Gentle ballad “St Paul/Minneapolis (A True Story)” — a rare solo write by Brooks that shares a wistful, nostalgic feel with Brooks’ standards “Every Now and Then” and “What She’s Doing Now” — is about a random encounter he had in the Twin Cities with a woman for whom he felt an instant connection. “I don’t have a clue who she is. It’s the weirdest thing. It was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. When she started talking, there was something in me that unlocked. In my dream of dreams, I’d love to run into her again and see if that easy feeling was really that or am I just imagining things,” he tells Billboard.
Brooks says he’s told no one, including his wife Trisha Yearwood, specifics about the chance meeting “because if this person is going to show up, then she’ll know the details that nobody else does and I’ll know I’m talking to the right person.” He’s not even sure if she recognized him, but stresses in the song he isn’t trying to disrupt his life or hers: “Now I’m not looking for relation/ And I don’t wanna change your life,” he sings.
One of the few people who has heard the song before its release is Brooks’ musical hero James Taylor. “I texted him and said, ‘Hey man, would you ever think about producing a song and he said, ‘I’d love to!’ and I was on Cloud 9.” But when Taylor heard the record, he declared it was perfect just the way it was. “Getting that kind of confidence boost, it was just nice to hear from a musical god of yours, “ Brooks says, then laughs self-deprecatingly at the blatant celebrity call-out, adding, “I tell you what, the older you get, the more names you get to drop.”
That’s not the only big name that comes up around the Brooks-produced, 10-track Time Traveler, which is part of The Limited Series, a seven-disc set available exclusively through Bass Pro Shops starting Tuesday (Nov. 7). The $29.99 set also includes Brooks’ three studio albums since he came out of retirement — 2014’s Man Against Machine, 2016’s Gunslinger and 2020’s Fun — and the previously released three-disc Triple Live concert set.
“Rodeo Man,” the album’s rollicking first single, out today, is a duet with Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn trading his usual singing partner Kix Brooks for a different Brooks. “He’s one of the greatest voices in country music ever,” Brooks declares of Dunn.
The two icons were swapping songs back-and-forth when Dunn sent Brooks “Rodeo Man,” which he co-wrote with Phil O’Donnell. “I texted him back that it was a smash,” Brooks says of the song that fits right into country’s ’90s music resurgence. Brooks had a few suggestions to add some fiddles and pedal steel and then recorded it to show Dunn the changes he would make after promising him “I’m not going to steal your song.”
Dunn was so happy with Brooks’ version, he suggested they duet on it. “He was very sweet to let me in the door. What we did was combine his track with our track,” Brooks says. Big Machine Label Group will promote the song to radio, as it did Brooks’ 2007 Country Airplay No. 1, “More Than a Memory.” Unlike the rest of the album, it will also be available for streaming on Amazon, Brooks’ exclusive streaming outlet.
Brooks is joined by Kelly Clarkson, who sings backing vocals on the loping “The Ship and the Bottle,” a bittersweet ballad written by Nicolle Galyon, Chase McGill and Jon Nite that Brett Young included on his 2018 album Ticket to L.A., but didn’t release as a single. The song envisions one member of a romantic couple as a bottle and the other as the enclosed ship. The bottle may have to break to allow the ship to be free and pursue her dreams. “The text was simple: ‘Hey, I’ve got a song. It’s not a duet. I would love to hear your voice on it, but I know you’re slammed,” Brooks says of his outreach to Clarkson. “And three seconds later came back in all capitals: ‘YES.’ With exclamation points. It made an older artist feel very good that this younger artist would want to sing along on one of these records.”
The other cover on Time Traveler is “The Ride,” David Allan Coe’s 1982 swampy classic about a hitchhiker who gets picked up by the ghost of Hank Williams. “The story [of Williams] haunted me my entire life,” says Brooks, who added a verse to flesh out what the characters talked about on their trip from Montgomery to Nashville, though he doesn’t take a songwriting credit on the tune written by Gary Gentry and J.B. Detterline Jr. “I’m an a–hole in a lot of different ways, but I just can’t be that guy,” he says.
The song also features Brooks’ first attempt at spoken word. He admits he was scared how it would turn out. “I was like ‘Is this going to sound corny or bad? But when I heard it, I thought, ‘That’s scary.’ I liked it.”
On the rowdy “Neon Neighborhood,” longtime fans of Brooks’ will no doubt recognize a tip of the hat to his raucous “Friends in Low Places,” with a boisterous chorus made up of his band and crew singing along as they did on the 1990 classic. Brooks first enlisted an audience at a show during his current two-year Las Vegas residency at Caesars Palace to sing and then brought the smaller contingent into the studio to make the words clearer.
As Brooks, the top-selling solo artist in the U.S., according to the RIAA, gets ready to open his own bar — naturally titled Friends in Low Places — on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, he hopes the song will find its own audience. “I’m not going to push it,” he adds. “We’ll see what kind of life it gets on its own. But I can tell you I just love the whole groove of it and it just feels so good especially when the band just takes off and plays.”
Brooks titled the album Time Traveler because of the different eras of country music it pays homage to and the styles he’s been rediscovering as he programs The Big 615, one of a suite of seven stations that makes up Brooks’ Sevens Network for global streaming platform TuneIn. “What I love about the Big 615 and curating it is that it forces you to listen to the stuff that you didn’t have the time to listen to before and I think that’s really, really good,” he says.
The album includes “Only Country Music,” the song that kicked off The Big 615 when it launched in June and marks the first time Brooks and Nashville writing powerhouse Ashley Gorley have written together. The two were brought together by the song’s co-writer Matt Rossi. “While we’re writing, I tell [Ashley], ‘Man, before this session, I don’t know if it was jealousy or envy, but I’m like ‘60 No. 1s! How is that possible?’ But when you write with this kid he is so far ahead of you the whole time. It’s like, ‘Holy cow. How do you do that?’ And then he leaves and probably goes and does it two more times that day. But he totally carried that session. No offense to Matt Rossi. No offense to myself.”
Brooks will talk about the album further tonight, as he and Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris appear on live internet shopping platform TalkShopLive in partnership with Bass Pro Shops for an exclusive album release event at 7 p.m. E.T. (viewable via the above link). In addition to availability in the 177 Bass Pro Shops across the U.S. (including 82 Cabela’s), fans can also pre-order The Limited Series through the sporting goods retailer’s online site.
Brooks played Bass Pro’s 50th anniversary birthday party last fall, which led to the collaboration. “He talked to me about water conservation,” Brooks says of Morris, a devoted conservationist. “I said it was like the songwriters, how they’re just getting squeezed out and squeezed out” by low streaming rates and the focus on singles instead of albums. “And he said ‘Well, what can we do about that?’ and I said, ‘I’m looking for a partner for my last limited boxset [and] he was sweet enough to step up.”
The first The Limited Series came out 25 years ago in 1998, and was followed by a second The Limited Series with different content in 2005. The second edition was available exclusively through Walmart. Both series were limited to one million box sets each with one-way buys by the retailers.
The Limited Series arrives two weeks before Brooks plays a free show at the grand opening of Friends in Low Places on Nov. 24. Tickets were available only via Brooks’ The Big 615 station with more than 3 million entries received. The concert will also air live at 7 p.m. E.T. on Amazon Prime and Twitch as the latest in the Amazon Music Live series, which has previously featured Ed Sheeran and Feid.