Garth Brooks II The Tennessean

Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton: Behind the scenes of 'Dive Bar'

Garth Brooks rushed through the front door of his Music Row recording studio in his socks. His work boots in his hand, Brooks was late and he didn't want to waste time slipping them on before he left home.

He overslept, which Brooks promised never happens. The country music icon took time to make his wife, Trisha Yearwood, a cup of coffee then pulled on his hoodie, grabbed his boots and fled.

It was 10:15 a.m. on the Friday before Mother’s Day, and Blake Shelton was already at Brooks’ Allentown Recording Studio. Shelton's alarm had gone off five hours earlier so he could fly to Nashville from his Oklahoma farm and meet Brooks by 10 a.m. However, Shelton didn’t mind waiting — it gave him a few extra minutes to think.

“Can you believe this?” he asked out loud in disbelief, leaning back in his chair and then shifting to rest his elbows on his knees. “I’m going to record with Garth Brooks. It’s Garth Brooks.”

Released in June, their duet, “Dive Bar,” landed in the top 20 its first week on country radio, Billboard's highest-charting country debut of 2019. "Dive Bar" sparked a Brooks-helmed self-titled tour of dive bars. Brooks and Shelton will perform the song live for the first time at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho, on July 19. The summer drinking anthem is the second single from Brooks’ forthcoming album “FUN.” Shelton’s “God’s Country” just became his 26th country radio chart-topper.

“Anytime you get two of the biggest superstars in the format together for a drinking song, anything can happen,” said Charlie Cook, vice president of country for Cumulus Media. “And what happened here is fun. Can’t you see Garth and Blake down at the end of the bar buying drinks for the house?”

The road to “Dive Bar” started a year ago when songwriter Mitch Rossell pitched Brooks an idea for a song about the deep end of a dive bar — the single’s hook. Brooks thought the concept was tired, but Rossell wouldn’t let it go. He engaged Brooks’ frequent collaborator Bryan Kennedy, and the men tossed around pages of lyrics. They sent Brooks a work tape of ideas, and his reaction was immediate.

“I said, ‘Guys, if you’re going to go in the deep end of a dive bar, you have to spend the weekend in the deep end of a dive bar,’ ” Brooks said, explaining the three of them soon huddled around a table with a pen and paper. The writers wanted something loose in the vein of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” combined with a healthy dose of George Jones. 

“We came up with this Jones-meets-Stones,” Brooks continued. “But it was Blake who took it and fanned it out from, ‘Oh, it’s just another Garth song.’ ”

Brooks saw Shelton’s emotional performance of “God’s Country” on the Academy of Country Music Awards in April and was so moved by his connection to the lyrics that he wanted to reach out. While both men are country singers from Oklahoma, their time in Nashville never overlapped. They worked together briefly on NBC's "The Voice" but didn't get to know each other.

Brooks asked his manager Bob Doyle how to reach Shelton. Shelton was on his Oklahoma farm with one of his turkey hunting buddies — an ardent Garth Brooks fan — a few days later when his manager texted for permission to give Brooks his telephone number. Shelton’s answer was an immediate yes.

“I just sat around and waited,” Shelton said. Brooks called about 30 minutes later, and Shelton couldn’t figure out if it was real. “He said, ‘I’ve got this song I wrote. I wanted to see if I could send it over to you and you tell me what you think about it.’ It was kind of like that.”

Shelton didn’t need to hear it before he agreed to sing on the song.

“I said, ‘If you’re asking me to sing a duet with you … I’m going to tell you right now even without hearing the song; I’m apt to say, ‘Hell yes, I’ll do it,’ ” Shelton said. “He laughed and said, ‘You should at least hear the song.' ”

Shelton went back into his house, and his friend immediately peppered him with questions. 

“He said, ‘What did he say? What did he say?’ ” Shelton recalled. “I said, ‘I think Garth just asked me to do a duet with him.' He said, ‘You’re gonna do it, right? Do it. Do it.’ I said, ‘I kind of said the same thing.’ ”

Whether Shelton is going into the recording studio to record for himself or with someone else, he wants to prepare. Brooks sent him “Dive Bar” later that night, and after listening to it four or five times, Shelton said he thought it sounded like a Garth classic. 

“He just tapped back into that mid-'90s stuff when I was deciding I wanted to be a country singer and all I could imagine was being the next Garth Brooks,” Shelton said. “He didn’t need me on this, but I’m not going to tell him that.”

One month later, Shelton was perched on the edge of his chair when Brooks burst into the studio. They shook hands, Brooks put on his shoes, and the creative chemistry came fast and fierce.

“It’s like ‘Friends in Low Places’ meets ‘Ain’t Goin’ Down Til the Sun Comes Up,’ ” Shelton observed of “Dive Bar,” noting that the guitar tone was identical to “Friends in Low Places.”

Brooks led Shelton up a few stairs and into the studio, which twinkled with multicolored Christmas lights. A sound console stretched across the room, with the vocal booth situated in front of it behind a pane of glass.

“You want to listen to this thing?” Brooks asked. Shelton agreed and asked for a copy of the lyrics to check a word he was afraid he missed. He didn’t need them. A few minutes later when Shelton moved to the other side of the glass to record, the hours he’d spent listening to “Dive Bar” were apparent. He didn’t miss a word — or a beat.

Brooks looked at his engineer Matt Allen and said: “That’s going to work great. Man, he can sing.”

“You’re the reason I moved to town,” Shelton told Brooks after the first pass through the song. “You might as well tell me how to sing it.”

Brooks had nothing but praise.

“We could go on and order lunch,” he said. “I’ve already got more than I need.”

The next couple of times Shelton sang it, he tripped over a word in the second verse. Seated behind the soundboard, Brooks told him through the microphone that he wanted to hear him having fun.

“I want to hear your smile,” Brooks said. Then grinning, he told Allen: “This guy could not be more Oklahoma.”

Allen pointed out that both men were wearing hoodies, jeans, ball caps and work boots.

“That’s just how people from Oklahoma dress,” Brooks quipped. 

Shelton kept singing, focusing on the tongue-twisting: “You’re not the only loved and left her lost and lonely one who’s ever swam against the tide.”

“That’s so Jones,” Brooks said, rolling backward in his chair.

Surprising him, his oldest daughter, Taylor, popped into the studio to show him her Mother’s Day gift for Yearwood — a Prince album and a scented candle. 

“That sounds like Blake,” she mentioned excitedly, passing the present to her dad.

When Brooks told her it was, she angled to get a better view. She said her sisters were just a few blocks away and wondered if Shelton would hang around long enough to have lunch with them. Brooks said he would ask, but he thought Shelton probably had other plans. 

Brooks hugged Taylor before she left and then leaned into the microphone.

“That’s so much fun,” he told Shelton, turning his attention back to the vocal booth.

“You want me to keep hitting it?” Shelton asked.

“If you want to, if it’s fun,” Brooks said. “That’s as close to Jones as I’m ever going to get.”

Shelton stepped up to the microphone again, and Brooks leaned his chair back, closed his eyes and smiled. 

“You think you’ve got it?” Shelton asked. 

“Oh, we’ve got it,” Brooks replied.