How Steve Wynn won over Garth Brooks
In Garth Brooks’ other life, the one he lived before his retirement in 2001, one of the albums he put out that helped him surpass Elvis Presley as the biggest-selling solo performer in pop music history was titled “Ropin’ the Wind.”
That describes pretty well the experience of anyone — and there were many -- who tried to lasso him back into public performance during the last eight years. Until, that is, billionaire Steve Wynn announced Thursday that he had talked Brooks into coming to Las Vegas for what’s envisioned as a series of intimate, solo acoustic performances that will begin Dec. 11 at Wynn’s 1,500-seat Encore Theater.
It wasn’t that Brooks had grown immune to the rush of thousands of fans cheering him on when he packed sports arenas and concert theaters around the country, or that he’d run out of songs he relished singing.
But following the collapse of his marriage, he’d promised his daughters — who were 4, 6 and 8 at the time — to make his family the top priority in his life until all three went off to college, and that simply wasn’t compatible with a hard-touring road hound like Brooks.
When Wynn first brought up the idea of playing in Vegas, “I said he couldn’t afford me,” Brooks told a couple dozen journalists and several hundred fans gathered in the Encore Theater looking on as Brooks and his new business partner sat on stools on the theater’s stage. After a well-timed pause, Brooks added: “I was wrong.”
Wynn, for his part, eloquently described the thrill he got from hearing Brooks audition with just a guitar and his voice awhile back after they first started talking. He said it gave him a thrill unlike any he’d experienced since the days of the Rat Pack in the mid-1960s, how Brooks was unmatched today in his ability “to walk on a stage and create love with an audience in real time.”
His overarching goal: to create a situation where Brooks could perform while still honoring his commitment to his family.
“In order to accomplish this goal,” Wynn said dryly, “I will confess I had to buy him a jet plane.”
Quips aside, Brooks said it really isn’t about the money, although it’s reputed to be more than any performer has ever been paid for an engagement in Las Vegas. Wynn wouldn’t give a number: “If I were to tell you that, I'd probably lose my job with the stockholders.”
Even so, after Thursday’s press conference, Brooks said in his backstage dressing room — which already has a star with his name on it — “This is actually a great opportunity that has lots of rewards to it, and one of them is the money. The fact that the money is on the table is a sweet part of it.
“But trust me,” he said softly, “it’s the same thing I’ve been offered 10 or 15 other times. Where he got me was his concern with the fact that my life doesn’t change."
And how does that sit with the rest of his family? “I really think nothing’s really going to change,” said Brooks’ wife, singer Trisha Yearwood, who accompanied him to the press announcement, “except that we’re going to get to come to Vegas once a month, and how cool is that? I think it’s a really good thing.”
“Everybody else thought money was the answer,” Brooks said. “This guy came to me not with ‘How much money is it going to take for this to happen?’ but ‘What are the logistics that it’s going to take to make it happen?’ That’s where he started. And he based all his decisions on either the kids or music ... He figured it out real quick. He’s a sharp guy.”
So Brooks will become Wynn’s weekend warrior.
He’ll play one show Friday night, two on Saturday and one more Sunday, a schedule that allows him to take his girls to and from school every day. They’ve initially announced five weekends’ worth of shows, something of a trial balloon for the concept. He said they're only announcing dates essentially one quarter at a time so he can schedule them around his kids' school and extracurricular activities.
If everything works out, Brooks plans to keep playing for Wynn for the next five years, until Allie, his 13-year-old, is old enough to head off to college.
“When me and you are in a relationship and me and you have something to exchange, I’m gonna ask you questions that, to me I think, are going to reveal why you’re really in this,” Brooks said. “Every time I asked him one of those questions, his answer threw me … it wasn’t what I was thinking ... Every time something came up that seemed impossible, he had an answer that made it possible ... And the last one of those was ‘What If I get into this [for] three months and I don’t like it?' And he said, ‘Then you quit.’ Damn. He’s not hiding anything.”
One reporter asked, “What was the reaction when you sat our family down and told them you were going back to work?” Brooks said his eldest daughter Taylor’s response was, " ‘Thank goodness!’ ”
But in reality, it didn’t go anything like that in the Brooks-Yearwood household in Oklahoma.
Brooks is a believer in democracy at home as well as in politics, and described regular family meetings where “we sit and we talk about anything and everything” and where each member of the family can freely air complaints or concerns.
“We started talking about the Vegas deal,” said Brooks. “I said ‘Guys, here’s the opportunity that’s come up, here’s where we’re at.’ And when I explained it to them, all they did was look at each other, then Taylor said, ‘Can we go?’ I said ‘Yep,’ and they were in. That was it.
“The truth is,” Brooks said, pausing briefly, “I’m halfway through what I retired to do. And this last half might be even more important than the first half. So I’m not going to let anything screw that up. So I’ve got a guy here who’s been sweet enough to make it easy for me to do this.
“And if it doesn’t work, we’ll quit doing it. And again, I have to now think, am I supposed to be doing this because I’d be stupid to pass it up?” His eyes glance skyward. “We’ll just give it a shot and see.”
There is one facet of the deal that clearly still gnaws at Brooks: ticket costs. Brooks historically kept prices on his concert tours ridiculously low by contemporary standards: $25 or less.
He noted that the highest price for a ticket to a Garth Brooks concert to date was for five benefit shows he did early last year at Staples Center in Los Angeles as a benefit for firefighters and victims of Southern California wildfires that had raged the previous fall.
“That was to raise money for somebody and tickets were 45 bucks, which I thought was crazy,” he said.
Wynn had suggested tiered ticket prices, allowing some seats in the back of the theater to be priced more in keeping with what Brooks fans have been accustomed to, while the middle and front-row seats would be closer to what other top-name acts on the Las Vegas Strip charge.
That idea also ran counter to Brooks’ philosophy that fans shouldn’t get preferential treatment just because they’re financially better off.
“It’s the old John Lennon thing, ‘You people, if you’re having a good time, rattle your jewelry.’ So it scares me to do that. Man, I’d rather just do one ticket price overall. [Wynn said,] ‘If you’re going to do that to me, I’ve got to get a ticket price bigger than 50 bucks.' I said, ‘What are you thinking?’ He said '$125.' I passed out." After coming to, Brooks must have agreed to that price.
“But it’s a 1,500-seat theater,” Brooks said, “and my only response is, if you don’t like Vegas, or you think the ticket price is too high, stay at home. Because we’re still on the same plan: that when the children go to school, I’d like to fire the machine up again and tour. So stay at home and I’ll come to your place for a lot less money and hopefully everything will be good then. So it’s kind of like it’s their choice.
“You can tell that’s the only thing I really have a problem with,” he said with a resigned smile. “My job is for them to walk out of here going ‘Dude, that was worth it.’ ”
Photo: Garth Brooks in 2008. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times