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Garth Brooks is ropin' the wind -- and everything else

By Gary Graff

DETROIT (Reuters) - Garth Brooks is at his home near Nashville, detailing the travails of putting together his upcoming live album.

There's not enough time to include all the songs unless he makes it a double CD, he says. And that would make it too expensive for the fans. And then there's all the DVD video material to be dealt with.

He's asked if a decade ago, before his first album was released and he was still playing clubs in his native Oklahoma, he could have foreseen that one day he'd have such concerns.

"You hit it right on the head, man," the country superstar says with a laugh. "The things you bitch about sure are nice things to bitch about -- the things that, when you were playing the clubs, you'd have given your left arm to have a chance to do. The things that worry you are good problems to have at this point."

In that case, Brooks, 36, has plenty to be "worried" about these days. Since he debuted as a recording artist in 1989, Brooks has scaled the country and pop charts to sell nearly 70 million albums -- which makes him the biggest-selling solo artist ever and the second best-selling act behind the Beatles' 105 million albums.

The past year has seen an onslaught of product as well, including his 5-million-selling "Sevens" album and the home video from his concert in Central Park last summer.

His latest release is "The Limited Series," a boxed set of his first six albums with a bonus track added to each one -- including his version of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," which Brooks recorded for the soundtrack to the upcoming film "Hope Floats."

And Brooks -- who recently won the Academy of Country Music's coveted Entertainer of the Year award -- would like to see the live album come out by Thanksgiving.

Music industry prognosticators say all of that will put Brooks well on the path toward catching and surpassing the Beatles' sales mark. Skeptics, calling "The Limited Series" a glorified re-release, say that's the point.

But Brooks -- who records for the same company (Capitol-EMI) that releases the Beatles' albums -- denies that's his intent.

"Know that they're going to reassess the Beatles," he says. "They had some double albums that didn't count as double albums, 8-tracks, stuff like that. We're not close. It's not a goal. If we do pass the Beatles, it'll be because they haven't reassessed them yet. When they do ... forget it.

"With that numbers stuff, you just have to take it with a grain of salt. Yeah, you feel proud, but the true guy in you has to say 'Come on ... You're not really on the level of the Beatles.' For me as a fan ... the Beatles, Michael Jackson, you can stick Elvis Presley in there, James Taylor, Billy Joel and 100 more guys in there that I think are on a level Garth will never get to 'cause I'm such a huge fan of these people."

Yet Brooks has spent much of the past year suffering a backlash against his success and against the commercial ambitions he doesn't deny having.

Brooks -- who was disappointed with sales of "only" 4 million copies of his last album, "Fresh Horses" -- has been accused of engineering the ouster of his label president last year by withholding "Sevens" until he was sure it would be promoted properly.

Several books -- including one by former Nashville executive Jimmy Bowen, who signed Brooks in 1989 -- portray him as ruthless and manipulative. And in a scathing article during March in Newsweek, his former co-manager accused him of "a lot of pretense and falseness and veneer."

Even Brooks' good intentions have been open to criticism. When he struck a deal with Oprah Winfrey to donate proceeds from "Sevens" to her Angel Network if she'd promote it on her talk show every day for a week, the deal was assailed as an unabashed ploy to boost album sales -- even after it raised $500,000 for the charities.

On this topic, Brooks treads a diplomatic line. He doesn't deny that he's out to sell records.

"I want to do things first ... to bring things first to country music that no one has done in rock or anywhere else, because I really love carrying that banner," he explains.

But it's also clear he's stung and baffled by the backlash.

"It's one of those things I've gotten used to," he says, "but truthfully, man, I don't know ... It's because it just makes no sense to me. If a guy goes out to play golf, and he's trying to shoot the lowest score he can, don't we all want him to? If a guy's driving a car and he wants to get the fastest time he's ever gotten, don't we all want him to do that? And if you're trying to get the music out to as many people as you can, don't people want you to do that?

"I guess I just never understood it enough to analyze it, why there are people who, when you do something, they immediately jump on it and start smashing the hell out of it. I don't get that. So I probably find myself just steering clear of those people and then looking at my own self in the mirror and saying, 'Are you doing this for the right reasons?"'

Brooks says he has help keeping that artistic aim true. There's Allen Reynolds, his longtime producer, who wields an almost equal hand in making decisions about the albums.

And there's a group of players from Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Ala., who have appeared on all of Brooks' albums and who he says "will be the first to look at you and go, 'We're really not going to cut this, are we?"'

That's an immense help, Brooks says.

"The truth is the music should be first, and I thank God I have people surrounding me ... who truly don't think of anything but the music," he says. "To tell the truth, I'm not sure if I do."

Brooks also copes by separating his life from his business. There's a reason why he sometimes refers to Garth in the third person, as if to draw a distinction between the exuberant, unapologetically hambone performer and the guy who greets his three young daughters as they come home from school and day care, gushing over their pictures.

"Garth," he says, "is that guy up on stage, in the spotlights, the one people go crazy over. I know this may sound a little philosophical, but he's a reaction ... almost not real. I'm a real guy, and I have a life that's not all that."

Nevertheless, we'll be seeing a good deal of Garth -- man or reaction -- during the coming months.

An enormous marketing campaign is pushing "The Limited Series," and "Hope Floats" will also keep his profile high. There will be more singles -- "Anonymous" from the box set and "I Don't Have to Wonder" from "Sevens" -- and Brooks will soon be back on the road, with plans to wrap up a three-year world tour in November.

All the while, he'll be finishing work on the live album, which was recorded in Ireland.

Then his film production company, Red Strokes Entertainment, will start work on its first feature project.

Tentatively titled "The Lamb," it focuses on a musician, and the soundtrack will feature the character's music, and, according to Brooks, will hopefully be produced by the Grammy-gobbling pop impresario Babyface.

The film also might afford Brooks the opportunity to add an acting credential to his resume, but he's hedging on that one at the moment.

"We'll see," he says. "They want me to play the character. But in my mind, he's a ton, ton thinner. He's a lot less weight than I am. And he's got lots of hair, which I don't have, either. I know makeup can only go so far ... so I'm not sure I'm the right guy for it.

"But if they (can) make me thin, with lots of hair ... I'd like that."


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