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Garth Brooks lauds fans in Birmingham: ‘The greatest place in the world to play’

Casual. Cordial. Self-deprecating. And pretty darn humble.

That’s how Garth Brooks sounded as he talked to reporters on Friday at Protective Stadium in Birmingham.

The country star, 60, is set to perform the inaugural concert at the stadium on Saturday, surrounded by a crowd of more than 45,000 people. The show promises to be a milestone on the city’s entertainment scene, and Brooks’ first appearance here in 7 years.

Here’s what Brooks said about his music, his career, the new stadium and more during a 20-minute interview.

How does it feel to be the inaugural concert at Protective Stadium?

Garth Brooks: It’s good, because you are always guaranteed the record when you’re the first guy. It’s nice. So, it’s fun. I thought the ticket on-sale day was very sweet, so we’re excited. But… you’re not competing with the past and present; you’re competing with the future. So we hope on the second concert that comes through here, somebody argues that “the first night was better than theirs” kind of thing. So that’s what you come out here and do.

You want to put your best foot forward for country music, and I will tell you this: The best crowd you will ever have in here will be here tomorrow night. I’ll put ‘em up against anybody; they’re the sweetest people. Our goal is to have them leave the stadium loving each other more than when they came in. But you watch. These people are mannerly; they’re very, very sweet.

What was your impression when you walked into the stadium?

It’s cool. It’s brand new, but the first thing you get is the people you see, and everybody’s been very, very sweet. It’s really more homey here; it reminds me a lot of Baton Rouge, where people treat you more like family than they do like business partners. And everybody hugs here, which is great. … We haven’t got the catering yet, but that’s always a good way to know where you’re at.

A logo for country star Garth Brooks can be seen outside Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 3, 2022. The country star was set to perform the first concert at the new stadium on June 4. (Mary Colurso | mcolurso@Al.com)

When you performed “Callin’ Baton Rouge” recently at LSU’s Tiger Stadium, the sound at the stadium, with the fan response, registered as a small earthquake. Any thoughts on that? Will we have an earthquake here on Saturday in Birmingham?

Well, first of all, I’m a guy. So no, it wasn’t a small earthquake, it was pretty big in size. They were very sweet. I will tell you that, in respect to Baton Rouge, they treated every song we played that night like it was “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” They were really cool about that. They didn’t scream for it; in fact, I had to ask them: “Is it time?” It was just unbelievable.

My favorite part about that was the guy that posted, when you started “Baton Rouge,” you saw all the smart watches going off. You could see them. And what it said was, “If you continue this level of audio, you will have hearing impairment.” I thought that was a cool thing. That’s all them. It’s fun to get to be a part of that.

You’re going to be in Birmingham for a day. What are you going to do?

We’ll play ball. We play ball everywhere we go, basketball. The band and crew gets out and plays. So it’s always good to get to see other sides of the people that you work with, and trust me, sports brings out a totally different side, especially for musicians. It’s fun. And then we’ll find someplace to eat.

We arranged it too late — we would usually go and get whatever film company has “Top Gun: Maverick,” you know — we’d do (a screening), just for band and crew. We’ll probably pick that up here in the latter part of this month on the tour. Things like that.

For some reason, I don’t know why, the band and crew always dresses in black. It’s not written anywhere, but it’s how we do. You can see us, because we do everything together, like team dinners and stuff, so it’s just like this little, like Pigpen from “Peanuts,” you know, it’s just this little black kind of cloud that goes around the city. And you can find us, sometimes, on shopping trips. But we do everything together.

What is your game day ritual?

I think you try to sleep as long as you can. And then you’re going to go to sound check. Sound check’s going to be fun; it’s going to be messing around doing the final tweaks. And then you’re going to try to play ball somewhere, basketball somewhere, to knock everything loose. You’re really lucky if you get to do that, and then you start pacing. You’re just going thorough the show in your head, over and over again.

Because what you want to do … you want to stay ahead of these people. So you go over the show in your head a thousand times. There’s a saying that the fans should live in the moment. The entertainer should be in the moment before. Always. If I get behind here, they are going to drag my ass all the way through town. I’ll have to fight for every breath I got. If they get on top, then I’m done.

So have you ever said, “Thank you, Cincinnati!” when you’re in St. Louis?

No, but I appreciate you not even bringing that possibility up. No, I’ve been very fortunate — knock on wood — to not do that yet. That’s every entertainer’s nightmare. Thank you for bringing that up.

How does the audience affect your performance?

I think it’s the difference between Entertainer of the Year and not, I really do. Because too many times, people look for the Entertainer of the Year on stage. And the truth is, it’s the crowd. Always. So it’s not a statement of humbleness, but a statement of honesty. I’ll put our crowd up against anybody — loud-wise, listening-wise, sincerity. They make this thing, because I have the best seat in the house. And I’m watching.

Four or five songs in, you start to see it dawn on people: “Wait a minute. This guy ain’t doing shit, and we’re working our ass off.” That’s my job, right? I’m going to work you like a rented mule. And then they start watching each other. The left side will start watching the right side, and my job as an entertainer is to just kind of pit ‘em against each other. Just have fun watch them go back and forth. And when they do that, it starts becoming a party instead of a concert.

I think that’s when an entertainer becomes an entertainer — when the concert gloves are off; it’s a party, and hopefully this is something that will affect you the rest of your life.

You’re known for having one-on-one interactions with fans at your concerts, giving a woman your guitar when she shows you she’s held onto a guitar pick for 30 years, seeing a cancer patient and bringing that person to the edge of the stage … What do those fan interactions mean to you? How do they happen? Do you just see someone in the crowd? Do you know about the person beforehand?

I’m not the smartest guy on the planet. So what I’m about to say, I shouldn’t say, OK? Every time something great like that happens, what I’m thinking in my head is: “Don’t do it, don’t do it.” Because you’re going to slow the show down, right? Who knows? You’re gonna give a live mic to a 5-year-old boy in a cowboy hat? You’re sitting there going, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.” And then it turns out like Charles did in Nashville. I mean, it was like, I don’t know how many millions of views the video got. You never know what’s going on.

But here’s the deal. I think before you ever stand here (on stage), you sit there (in the audience). So I’m a fan of music. I got into this business because I wanted to be George Strait so bad. The greatest concert of my life, probably between James Taylor when he did a fundraiser for the Nashville Symphony, and when you do the symphony, you have to stick with union kind of hours. And so the show was over pretty quick. So he comes out and just says, “I feel like the show’s over too quick, but you can’t do anything with the union, with the strings anymore.” So just him and his guitar sat on stage for like 45 minutes. So it was like: You’re playing a concert that’s for me now. It’s like I’m in a living room with the guy, right? So those are great moments for me.

Freddie Mercury is the greatest entertainer on the planet. I was 17 when I saw Freddie Mercury. All I wanted to do, in the same way, my wife wanted to go see Bruno (Mars) for her birthday recently. And all I wanted is that three seconds for Bruno or Freddie Mercury to look at me. And I get to look at them and go, “Thank you. Thank you for what your music’s done for me.” Right?

Well, as an entertainer now, you find yourself seeking these people out to say “Thank you for my life,” “Thank you for my daughters’ lives,” and stuff. And in that transaction somewhere, these things happen. And I think if you ever stage one, it’ll come back to bite you. So that’s kind of the horror of, “Don’t do it, don’t do it,” but the joy when it turns out pretty cool.

Do you have a favorite song to perform live, and does that change, based on where you’re performing?

I do have a favorite song to perform live, and it never changes. It’s “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” I think why is because it flies up the radar. I think people come here, they’ll come here tomorrow night for “Friends in Low Places,” maybe “Shameless,” “Thunder,” for sure, these things, and then I think “Callin’ Baton Rouge” just sits under that radar where they go to this different level. If you’re coming to the show, you’ll see it happen.

Then your job as an entertainer is to never let them come back down from that level. … They’re going to go to a place, just simply because it’s fun, it’s crazy and it’s just two-and-a-half minutes, so we can all stay at that crazy pace for that long. It’s a really short song. But what it brings to the show, you don’t want to let go after that. That’s probably my favorite.

My favorite Garth song of all time is way back off the first record, a song called “The Dance.” That song still slays me today. Maybe the greatest lyric I’ve ever got to sing is a song called “Stronger Than Me,” just a lyric that I wish I could even get close to writing. And then another favorite song of mine is called “Mom,” because I’m a mama’s boy and always will be. I think those are the songs when you look back, probably not the upbeat crazy ones, but more the ones that kind of send that message, those are kind of my favorites.

Were you aware that a cheer camp in Tuscaloosa played “The Dance” on the last day for at least 10 years, and all the mascots in the high school did a routine to it, and everybody cried?

To “The Dance’? I get things every Saturday that they’re playing “Friends in Low Places” in Tuscaloosa, so it’s like: Can you be a tradition? Can I tell you this — and this is with all sincerity — Grammy’s are cool, Hall of Fame is cool, but those things are voted on and kind of arranged, you know. But these things, you get to be the fabric of somebody’s life …

I played a place called Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater, Oklahoma; that’s how I started my career. And you would play “Piano Man,” you would play “American Pie,” these anthems people all sang and knew. And your prayer was, “God, could I ever be part of a song that everybody knows the words to.” I don’t want to sound egotistical, but “Friends in Low Places” might have gotten to that point. So it’s fun to get to be the fabric of these people’s lives, even though they’ll text you at 2 a.m., drunk off their mind, but karaoke-ing to “Friends in Low Places”? Those are the moments you want. I appreciate the awards and stuff, but that’s what I like, those kinds of stories.

Do you prefer stadiums or arenas?

If you had asked me before, I’d have said arenas, because I thought stadiums were cold and distant. I’m stunned. And I know as a guy I shouldn’t say this, but size does matter. It just does. We’ve been lucky to get to play here before, and when you get to play here, you get to play multiple nights here, and it’s the greatest place in the world to play. They hate it when I call it “The Bunker,” the old concrete pavilion that we’ll play in. It’s loud; it’s an old rock house.

But now you get to stick all those people in one area, so I’ve got high expectations from the crowd. I don’t know if entertainers come in here expecting something from the crowd, but I do. They go, “Why Birmingham?” The answer is because I’ve been here before. That’s why. That’s the greatest answer you can give anybody. You’re not here to figure out what it’s like, you’re here to relive what it IS like. You know? So I can’t wait to get these people all in one night. And then my job is to wear their ass out. Just go toe-to-toe with them, and see who drops first. I think that’s fun. That makes it an epic night.

You can see the Bunker from the stadium, so will you be sneaking a few glances over there, and maybe savoring a memory from a previous show? What was it about the arena that you liked?

The reason I love the Bunker is standing right in the audience at the stadium tomorrow night. The only reason you love a place is because of the people that are in it. That’s it. But what I love about that place — what I loved about the Bunker — is that it was that old ‘70s rock kind of, where you can strike a chord and three days later, it’ll still be kind of banging around up in the ceiling.

You just love it, because it takes away all preciseness. It’s just full of flaws. It makes the music full of flaws, which for me then hits you right in the heart. The stuff that’s perfect and sterile, I don’t think ever gets past here (a shallow point). But the stuff that has the cracks in it, the stuff where you go, “Oh,” and your head twists a little bit, that’s the stuff that gets inside your soul. So I’m expecting all the good stuff from the Bunker to be here Saturday night.

In his intro remarks to reporters, Brooks also said:

We feel very lucky to be playing for this crowd. … We’ll also be doing a live recording tomorrow, because this stadium, the way it’s built, it’s kind of like a big-ass arena, pretty much what it is, which is great, because it’ll keep all the sound within the walls, so it’ll take all the rumble out, but the voices you’ll be able to hear really clear.

So we brought the mobile truck down here. We probably recorded maybe five times on the whole three years of the tour, but this one we weren’t going to pass up, because of the opportunity of how good the recording will sound with the way the stadium is configured. It’ll be really good.

MORE ON GARTH BROOKS IN BIRMINGHAM:

Going to see Garth Brooks at Protective Stadium? Here’s what you need to know

Garth Brooks: 10 songs you need to know before his stadium show in Alabama

Driving to the Garth Brooks concert? You need a parking plan

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