With “The Power of Love” this country music queen has a lot to sing about.
“Hello, gorgeous.” Country music star Trisha Yearwood smiles warmly — beams, really — as though she feels caressed by the voice coming from her speakerphone. At the other end of the line, her husband, a guy named Garth Brooks, maybe you’ve heard of him, is taking the time, making the time, to talk before he boards another plane to another city on another busy day of travel. Yearwood responds in kind: “Hello, gorgeous.”
It’s a sweetly and unaffectedly intimate moment and Yearwood’s visitor instinctively looks away, focusing his attention elsewhere — wow, look, a hardwood floor! — and trying to discreetly retreat into a corner of the posh Manhattan hotel suite, hoping to grant the couple some semblance of privacy. But Yearwood graciously gestures for the interviewer to remain seated, even as she steps closer to the speakerphone, continuing the exchange of small talk about nothing in particular and everything that’s important. “I love you,” she says, ending the conversation. Brooks responds in kind: “I love you, too.”
That fleeting tête-à-tête, Yearwood explains as she returns to her chair, is part of a ritual. “We have a rule,” she says, “that we don’t get on an airplane without making sure we talk to each other first.” And from the tone of her voice, it’s easy to tell: That rule is enforced firmly and lovingly.
Photography: courtesy Big Machine Records
Which can only mean that, these days, the couple must be registering enormous minute-counts on their cell phone bills. It’s early October, but Yearwood already is earning vast quantities of frequent-flyer miles while promoting the November 13 release of her first studio album in two years — Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love — with TV and radio appearances, one-on-one interviews, and live performances (including a stunning rendition of the national anthem before Game 4 of the World Series).
She discusses her current activities without undue complaining, in a manner as down-to-earth and unpretentious as her attire. For a mid-afternoon chat, she greets her visitor in bare feet, blue jeans, and what she calls “my Target shirt,” a forest-green tee emblazoned with Peanuts comic-strip figures. In the next room, however, she has an unfolded ironing board ready for a few touchups to the more elegant attire she’ll be favoring throughout the rest of the week.
Just how crowded is her New York schedule during this particular visit? Well, consider: Tonight, after a long day of interviews, she will appear on a stellar bill with Jewel, Vince Gill, and Patty Griffin at a Nokia Theatre benefit show for Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. Tomorrow night she’s due to give a concert at the headquarters of XM Satellite Radio (where host Bill Anderson will introduce her as the songbird with a voice “that has helped define Country music”), then perform at a benefit for lung cancer research at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Yearwood is looking forward to getting back to Oklahoma to spend some quality time with her husband, and his three daughters from a previous marriage, at their 2,000-acre spread just northeast of Tulsa. But she knows that even after she gets back home, there will be plans to make, calls to take. The upcoming CD release isn’t the only thing that requires intense attention. Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love will hit stores the same week that she’ll open for nine sold-out shows by her husband (who has his own The Ultimate Hits album set for a November 6 release) in Kansas City, Missouri.
“We’re both busier as a couple than we’ve ever been,” Yearwood says. “And so there’s a lot of getting up in the morning and having the coffee — and then we’re both on different phones all day long.
“Sometimes we just have to say, ‘Okay, let’s leave the cell phones in the house and let’s get in the jeep and go across the farm.’ We have a couple of stone homes that we found on our property that are from the 1800s, that we put roofs on. There’s no electricity, no phone or anything. We can go out there and light a fire and just hang. And we will make sure that we do that sort of thing because we both are at a place in our lives where we know what is important.”
Yearwood says she and Brooks have their priorities straight. “What we do for a living is fantastic,” she says. “But that’s not the main thing. And so we have a pretty good thing together.”
It’s the third marriage for the 43-year-old Yearwood and the second for the 45-year-old Brooks. Two years in to conjugal bliss, however, they both still sound like starry-eyed young newlyweds. “I’ll love that woman until the day I die,” Brooks recently told Great American Country host Lorianne Crook.
Photography: Jean Paul-Aussenard/Wireimage
“I think God gives some people your number, and I definitely know she’s got mine ... . Ms. Yearwood makes me want to be a better human being. I want Ms. Yearwood to be so happy we were married.”
When it’s suggested that their bond is so strong because, long before they became husband and wife, they were great friends, Yearwood smiles and nods in agreement. “Most of the time,” she says, “I think people get into relationships — and I have totally done this in the past — way too quickly. And then somewhere down the road, once you’ve gotten to really know that person, you go, ‘Hey, I don’t really like him very much.’ But in this case, at this point, we’ve known each other for almost 20 years.”
Their paths crossed, and a friendship was forged, in 1987, while both were struggling wannabes in Nashville, back when she was recording demos for aspiring songwriters while working as a receptionist for the now-defunct MTM Records. “Basically,” Yearwood recalls, “I answered phones and ordered Liquid Paper.”
Another fellow named Garth, producer Garth Fundis, became one of her biggest boosters when he heard her singing with songwriter Pat Alger at Nashville’s famed Douglas Corner Cafe. “I like to say we discovered each other,” Fundis says. “And right from the start, I was mesmerized by the way she emoted the lyrics, the way she shaped her words, the way she finished her phrasing. Everything about her just drew me to her.”
Fundis just happened to have a song gathering dust in a desk drawer, a little ditty called “She’s in Love with the Boy.” With it, he and Yearwood made sweet music together in the recording studio, producing the first in her string of 19 Top Ten singles. The 1991 release was such a hit, she was rushed into her first performance tour — as opening act for Garth Brooks, by then Country music superstar Garth Brooks.
During the tour, Yearwood ruefully recalls, “I was very stiff — somebody referred to me as ‘a singing stick.’” But during long weeks on the road, old friends Yearwood and Brooks became close confidants.
“With Garth being this — well, this phenomenon, I think it was important to him that he knew that I would always tell him what I really thought, what I thought the truth was. Not necessarily what I thought he wanted to hear,” she says.
“And a lot of times,” she adds, punctuating her words with a laugh, “those weren’t the most friendly conversations. But I was always that kind of friend to him. And he was always that kind of friend to me. Sometimes, you don’t want to hear the truth. But then later on, you think about it, and you go, ‘You know, what they say makes sense to me.’ And I think that’s the best kind of friend to be, a friend that will tell you the truth.”
The confidences continued as Yearwood’s own star ascended. “A lot of times, you’ll talk to your friends about things that you won’t talk about with the people you’re in intimate relationships with. Especially business things. We were such friends on that level because he felt like — and I felt like — we could call each other and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know what to do here.’”
Photography: Jeff Gross/Getty Images
And now? “Well, we don’t just sit around and offer wisdom to each other unless asked,” Yearwood says. “We learned early on that if we gave an opinion of every business decision the other one made, we didn’t get along very well because what I would do for my career might be different from what he might do for his career. But we have mutual respect.”
A bit more than two years ago, Yearwood found herself taking stock of her career and wondering if after recording 11 albums (all certified gold or platinum) for MCA Records, the label might be taking her for granted. Just as important, she began to question whether she had become a tad too comfortable, a bit too timid.
“I’m not one of those people who are quick to adapt to change,” she admits. “I’m trying. But I’m not one of those people who immediately embrace anything that’s different. I mean, pretty much all the guys in my band have been with me for 10, 12, 14 years. Not a lot of turnover. So I’m pretty loyal in that regard.
“One of reasons why I let my deal with MCA lapse — and became a free agent, for lack of a better term — was because I was restless. And I wanted to see what else was out there. At the same time, though, I’d been at this place for 16 years, and a lot of great things have happened there, and there’s a comfort factor of staying someplace, even if you’re kind of thinking you’d like to try something else.
“So there was anxiety there. And my deal with MCA ran out for about a year and a half before I signed with Big Machine Records. Most people don’t know that because my last album was out, and I was touring, and it wasn’t news. But because I didn’t know what to do — I didn’t do anything. And that became a problem because, you know, at some point, you’ve got to tell yourself: ‘Okay, I’ve either got to stay where I am, and stop complaining about the things I’m not happy about, or I need to jump off the cliff and take the risk.’”
Don’t misunderstand: She’s not bad-mouthing MCA. “I can’t look back at 15 million albums and say, ‘Man, they really sucked’ because they’re the reason I’m still going to do what I do. But it’s like when you’ve worked for a company for 20 years, and then they get bought out by another corporation, and all the people who thought you did such a great job, and who hired you, believed in you, are gone in the transition. New people come in and they have their own agenda, their own employees they want to bring with them.
“I think there was some of that in this case. With all of the mergers and stuff at MCA, there were a lot of new people. And I think there was an attitude of, ‘We like you, but we’ve also got these other artists over here, so ...’ ”
There’s no such problem over at Big Machine Records, a lean-and-mean, young-and-hungry outfit that Yearwood feels will promote her as a hot property, not a catalog artist. “And it helps,” she says, “that I’m taking a leap with a safety net underneath,” working with familiar collaborators such as Garth Fundis, still her producer of choice, and songwriter Karyn Rochelle (“Georgia Rain”), who wrote or co-wrote four tunes for Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love.
The new album is enjoyably eclectic, running the gamut from the gospel-flavored uplift of the title tune through the cheery three-part harmony of “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” to the poignantly wistful yearning of “Sing You Back to Me” (which Yearwood dedicates to her late father, who passed away in September 2005).
Yearwood doesn’t want to play favorites, but she admits to being especially proud of “Not a Bad Thing,” a subtly affecting tune about a woman who realizes that there’s life to be savored after a romantic disappointment. “It’s a song that I really wanted to sing because I’ve married into a family with three girls,” she says. “And I’m now so much more aware of how everything that comes into their lives — from the media, magazines, and their friends, everything — is all about having a boyfriend. And how you won’t be complete unless you have a boyfriend or can talk about when you’re going to get married. Well, I so want them to know that it’s okay for them to be by themselves and that learning to be happy by themselves is the thing that will make them better partners in a relationship.
Photography: Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
“See, I was married young. And part of that was because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. And I want girls to know that they don’t have to do that.”
If you listen closely enough, you can detect the same undercurrent of self-empowerment in two other songs on the CD: the blunt-spoken “This is Me You’re Talking To” and the quietly defiant “Let the Wind Chase You.” The latter, arguably the best song on the album, has Yearwood singing as a woman who decides that, hey, it’s not her fault that a rocky relationship is ending, and if the guy wants to go, well, let the wind carry him.
Is there a pattern here? Did Yearwood consciously seek statements of independence when compiling the songlist?
“It’s more luck of the draw, really. Somebody told me yesterday: ‘You know, you’re so ridiculously happily married, everything in your life is great — but you still sing these really depressing songs.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, there aren’t that many songs about being stupidly happy that really touch your heart.’ I mean, there’s just so much more to explore in other aspects of relationships. And I like different themes.”
Still, Yearwood says she likes to feel independent. “It’s a personal feeling that has sometimes gotten me into trouble,” she says. “I am definitely a woman who wants to be a woman — I don’t want to take away all the things that make me a woman, make me feminine. But all the same, I am very independent. I can take care of myself.
“Yes, I’m married to a man — I call him John Wayne half the time — who is very much a man’s man and who very much wants to take care of his family. But you know what’s great about him? Early on, he told me, ‘You have a hard time letting someone else take care of you in any way because you feel you’re supposed to be so independent and you can do everything else. But I want to take care of you not because you need me to, but because you want me to.’
“And, see, that’s it. The strong independent woman feels like she can never fall into a crumple of tears and have her husband put his arms around her and tell her, ‘It’s okay, I’ll take care of you.’ But sometimes, maybe just for five minutes, you just need that. That doesn’t mean you’re not a strong and independent person if you’re also a woman who wants to be taken care of sometimes.
“And I think I kind of encompass both things.”
Photography: (Cover image) courtesy Big Machine Records
From our January 2008 issue