Earlier this month, a Grammy-winning superstar took a bold left turn. Nobody saw it coming, and many were confounded by the move. But this person successfully challenged convention and upended previous notions of his work. And in the end, one could not help but admire his flouting of commercial expectations. Because he was, as always, his own idiosyncratic self.
I am referring, of course, to Garth Brooks and the packaging of his latest studio album, Time Traveler, inside of a seven-CD box set sold exclusively at Bass Pro Shops locations.
Perhaps you are unaware that the best-selling solo artist in American pop music history has made his new record available at only 177 stores (including 82 combination Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s) known for selling hunting and fishing gear. If that is the case, I will refer you to this Billboard interview published the day before the box set (titled The Limited Series) was released on November 7. Last year, Garth played the chain retailer’s 50th anniversary party and he struck up a friendship with CEO Johnny Morris. “He talked to me about water conservation,” the singer-songwriter explained. Garth naturally drew a parallel between the fight to preserve fresh water and the plight of veteran country stars who are resistant to streaming music platforms. “And he said ‘Well, what can we do about that?’ and I said, ‘I’m looking for a partner for my last limited box set’ [and] he was sweet enough to step up.”
And that was that. A perfectly logical and practical collaboration concerning the 17th studio LP by a man who has sold more than 170 million records worldwide was forged.
I think I heard about the “Garth Brooks + Bass Pro Shops” union when it was announced, but I quickly forgot about it. It mostly registered as another one of those stupid music industry “synergy” stories that frequently come across my timeline, in which a world-famous musician teams up with a highly successful corporate brand to once again prove that Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was barely a satire. I paid “Garth Brooks is selling his new album at Bass Pro Shops” as much mind as this month’s story about Snoop Dogg “giving up smoke” in order to promote a new partnership with a smokeless fire pit company. This is just the way of the world. Rocks are hard. Water is wet. Popular music in 2023 is embarrassing and undignified.
Flash forward to one week before Thanksgiving. My editor sends me an article over Slack expressing wonderment over how Time Traveler has virtually no digital footprint. The music is scarcely available on YouTube, it says. Very few people are tweeting about it. Notices from professional critics are negligible. Not even the author of the article appeared to have actually heard Time Traveler. It was almost as if the new Garth Brooks album (for the aggressively online, at least) did not exist.
“Maybe I should review this?” I Slacked back.
My editor was pleased. It was the very response he had Jedi mind-tricked me into giving him. But as I pondered the particulars of the situation, I began to feel as though I had a responsibility to review this album. First of all, while I am not a Garth Brooks super fan, I have dabbled amiably in his work. Like anyone who has stepped foot inside of a small-town Middle American bar since 1990, I have heard and enjoyed “Friends In Low Places.” And if I were ever called upon to be a talking head in a Garth Brooks documentary, I could bluff my way through a discussion about No Fences. Second, I am a vocal fan of the CD format. I am surrounded by stacks of the things in my office, and they number in the thousands. Meanwhile many of my colleagues in the media don’t even have the hardware to play a CD. Which is probably why the author of that article my editor sent me wrote about Time Traveler like it was printed in Sanskrit and buried at the bottom of the Dead Sea.
And then there is the matter of geography. The vast majority of music critics reside in either New York City or Los Angeles, and neither metropolis is located anywhere near a Bass Pro Shops location. Whereas I live in a western suburb of Minneapolis, a town where Garth at his peak once performed nine consecutive sold-out arena shows. (There is even a song set in Minneapolis on his new album. More on that later.) I swiftly discovered via Google Maps that there was a combination Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s a mere 20-minute drive from my house. I picked up the phone and dialed the store to confirm that the box set was in stock. A man with the voice of a basset hound answered. The box set was in stock! My access to the bottom of the Dead Sea was secured.
For the first time in my life, living in the Midwest was a professional advantage. My mind reeled at this shocking reversal of fortune — this was like the latest Christopher Nolan film screening exclusively at my neighborhood Kwik Trip store. I felt compelled to seize the moment.
A few days after my call to the basset hound-voiced man, I pulled up to my local Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s. If you have never been to this place, picture the biggest log cabin you have ever seen. A log cabin the size of a football field. The kind of log cabin that Taylor Sheridan probably owns. That’s what it looks like on the outside. On the inside, modern country music plays over the P.A. An arsenal of guns and ammo is available at discount prices. The selection of flannel shirts is voluminous and impressive. And the staff is hyper-proficient and extremely Caucasian. It’s like Red State: The Store.
For the record, selling an album strictly at a sporting goods outlet is not the craziest business decision Garth Brooks has ever made. Not even close to the craziest, really. The first, obviously, was the whole Chris Gaines thing. The second was his decision in 2014 to launch his own digital music service, GhostTunes, to compete with iTunes. After he inevitably shuttered the service three years later, Amazon became Garth’s only online retailer. Look up “Friends In Low Places” on Spotify or Apple Music and (aside from a live bootleg recorded in Germany in 1995) you’ll come up empty.
Upon entering the store, I was met by Robert, who had the business-casual look of a store manager. I asked him where I could find the Garth Brooks box set, and he motioned to his right. Any fears I had that The Limited Series might sell out a few days before Black Friday were instantly put to rest. Here was a display with eight shelves of Garth, each with three rows stacked nine long-boxes high. As I walked over to the plastic-covered wall of music I could see Garth’s picture on every one — he was wearing a white button-down over a salmon-colored v-neck shirt, along with the de rigueur cowboy hat, shades, blue jeans, and significant belt buckle. The logo for Bass Pro Shops loomed prominently behind him. The Limited Series title was emblazoned on faux-prestigious fake gold plating.
“Would you like me to take your picture?” Robert asked, gesturing toward the life-sized photo of Garth standing next to the plastic-covered wall of music.
“No,” I replied, with a slightly defensive edge. Replaying the exchange later in my mind, I realized that my reflexive reaction to Robert’s question was based on the assumption that he was making fun of me for buying a seven-disc Garth Brooks box set. And I surmised that this response surely stemmed from years of conditioning from judgmental clerks in record stores. But this was not a normal record store — or a record store at all. As far as music goes, Cabela’s only sells seven-disc Garth Brooks box sets. Robert was not making fun of me. He was being sincere. I wonder how many people he had previously photographed with that life-sized Garth photo.
As Robert guided me to the cash register, he explained in a low conspiratorial tone that while the box set retails for $29.99, I could have it for $19.99 if I signed up for a Cabela’s Club credit card. But that’s not all: When you sign up for a Cabela’s Club credit card, you are gifted 20 free dollars to go toward your first purchase. Which meant that I could have this box set … for absolutely nothing. Plus, they were also going to throw in a Cabela’s hat and stainless steel multi-tool (with sheath!), free of charge.
Suddenly, I could see why Bass Pro Shops wanted in on the Garth Brooks business. It wasn’t because Johnny Morris envisioned a vital link between water conservation and the restoration of compact discs. The man was hawking credit cards. And it was a good racket.
The pitch shouldn’t have worked on me. I made my editor promise ahead of time that I could expense my purchase. I didn’t need to hand over my driver’s license and Social Security number to get this box set for free. But Robert’s kind but firm demeanor immediately overwhelmed me. My mind flashed to my previous Garth Brooks assignment, when I covered the first concert of his post-retirement comeback nine years ago at an arena outside of Chicago. I interviewed a nice middle-aged couple about why they liked Garth Brooks, and they didn’t say he was a great songwriter or that he was an incredible singer or that he was a charismatic and sexy performer. They didn’t say that because Garth Brooks is not any of those things. He is rightly perceived as the most average superstar in modern popular music history.
Here’s what they did say: “He’s a reasonably priced ticket.” And that summed up his appeal as well as the 3,000-word thinkpiece I proceeded to write. People buy into Garth Brooks because he’s always a good deal. And good deals are hard to resist, even when the product being offered is something you don’t need or particularly want. But Garth’s prices are reasonable. He has the best customer service. And he’s very convenient. He’s like Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s, only with less wood siding.
The “good deal” aspect of Garth Brooks goes hand-in-hand with his other defining attribute: His obsession with statistics. Media outsiders flummoxed by the idea of the most popular country singer of the last 30 years selling his latest album in this manner fail to understand that he’s a world-class stats padder. He’s like an athlete who excels in garbage time. Call him the James Harden of country music.
The previous Limited Series box sets, released with Walmart in 1998 and 2005, resold Garth’s catalogue at a low price point. Fans purchased cheap CDs, and Garth pumped up his RIAA figures. This latest (and allegedly final) box set places Time Traveler with his other post-retirement releases: 2014’s Man Against Machine, 2016’s Gunslinger, 2018’s Triple Live and 2020’s Fun. (If you’re a fan who kept up with those albums — and feel obliged to complete your collection with Time Traveler — the box set is less of a good deal.) The Triple Live record is the most egregiously padded of the bunch, with three CDs that run a scant 35 minutes each. It could have conceivably been called Double Live (or Double Live II, since Garth already has a live album called Double Live), but for stats purposes that would mean only counting it as two units per item sold as opposed to three.
I wonder if Garth is only interested in his statistics at this point when it comes to recorded music. There has been a decided “post-album” vibe to his recent media spots. For instance, when he appeared last week on CBS Sunday Morning looking like a beefier remix of late-period Eminem, the focus was on his new Nashville night spot, the Friends In Low Places Bar & Honky Tonk, and the resumption of his Las Vegas residency. Time Traveler was mentioned exactly zero times, even though it came out just 12 days prior.
Which is a shame, because Time Traveler is a lot better than a Garth Brooks album released exclusively to Bass Pro Shops in 2023 has any right to be. Now, as this record has a minimal digital footprint, I could write anything about Time Traveler without fear of being called out or contradicted. I could say that it includes a bluegrass cover of Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites.” I could claim that Garth has finally embraced the ska revival. I could insist that his experimentation with a sexy Pepé Le Pew-style French accent represents a bold artistic reinvention. But I won’t do that. Because I have a responsibility to review this record.
And here is my review: The title is a literal description of the album. If not for a cameo by Kelly Clarkson, it could have come out in 1994. The inclusion of 2002’s American Idol winner is the only (slight) nod to modernity on Time Traveler, which otherwise is rife with broadly strummed guitars and weeping fiddles and unapologetic sentimentality. Garth pays tribute to the old-fashioned country music that he played “the whole way home the day my brother died.” He jams with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn and covers a David Allan Coe song about a hitchhiker who is picked up by the reanimated corpse of Hank Williams, Sr. In “St. Paul/Minneapolis (A True Story),” he writes about meeting a woman in the Twin Cities, forging an instant connection, and harboring lifelong (platonic) love for her. It is, like all of Garth’s best songs, shamelessly corny and highly affecting because it is shamelessly corny.
Garth, who once unironically referred to himself in a 1994 Playboy interview as “America’s guy,” made his bones by marketing himself to an audience that the rest of the pop world assumed would disappear if you simply ignored them. In the 1990s, that meant citizens of flyover country who were turned off by the anger and rebellion of grunge and gangsta rap. In the ’20s, apparently, it means Luddites who like music but pride themselves on being aggressively not online. This puts Garth increasingly out of step with mainstream country listeners, who in 2023 are now streaming songs at unprecedented levels after years of lagging behind the constituencies for rock and rap. But like Andre 3000 with his flute album, Garth Brooks has the capital (financial, cultural, etc.) to not care about the pop-music trends that concern lesser stars. What does he care about? Perpetuating a system in which he once excelled, even if it means marginalizing himself as a display item perched between blaze-orange jackets and fuzzy wool hats.
Garth Brooks not only is committed to selling his new music on CD, but he put Time Traveler out on a Tuesday, just like they did back when Ropin’ The Wind was outselling Nirvana and Michael Jackson by leaps and bounds 32 years ago. No artist thrived in the ’90s like Garth did. He thrived so much that he commenced a 13-year retirement in 2001 to avoid a post-’90s existence. In a way, he’s still putting off that reality. Why wouldn’t he? If you were Garth Brooks, you would also pretend that the ’90s never ended.