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The country music star talks about remaining relevant while authentic and the changing nature of the industry as he releases his new album Gunslinger

If time is indeed a revelator, as the song goes, then it shows how country music today looks and sounds a lot like Garth Brooks.

So imagine what it must be like to be Garth Brooks, releasing a new album and emerging from what was a nearly 15-year retirement. Suddenly he enters a country music industry that feels mighty familiar: touring takes place in sports arenas, not theaters; country stars are comfortable collaborating with pop stars or putting their own stamp on classic rock staples from decades ago; and music artists in general are bypassing record labels so they can control their own music by releasing it independently and getting it directly to fans.

Brooks, 54, is a one-man catalyst who pushed the industry in those directions. When he retired in 2000 to help raise his three daughters in Claremore, Oklahoma, the benchmarks he achieved the previous decade remained untouched: he is musics biggest-selling artist in history, after to the Beatles, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, tallying 138 million in total unit sales. His return to touring in 2014 has also broken more records; global ticket sales since last year have hovered near the five million mark and counting, according to Pollstar.

But numbers aside, Brooks is well aware he is returning to an industry dominated by younger male singers who grew up, not necessarily on his personal trifecta Merle Haggard, George Jones, George Strait but on hip-hop and top 40 dance pop. In that light, the impressive new album Gunslinger (Pearl) sounds more aligned with traditionalists like Chris Stapleton than it does with neo-country groups like Florida Georgia Line. The songs reflect a populist who, even with nothing left to prove, made sure the 10 songs stand tall inside his classic catalog of hits.

Sitting on the edge of a couch in a recording studio nestled inside Nashvilles Music Row, Brooks says that while making the record he was well aware of the dangers an older artist can face when chasing trends. Theres nothing more unflattering than someone whos chasing, he says. That said, he did make sure Gunslinger retained a modern edge. On Baby, Lets Lay Down And Dance, Brooks hired Justin Timberlake drummer Brian Frasier-Moore and bassist Eric Smith to give it a slinky groove while Ask Me How I Know How sounds tailored for modern country radio. The updates come from his retirement years when his daughters introduced him to younger artists like Timberlake, Beyonc and Bruno Mars.

Brooks says his touchstones in recording Gunslinger were New Moon Shine by James Taylor and Storm Front by Billy Joel two well-received mid-career albums by establishment artists who managed to sound rooted in the present without shedding the integrity of their past.

Thats what you want to do as an older artist you want to reinvent but there has to be that vein in there for why people were listening to you before in the first place, he says.

Long before Radiohead and other groups retreated from the industry to realign how they connect with fans, Brooks was tinkering with the traditional relationship between labels and listeners by asserting independence rarely exhibited in the Nashville power structure. After establishing himself with a string of hits in the early 1990s The Dance, Friends in Low Places, Unanswered Prayers, The Thunder Rolls, among many he negotiated a deal where he parted ways with EMI-owned Capital Nashville but retained ownership of his master recordings. From there he worked a deal to make his entire catalog available through Walmart stores and this week launched a special 10-disc box set at Target. He and Yearwood also released Christmas Together, a seasonal duets album, last week.

Brooks says illegal streaming via YouTube and other online services have threatened to make his catalog worthless.

Because youre whack-a-moling. [You] cant protect it, he says. He was a holdout to Spotify and iTunes for years but in October signed a deal with Amazon Music to allow official streaming of parts of his catalog but that was only after he launched GhostTunes, his own streaming service he says now has an uncertain future.

He admits to worrying that technology companies will one day hold all the cards, from creative control to distribution to publishing, a situation that will create uncertainty regarding royalty rates for songwriters, among other things, and force consumers to juggle services. Itll be the wild west then, he says. The people who make up the rules will be the individual [technology] companies.

The on-demand nature of streaming is also poised to erode one of the best things about music: discovering something you might love by chance, not through the metrics of an anonymous programmer. How many songs in your life were your favorite songs but never were singles on albums? [The Eagles] Hotel California had about three or four that made my life but never were singles. But youre not going to hear them now, he says. At his stage in life, Brooks admits that he struggles with a business that is laser-focused on individual songs but not necessarily artists, especially talented new ones, who may have a backlog of songs.

The hardest part about this business is accepting the back end with the same love that you accepted the front end, he says.

Despite the shifting nature of the music business, touring has remained the centerpiece of his career. Even during his retirement he managed to play a series of stripped-down shows at the Encore in Las Vegas. There, he performed solo, often acoustic, and performed numerous covers in addition to his own songs. The casual setting provided a stark counterpoint to what he calls the freak show the full-scale stadium spectacle he has refined over many years. During these recent dates, he makes sure to bring a bit of the Vegas experience into the arena: simple moments featuring just vocals and guitar. If you do the freak show and not do that, then the freak show is a lie of smoke and mirrors and at some point its going to break.

The freak show is something Brooks introduced to country music through his love of arena rock titans like Kiss. Back then he received a lot of flak for turning country away from its supposed roots. Today, with Merle Haggard and many others gone, it has not escaped him that his music now represents the tradition.

It is kind of weird as the years go by you start getting to be known as the country guy when anybody that was alive or around knows when you came out, they wanted to hang you because they didnt think your stuff wasnt country at all, he says. I dont know why it works that way but it always does.

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