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Is Brooks hankerin' for a comeback?

The retired country star is out making the scene, stirring up promotional buzz -- and speculation.

November 12, 2005|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Is Garth Brooks getting back in the saddle again?

The one-time titan of country music rode off into the sunset in October 2000, announcing his retirement after selling more than 100 million albums and transforming the sound and concert stages of Nashville music. But for a guy out of work he sure is busy.

This fall he's released a new song, he's got an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart to sell a six-disc boxed set that should revive interest in his catalog of hits and on Thursday he dropped by "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" to insist that -- really, honestly -- he just wants a quiet life making school lunches and coaching his daughter's soccer squad.

Greeted to the stage with extended applause and whistles, the 43-year-old (wearing a baseball cap, not a Stetson) beamed and blushed. His first words: "I miss that right there." Leno didn't let the point slide by: "As soon as all those people stand up I can see it in your eyes.... Remind me now, why did you retire?"

The Oklahoma native once famed for the intensity of his careerism as well as his stage shows launched into the familiar answer about wanting to spend time with his daughters, the youngest of whom is now 9. When he retired, his marriage to their mother had fallen apart and he decided his life required a quieter place to heal and rear his children.

"Sure you miss it," Brooks told Leno, "but when you got three comedians in your house like I got ... you kind of get pushed off to the side a lot and they take the stage."

That may be, but Brooks has done more in the public eye in the past four months than he did in the preceding four years. And there's more coming. Tonight at 8, CMT will broadcast "Garth Brooks Unlimited," a one-hour exploration of the singer's past, present and future. Brooks and his fiancee, singer Trisha Yearwood, agreed to extensive interviews for the show. Brooks also has scheduled a run in New York next week that includes an appearance Tuesday on the Country Music Assn. Awards and two visits -- to talk, not sing -- during Garth Brooks Week on ABC's "Good Morning America."

With all these conflicting signals, Brooks may be positioning himself as the most famous mystery-man in a cowboy hat since the Lone Ranger. His publicist, Nancy Seltzer, says it's simple, really: This is a week of borrowed public time from the private life, all to support the Wal-Mart project.

"He is not," she says, "un-retiring."

Others aren't so sure.

"Is it a mixed message? Yes, I think that's a fair assessment," said Chris Parr, CMT vice president of music and talent. "He's been very adamant that he's remaining retired ... but during our interview with him, he was asked whether he misses everything that he had before and he said something like, yes, every minute of every hour of every day."

Parr also does not discount the tug Brooks may feel as he watches Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith and the other boots-and-blue-jeans heroes who have risen in his absence.

"You can't sell more than 100 million albums," Parr notes, "and not be considered pretty competitive."

To some observers, Brooks isn't guilty of coyness, he's a victim of his own earnestness.

"He painted himself into a corner, and he's a guy who says what he means and means what he says," said Lon Helton, the country music editor for Radio & Records, a music industry trade. "If he had just said, 'I'm retiring from touring until my daughters are grown,' he would have been fine and able to pursue other things. Instead, he retired from everything and I think he feels that even if he's itching to come back he doesn't want to be going back against what he said."

Brooks has already taken a few curtain calls this year, but in each instance he had the saving grace of a good cause. In September, Lyric Street Records, a part of Disney's music division, released a new Brooks single, "Good Ride Cowboy," a tribute song he recorded to the late Chris LeDoux, the rodeo star and high-energy country performer who was a strong influence on Brooks. (The pair also had a hit together in 1992 with the single "Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy.") LeDoux, who died in March at age 56, had a liver transplant in 2000 and was diagnosed with cancer in 2004.

In September, Brooks also performed a John Fogerty song on "Shelter From the Storm," the nationally televised telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims. He visited the Grand Ole Opry for the institution's 80th anniversary celebrations. There was a Bakersfield stage visit during which he proposed to Yearwood. Earlier this year, Helton also saw Brooks drop in for a Country Music Hall of Fame event in Nashville.

"The glint in his eye, the look on his face ... it seemed like he was just soaking in the idea: 'People really do want to see me again,' " Helton said. "And you know, once a performer, always a performer."

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