, who was a budding musical talent in her own right, but seldom of his dad, but here Brooks goes on at some length about his father’s influence and the life lessons he passed along.
We also now understand how Brooks felt when “The Thunder Rolls” video was banned from several TV outlets for its depiction of domestic violence. “For the first time, you got to hear people going, ‘I hate Garth Brooks.’ It was like, crap, you just think you’re trying to make art,” Brooks says in the program. In another revealing scene, we learn the final straw that triggered Brooks’ decision to step away from the limelight and raise his daughters.
Fun moments abound as well. We hear rare snippets of Brooks in his club days covering James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues” and giving Elton John’s “Rocket Man” a credible country rendering. Clips of Brooks’ monumental concert in New York’s Central Park in 1997 reverberate with excitement and a certain nostalgia. You can feel the thrills as Brooks takes his tour overseas to screaming fans in Dublin in 1994.
Though not in an overt way, the A&E series leaves us with a further impression of Brooks that perhaps had never been considered before. Flashing back to that opening pep talk to his team, it’s obvious that Brooks could have been an outstanding football coach or a successful sales manager if those professions had struck his fancy. He has a focused intensity that shows through in the interviews and film clips. Yet, there is an everyman quality to him. As the A&E programs deftly demonstrate, Brooks is unmatched in knowing how to communicate with his audience and hold them spellbound.
Garth Brooks: The Road I’m On offers a rare glimpse into a universally loved, but often misunderstood, artist. Easily two nights well spent.