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Garth Brooks: Midlife Crisis (2001)

For Garth Brooks, it seemed like old times. 

Dressed in a ball cap, work shirt and jeans, the superstar grabbed a guitar, perched himself on a stool and prepared to entertain—all by himself. No band, no fireworks, and certainly no throngs of screaming fans.

Instead, Garth was performing for a relatively small crowd of 2,000 at a country radio convention in Nashville. "I apologize for this," Garth began with a grin, pointing to his blue-collar attire. "I'm afraid I can't fit into my old stage clothes anymore." 

The crowd chuckled. The intimate moment brought back memories of Garth's early days playing small clubs—and Garth himself appeared to be on the verge of teary emotion.

"Starting is always the hardest part of any journey," he announced. 

Then, in typical Garth fashion, he did the unexpected. 

Rather than opening with one of his mega-hits, Garth selected the Cat Stevens classic "Wild World," a song about the cruelties of life. 

An unlikely choice — but certainly an appropriate one. For the past year, Garth's personal world has been in a tailspin. The fallout began in December of 1999, when he shocked fans with talk of retirement. Then last summer, he put an end to his tumultuous marriage, announcing that he and wife Sandy planned to divorce after 14 years.

Since that time, he has focused on his three daughters—Taylor, 8; August, 7; and Allie, 4—who live with Sandy in Oklahoma.

"I have spent the last year-and-a-half taking care of certain responsibilities that I'd been running away from," revealed Garth. "My parents always taught me to give your kids lots of attention, and that's what I'm doing now. I want to try and become for them what my dad was and still is for me."  

The pain of his broken marriage shattered him, and the debris filtered into his songwriting. 

"The hardest thing in all this is where Sandy and my relationship is at," admitted Garth as he paused to collect his thoughts. "With this new album project, I need to rely on other writers, because all the stuff that I am writing sounds like Edgar Allen Poe on downers."

With some of Shakespeare's tragic Hamlet thrown in, perhaps. "I wrote one line for a song that goes, I pray for sleep too deep to think. And I'm thinking, 'Oh, man, I should be drinking to write this kind of stuff.' It's that dark," says Garth.

And getting darker. Garth then offered a couple of lines from another song-in-progress, one with a direct reference to his marital split. Do you stay for the children,” he sang, “or lead them to the light?”   

Clearly, he is obsessed with personal reflection. "I've been thinking that these songs are a little too much 'me' so far," he observes. "My albums have always been for you and for me. That's why these songs might not make it to the album."

Selecting songs for an upcoming album in his emotional state has been nearly impossible. Garth says his producer has listened to 10,000 outside songs—and selected only a handful of keepers. "I have one duet with Trisha Yearwood that I know we'll do, and one other song on hold. So far that's it!"   

But once the album is released, will that finally be it for Garth? Will it be his last?

In late 1999, he announced that he would retire after releasing and promoting one final album. He bolstered the retirement talk last year when he declared that he would not tour again until his youngest daughter starts college.

It certainly sounds cast in concrete—but Garth always leaves himself an escape hatch. He did just that at a press conference prior to a celebration last year in Nashville honoring his 100 million album sales. Garth stated that he did not want the upcoming album to be termed a "farewell" project. He said he was also considering a duet album with Trisha, along with a movie soundtrack.    

Garth may be down, but he's not out. In addition to the new album, he will contribute original songs for the Christmas film Call Me Claus, set to air on TNT. 

He also has not abandoned his pop-singing alter ego, Chris Gaines—though why remains a mystery. Garth's album In The Life Of Chris Gaines met with lukewarm sales and merciless jabs from critics. Garth even admitted that he failed to pull off the character. "I don't think people dug me playing someone so opposite of me," he said. 

Yet, he is still reviewing scripts for a movie called The Lamb, based on the Gaines character. "The Lamb is still Paramount [Studio's] baby," Garth said after the recent People's Choice Awards. "If Paramount says we're going forward with this—and if they're crazy enough to let me do the soundtrack—I'll go back in and do it. But if they do not green-light the project, then I'll have to live with the fact that this is never going to happen."

Back at his convention performance, Garth quickly eased out of the gloom and his performance turned into a lighthearted free-for-all. He cheerfully allowed a member of the audience to sing harmony on "The River," much to the crowd's delight. Garth also introduced a parody of his hit "Friends In Low Places" called "Pains." The opening line—Blame it all on the beans—led to an eruption of side-splitting laughter. 

Suddenly turning serious, Garth confessed, "I get the fear that I'm really hated sometimes. I'm afraid some of you think I'm a jerk." 

But showing no hard feelings, Garth launched into "The Dance," the song that started a string of five straight No. 1s in the early 1990s. The poignant message, that even painful journeys are worthwhile, produced a hushed silence.

But whether he is taking his final journey is anyone's guess. As he exhaled deeply, he paused for the right words. 

"Is the music behind us?" he wondered aloud. "If it is, then I'll thank God for the time we had. If not—then we'll find out what to do next." 

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