Garth Brooks returns to Philadelphia this weekend for four shows — in three days — at the Wells Fargo Center.
When the country pop superstar last brought a tour through Philadelphia for multiple dates, he was at the apex of his career. Back in 1998, Brooks did six sold-out shows at the same arena — then known as the First Union Center — in the midst of a remarkable run that, given the way the music business has changed, no one will ever equal.
With his 1997 Sevens, Brooks put out his seventh consecutive album to sell at least seven million copies. It must be his lucky number. Six of those albums sold more than 10 million.
Last week at the South by Southwest Music festival in Austin, Texas, Brooks was introduced for his keynote interview as “the number-one-selling solo artist in U.S. history.” (“You said it exactly as I wrote it,” he quipped.)
That sales accomplishment is particularly mind-boggling considering that, unlike, say, Taylor Swift, Brooks never truly crossed over to pop. Instead, the Oklahoma entertainer grew the country audience by dressing 1970s soft-rock sounds and arena theatrics in a cowboy hat, and by bringing the high-energy presentation to his people while climbing a rope ladder.
So unless you’re a country radio listener, you probably can’t name three Garth Brooks songs.
Go ahead, I’m waiting.
OK, I’ll give you three: “Friends in Low Places,” “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” and “The Dance.” Sorry, his shamelessly overwrought cover of Billy Joel’s “Shameless” doesn’t count.
This weekend, when Brooks returns for his four shows — including a Saturday afternoon matinee — with wife Trisha Yearwood also on the bill, it’ll be under vastly different circumstances.
He’s no longer a hitmaker. In 1999, his attempt to reach pop fans while sporting a hairpiece and pretending to be alter ego Chris Gaines tanked. After one more country album, he “retired” from recording and performing.
Brooks — who also performed in Philadelphia in 2001 at the July Fourth celebration on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway — eventually got back to work. He took on a Las Vegas residency in 2009 and finally released a new album, called Man Against Machine, in 2014. Gunslinger followed last fall.
That album has sold fewer than 100,000 copies. But the tour Brooks launched in 2014 has proved him to be as big an in-concert attraction as ever. He has played more than 250 shows, keeping ticket prices aggressively reasonable — all seats are $65 at Wells Fargo. He hunkers down until demand is met, doing two-a-days if need be.
Brooks was somewhat of an oddity at SXSW, where in addition to sitting for an interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter and Amazon's Steve Boom, he played a free outdoor show and a surprise honky-tonk set.
The conference focuses on up-and-coming acts. But aspiring music-industry types are keen on hearing how others succeeded. And Brooks, who has an undergraduate degree in advertising and an MBA from Oklahoma State, has a head for business.
He has recently inked an exclusive deal with Amazon to stream his catalog. Boom said Brooks was key for the company in reaching the country market that has been slow to embrace streaming.
Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant aims to help achieve “the mainstreaming of streaming,” Boom said, by making playing music at home — and in the car — as simple as telling your PA to “play Garth Brooks.” “You have to take the friction out of it,” Boom said, “because when it’s hard, people don’t want to do it.”
Brooks had plenty of smart stuff to say about the changes in the music business. He’s worried about the thumbs-ups, thumbs-down process of picking music used by streaming service algorithms that think they have a handle on what you like.
“How many songs are there that you love that you didn’t love the first time you heard them?” he asked. “Then, the next you heard it, there was something about it you liked. And then it becomes the song you play at your wedding.”
He also spoke out on behalf of songwriters, whose numbers, he says, are down 84 percent in Nashville since 2000. The reason? People buy singles, and writers who pen deep album cuts don’t make much in royalties.
“We have to keep [the songwriters] in this business until they write that song that they were put on this earth to write. I think that’s the most important thing that we can do as people who are making our living off of music,” Brooks said. “For music’s sake — which is for all of our sake — we must reinvest in songwriters. Because that’s where it all starts.”
Garth Brooks with Trisha Yearwood, 7 p.m. Friday, 3 & 7 p.m. Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday, Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. $65.48. 215-336-3300. wellsfargocenterphilly.com.