NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A quick reality check for Trisha Yearwood's old boyfriends back in Jasper County, Ga.: Her touching new single "Georgia Rain"? It's not about you.
"There may be one or two who think it's about them," Yearwood laughs during a recent interview, "but it's not. It's not about anything I've been through."
It's easy to read too much into Yearwood's music. She doesn't write her own songs, but she's one of the best in Nashville at taking a tune and making it sound intensely personal.
With her recent engagement to superstar Garth Brooks, it seems natural to search for clues about her personal life on "Jasper County," her first album in four years.
The Monticello, Ga., native didn't intend to be gone so long. She says she meant to take only a year off, but she wasn't happy with the first batch of songs she recorded when she returned to the studio and decided to start over. Changes at her longtime record label, MCA Nashville, added to her time away, as did her move to Oklahoma to be with Brooks and his three daughters.
When she finally completed "Jasper County," she was careful about the first single.
"I thought 'OK, I've been off the radio for three-and-a-half years — what do I want people to hear first?'" Yearwood says. "I wanted the first thing people to hear to say, 'Oh, that's Trisha,' something that sounded very familiar."
"Georgia Rain" is certainly the kind of song Yearwood built her career on in the '90s — part country and part pop, with rich, emotional lyrics in the vein of one of her musical heroes, Linda Ronstadt.
Like Ronstadt's "Blue Bayou," "Georgia Rain" has an aching vocal, with the first two verses recalling a teen romance so strong that the Georgia rain "couldn't wash away all the love we made."
The third and final verse picks up many years later when the narrator returns to her hometown to find her old flame has made himself "a real good life." In the final chorus she reveals that she still pines for him, singing the Georgia rain couldn't wash away "the way I loved you to this day."
"That song is personal only in that it's about home," Yearwood says. "I really wanted to find a song about Georgia, and I love those great story songs."
Most of album's 10 remaining tracks touch on some aspect of relationship, from anger ("Who Invented the Wheel") to sorrow ("River of You") to bliss ("It's Alright"). Stylistically, there are shades of blues, pop and folk. "River of You" has the feel of an old mountain ballad with its mournful melody and lyrics: "Every tear adds to the water / That I keep swimming in."
For Yearwood, the most unusual song is "Standing Out in a Crowd," a declaration that it's OK to be different, that the things that make us different make us special.
"That's probably the most atypical song I've done," she says. "I don't really do anthem-type songs. ... But that song felt personal to me, especially now that I'm involved with a man with three children. I see on a daily basis how important those things are when you're a kid."
A week shy of her 41st birthday, Yearwood looks much as she did 10 years ago. She wears jeans and a black blouse with a Western floral design around the shoulders and neck. Her frosted hair is pulled back.
She laughs when asked if she and Brooks, one of the most successful recording artists in history, have a wedding date set.
"That's the funniest question people ask. If I had one, I wouldn't tell you," she says coyly.
Brooks, 43, who retired from performing in 2001 to raise his girls, proposed in May. The marriage will be his second and her third.
Yearwood was a demo singer when she sang backup on Brooks' 1989 debut album. She also appeared on his blockbuster follow-up, "No Fences," and the two have since recorded together sporadically.
She seems surprised their engagement drew the attention it did. She recounts her disbelief when friends phoned her to say they saw it on CNN.
"When you're a celebrity on your own there's a certain amount of acknowledgment. When two people who are both famous get together it becomes a bigger thing. It almost becomes bigger than the couple," says Yearwood, who had her first hit in 1991 with "She's In Love With the Boy" and continued a long successful run as a singer and, later, an actress, including a recurring role in the TV military drama "JAG."
But she's adjusting. She says they lead a relatively quiet life in Oklahoma, where Brooks is from, and she knows the limelight could be a lot brighter.
"I look at the things I see all the time on the fronts of the magazines in the grocery line and I think, 'If I'm Jennifer Aniston, I'd move to Australia.'"