It's been 14 years since Garth Brooks last toured, but the country music superstar is turning out to be quite the comeback kid.
His ninth studio album, Man Against Machine, has been certified platinum, and his world tour with wife Trisha Yearwood, 50, continues to break ticket-sale records across the country. Not to mention Brooks is up for what could likely be his seventh entertainer of the year award at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 19 (fans can vote here).
"This is not work," he tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story of his return to music. "I just love to see people having a good time."
Yet Brooks, 53, insists all the celebration simply pales in comparison to the years he spent away from the spotlight, raising his three daughters, Taylor, 22, August, 20, and Allie, 18, from his first marriage, to Sandy Mahl.
"People said, 'How could you walk away from music?' " he says. "But being a dad – there's nothing that can touch that."
Not that the adjustment was always easy. After he and Mahl divorced and his mom Colleen died of cancer in 1999, Brooks settled in with his daughters in a one-bathroom bunkhouse on his ranch in Oklahoma.
At first, "I'd just stare at them," he says. "I knew their sweet faces and their dispositions. But I didn't know who they were."
The singer's solution was to mix discipline with fun, and he flourished as his days were filled with packing school lunches (complete with handwritten notes), chores on the ranch and after-school activities from soccer games to school plays.
"You start being a part of the community," he says. "The dads across the soccer field looked at me as a dad just like them. And I was very grateful."
The time also taught him valuable lessons as a father.
Kids, he says, "are the greatest joy and the greatest heartache you'll ever have. The saying is, as long as your babies are healthy, everything else you can deal with. If they have D's, if they flunk, you deal with it. You can introduce them to the Lord, teach them manners, teach them to believe in themselves, but the truth is, they're going to be who they're going to be."
Brooks admits his return to music full time has helped him face an otherwise troubling empty nest.
Now that all three girls have graduated high school, "I am in the period now where I think I pray more than I ever have in my life," he adds. "Because for some reason when they were under my roof, I felt like I might have had some control, you know?"
Touring with "Miss Yearwood," as he affectionately calls her, has made all the difference.
"Thank God I'm with the love of my life," he says. "That's why I know I'm right where I'm supposed to be."
For more of Brooks's exclusive interview – and to see his personal family photos – pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday