Garth Takes A Brave Stan

Garth Brooks just jumped into the family-values debate, right into the mess of it. "The way I remember it," he said during a free afternoon in his current national concert tour, "traditional family values was encouraging children to be the best they can be. If your parents are black and white, if your parents are the same sex, that's still traditional family values to me."

This was Brooks's way of explaining the song "We Shall Be Free," which leads off his new album, "The Chase," and includes a vote of support for same-sex couples. Born and raised in Yukon, Okla., Brooks speaks in a soft, unassuming manner, sharp yet disarmingly humble. He'll call you sir as casually as he'll say hello. He wrote the song, he said, after the riots in Los Angeles, to address a wide range of injustice. "When we're free to love anyone we choose," he sings, "then we shall be free." This is a first for country music. Yet it isn't the only radical cut on the new album. "Face to Face," the closing song, takes on the thorny topic of date rape, encouraging women to stand up to men who mistreat them. With these two songs bracketing the more innocuously playful material between them, Brooks has taken a leap out of the shelter of country tradition-where men can go astray, but are forgiven if they repent-and into the dirty reality of modern life. By way of contrast, he noted, "When we cut 'The Dance' [a 1990 romantic hit], you could feel the cleanliness in the studio. But with 'Face to Face,' you felt filth."

This kind of progressive, topical songwriting, coming from a rock or rap act, would be no big deal. But from Brooks, it is a revolution. Possibly the most popular entertainer in America right now, Brooks, 30, commands the audience both political parties have vied for: country-music fans, some 10 million of them. "The Chase" enters the Billboard magazine charts this week at No. 1, and last week the Country Music Association named Brooks its Entertainer of the Year. But country music holds its value as a political football largely because it resists the winds of change. It's the one entertainment we feel isn't leading us toward Sodom and Gomorrah. Country hangs on to old values with conviction and marketing savvy. So while Madonna can ring all the bells she wants for sexual diversity, it is another matter for Brooks to do it. He has pushed the boundaries before: his 1990 song "The Thunder Rolls" addressed domestic violence and promptly got banned from the country video channels. But this time, the stakes are much higher. "I was really scared to put it out," he admitted, "because I thought we'd get a lot of people misunderstanding what the song says."

The biggest risk for Brooks is that the bedrock of the country-music community, the church, is often inimical to what he has to say about homosexuality. Country singers, even real big ones, better make their peace with the church. Brooks, who has always put himself forward as a very religious performer, now has to walk a tightrope. "It's tough for me, because I love the Bible," he explained. "For those people that feel religiously that homosexuality is wrong, are they not as right as the people who feel homosexuality is right? But I say, 'Hey, man, stay on your own side.' To penalize someone for being homosexual, I don't think that's our place." At the same time, he added, "I don't want the whole religious world down on my ass, either."

Brooks said that hasn't happened so far. But he has received some angry mail. "They always say, '[Gays] should be granted some rights'-and it seems to be [only] the rights these people writing in think they should be allowed. Damn. I don't know where someone gets off telling human beings they can have some rights and not others."

Amid all the turmoil sure to chase "The Chase," Brooks has lately been talking about retiring from the music business. Disgusted by what he has called "the evilness" of the industry, and worn down by the demands of his meteoric success, he says he has been deeply unhappy. He has also rethought his career since his wife, Sandy, gave birth to their daughter, Taylor Mayne Pearl Brooks (named after James Taylor and Minnie Pearl), their first child, in July. "I ain't out here for the money," he said. "God knows we've got more than we can spend. If my little girl suffers because I'm gone, I've just got to quit."

It seems unlikely that he will really go through with it. New stars often get disillusioned and threaten to retire-call it the Sinead O'Connor syndrome-but they usually come around. Brooks's immediate plans are to cancel a European tour and postpone his next album, so he can take eight months off "and just be Dad." In the meantime, he said, "I refuse to write [songs] for another six or seven months, simply because I'm afraid what I'll write will be very, very sappy. I'm a guy who used to have a lot of edge and a lot of intensity. Now I don't care: just don't do anything to my girl or my wife. And I feel stupid feeling this way ... You have to see things in a very tender way, which has never been my way." Chances are, after the hiatus, he'll get back to business. But if he does quit, in songs like "We Shall Be Free" and "Face to Face," he'll have left his mark, not just for the extraordinary number of records he sold, but for what he said on those records.