A simple word spoken by his oldest daughter made Brooks realize "I need to be there," he tells PEOPLE
After retiring from music in 2000 to raise his daughters, country star Garth Brooks is back and opening up about the drama behind his decision. Subscribe now to find out what he learned in those 14 years away in this exclusive PEOPLE interview.
“I think it begins the second they hand you your first child,” he tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story. “All of a sudden you go, ‘Oh, crap, my mom and dad loved me this much.’ ”
Raised in Yukon, Oklahoma, Brooks, 53, says his parents were always there, “and my dad worked two jobs. So how I would turn around and he would always be in the stands, I have no idea.”
“He was going to work every morning before the sun came up, and he’d come home,” he continues, “and the poor man wouldn’t have five minutes and he’d be out playing baseball with us and catch and stuff.”
After having three daughters of his own, Taylor, August and Allie, from his first marriage to Sandy Mahl, Brooks made “kind of a pact” with Taylor that he would take time off when she turned 8. Then in 1998 on tour, Taylor pronounced the word “both” in an accent just like her nannies. “I realized someone else was raising her,” he says.
After his mom Colleen died of cancer in 1999 and he knew his marriage “was not going to work,” Brooks announced his retirement.
“My mom’s only prayer in her life was that none of her children go before she does,” the singer says. “So I should be happy. But you can’t imagine life without her.”
Brooks and Mahl, he explains, “got married really young. And as time reveals your paths, we’re starting to realize that we are very different people. So the question was, do you stay together for the children like lot of people do, bless their hearts, or do you do it now? Those are the things you ponder.”
As far as the music, “even though it fed us and was our life, you knew that the tail could not wag the dog,” Brooks says. “You knew the things that were important, from my own mom and dad. From Sandy’s mom and dad. Everything was telling me I need to be there for my children.”
Now, Brooks is paying tribute to mothers everywhere by giving one special mom a surprise visit on Good Morning America for Mother’s Day. Nominations can be submitted online, and Brooks will perform his hit song “Mom” for the winner.
Fans can also catch Brooks at the Academy of Country Music Awards on CBS on April 19, when he’s up for what could be his seventh entertainer of the year award (vote here).
For more of our exclusive interview with Brooks – and to see his personal family photos – pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands now