The next day, he found out that Pride was still, in fact, alive. That anxiety-inducing incident inspired Brooks to reach out to the 86-year-old country legend to duet on a song that he had always loved called “Where the Cross Don’t Burn,” written by Troy Jones and Phil Thomas, about the friendship between a young White boy and an older Black man. Brooks flew to Dallas and he and Pride recorded the ballad together; it appears on Brooks’s new studio album, “Fun,” which is released Friday.
Brooks, the top-selling solo artist of all time credited for pioneering country music as a mainstream genre in the 1990s, is known for (a) huge concert tours and (b) his desire for unity and bringing everyone together. (See: Songs including “We Shall Be Free,” “We Belong to Each Other” and “People Loving People.”) In other words, the exact opposite of everything that makes up the year 2020. But as Brooks found innovative ways to stay connected to his fans, performing live-stream shows and headlining a drive-in concert, even the famously apolitical star couldn’t escape the extreme political divisiveness of this year — mostly thanks to the misinformation highway.
First, people on the Internet were furious in February when they thought Brooks endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during a performance at Detroit’s Ford Field football stadium — because they got confused when he wore a jersey honoring former Lions running back Barry Sanders. Then, social media erupted in September when Politico reported Brooks was one of the celebrities asked to star in the Trump administration’s campaign to “defeat despair” about the coronavirus pandemic. The story didn’t say he agreed to it, but fans proclaimed their devastation anyway as they assumed Brooks was a Trump supporter.
Brooks laughs when asked about these incidents. “I was lucky enough to be raised with a very strong foundation of, ‘Look, as long as you know who you are, it doesn’t matter if rest of the world knows who you are, or thinks they know you and they’re wrong.'” He says he was embarrassed for anyone caught up in the Sanders misunderstanding, though it led to a tweet from the NFL’s Sanders asking Brooks to be his vice president. As for “the rest of the stuff,” Brooks said, “you walk in with a cowboy hat, and immediately, you’re put in this kind of category that might not be who you are.”
The singer still seems unsure of what even happened with the Trump pandemic-ad situation. “All I know is my publicist sent us this thing that said, ‘Hey look, I’m not sure what this is coming from, so I’m going to pass on it.’ I never even saw it. I said, ‘Okay.’ But this must be what it was — nobody’s asked me about it until now. So I didn’t hear anything,” Brooks said. “My crew knows what’s important for me, and so the things that really hit home, like the changes in music law, stuff like this that affects songwriters, they fill me in on it. But the rest of the stuff, they kind of know that if I want to dig into it, I’ll dig into it. But with as much misinformation that’s going on out there, it kind of is a deterrent to scan the headlines.”
The singer also sounded grateful for his legion of loyal fans who clarified on social media that the Politico story didn’t say he agreed to participate. “That’s another thing, too, you find as an artist: Your own people that follow you, that love the music, they kind of even and police everything out,” he said. “There’s so many battles you never have to fight … they take great care of me, and I feel very lucky.”
Despite the fiercely divisive times, several songs on the album urge listeners to join together to try to improve themselves and the lives of others. “The Courage of Love” says “If we’re gonna give our children a future that is bright, then truth must be the answer and love is the light,” while “Message in a Bottle” goes with, “I guess I’ve always been a dreamer, but I’ve seen where dreams can lead, for in the hearts of all believers, there’s only possibility.”
“It’s a message that this world would run a lot more smoothly if we just could find the patience,” Brooks said. “It’s the empathy and the sympathy for what someone else is going through.”
Brooks also includes a few party tracks: “Dive Bar” with Blake Shelton, which reached the Top 10 on the country radio airplay charts when it was released last year, and the self-explanatory “Party Gras (The Mardi Gras Song).” And in true Brooks fashion, a number of classic love songs, such as “I Can Be Me With You” and “Stronger Than Me,” round out the album.
These days, Brooks’s identity as an artist is often intertwined with Yearwood; the couple, who celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary this year, perform joint live-stream shows and starred in a CBS concert together this past spring. (They just scheduled a CBS holiday special for Dec. 20.) They released their cover version of “Shallow,” the Oscar-winning duet originally sung by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born,” as a single.
Brooks was impressed by the film. “Nobody ever makes a music movie right, but this was spot on … everything during the stage performance [scene] was exactly where it would be,” he said, giving credit to Gaga. He related to the themes in the movie: songwriting, music and also professional jealousy with a spouse. While he’s obviously thrilled for Yearwood’s success — “I think she deserves everything” — he admits it’s natural to feel envy over certain accomplishments: “You want that for you.” Originally, they just played the “Shallow” cover for fans on Facebook Live, but it was so well-received that it wound up on the album.
And yes, Brooks is aware that some may raise eyebrows at releasing an album called “Fun” when … well, that would not describe the current state of things. But it captured how he felt making the record, and he hopes it brings happiness to others as they think about a brighter future ahead.
“I think you can read into this music very current stuff that’s going on,” he said. “But the current stuff that’s going on right now is timeless — it’s all about change, how you adapt to change and how you overcome.”