A satisfied Brooks savors a last look down country road

'TC The lights are up full. The crowd is going bonkers. And Garth Brooks is striking The Pose. His head is thrown back, his face lit up by an open-mouth smile. The faint sounds of a "Heeeee-yah!" can be heard over the PA system. It's Mr. Brooks' way of saying: I am having the time of my life! Is anything better than this?

And why shouldn't he feel that way? During the past two years, the singer-songwriter has taken country music into the realm of multimillion record sales, instant concert sellouts and saturating media attention -- peaks generally reserved for pop phenomena, not Nashville nudniks.


Mr. Brooks once spoke of a desire "to be known as the artist of the decade for the '90s." So far, that's what he is. Is anything better than this?

He may find out. During the summer, he stunned the entertainment world by saying that his two new albums and his current tour may be his last. Fatherhood -- his wife, Sandy, gave birth to daughter Taylor on July 8 -- had taken some of the shine off making albums and staging long concert tours.


It was a staggering announcement. And even though he has since backpedaled, calling it a long break, not a retirement, it's still a stunner. After all, Mr. Brooks is arguably the hottest musician working today.

He's on the country charts with the single "We Shall Be Free" (at No. 14). His album "The Chase" is No. 1 on the Billboard charts and his Christmas album, "Beyond the Season," is No. 9.

What we're talking about, then, is not just quitting while you're ahead, but letting up when you're winning by the length of the racetrack. And knowing that even with that kind of huge lead, you're still giving the rest of the pack a chance to catch up to you.

"It's a hard call for me, man, because it's Oz to the left of me and Oz to the right of me," said the 30-year-old Mr. Brooks, who is to perform Thursday at the Capital Centre in Landover. "Either one I choose, I can't lose. Music's been a wonderful lover to me and, indeed, a dream-fulfiller.

"But there's nothing like holding that little 11 pounds of flesh and blood. Man, she's golden."

In his navy blue sweat pants and gray USA Wrestling T-shirt, the hatless and clean-shaven Mr. Brooks looks more like an Olympic grappler than a cowboy or a dad. And selling 21 million records in four years hasn't seemed to swell his head; his manner remains as earnest and soft-spoken as when he released his first album.

"I haven't turned into this wonderful wizard that knows everything about selling records and stuff," hes says. "I'm still the kid, the guy, the bum, the kind of guy who just likes to eat and play music.

" But his daughter's birth has changed the priority of those simple needs. Money isn't an issue; he notes with pride that he's remodeled his house, built his parents a ranch in his native Oklahoma and set up pension funds for his band and crew.


What made him revise his plans? A visit with Capitol Records' president, Joe Smith, who most assuredly doesn't want to see the Brooks gravy train derail any time soon. Mr. Smith "basically said to me: . . . 'Don't retire, man. Just take some time off and see what it's like to do that. Don't do albums, don't do nothin',' " Mr. Brooks says.

"So that's what we're going to try to do. I'm going to fight like hell to give this time to my wife and my little child, because when I do that, I'm really giving it to me."

So now Mr. Brooks' final bows on Dec. 12 at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., will mark the beginning of an eight-month break.

By pop music standards, an eight-month hiatus is relatively short. Top sellers such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson take years between albums and tours -- mainly to get the most out of each product before releasing something else. Some spend eight months simply planning their next media blitz.

Country's ethic is more industrious. Performers are expected to release a new album and tour every year -- even the superstars. In Mr. Brooks' case, the country community has been primed to expect a new record every September -- even if his year-old "Ropin' the Wind" is still in the Billboard Top 20. And the performers have been primed to believe that, if they go away, no matter how short the break, they risk being forgotten.

Mr. Brooks' subject matter, too, has been downright bold for the notoriously conservative country market. "The Thunder Rolls" focuses on domestic violence, while "Rodeo" casts an unapproving light on that revered sport. His new album, "The Chase," doesn't veer from that topical path. "Country music is about real life," Brooks says.


Garth Brooks

When: Thursday at 8 p.m.

Where: Capital Centre, Landover.

Tickets: Sold out.

Call: (410) 481-SEAT.