Garth Brooks is not just one of the most popular recording artists in the country music field; he is one of the most popular recording artists in any field. In the first week after his 1991 album, Ropin’ the Wind, was released, it “made music history by becoming the first album to enter both Billboard’s country and pop charts at No. 1,” reported People magazine. Because of his broad popular appeal, “Brooks has moved more records with greater velocity than anyone ever in Nashville,” wrote People’s Jim Jerome. After releasing just three albums, his combined record sales “[approached] a staggering 10 million units.”
Brooks was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1962 but was raised in small-town Yukon, Oklahoma. His father, Troyal, an oil company engineer, and mother, Colleen, had six children. Family life was very modest—“downright poor” Brooks’s sister Betsy told Jerome—on Troyal Brooks’s $25,000 annual salary. Brooks and his brothers and sister learned how to pick guitars and sing with their mother, who had a brief career as a country singer in the 1950s.
In high school, Brooks’s major passion was sports; he was a four-sport athlete, participating in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. Eventually his athletic talent won him a track scholarship to Oklahoma State University. Despite his heavy involvement in sports, however, Brooks maintained an interest in music and still found time to play in a band during his high school years.
Brooks’s musical influences include traditional country music stars George Jones and Merle Haggard, pop singers Billy Joel, James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, and the world of rock and roll in general. But a short time before starting college, Brooks “heard [country singer George] Strait do ‘Unwound’ on [his] car radio, and that’s the exact moment it all changed,” he told People’s Jerome; Brooks was profoundly affected by the neo-traditionalist country musician, and by his own admission “became a George wannabe and imitator for the next seven years.”
As a track star at Oklahoma State, in Stillwater, the 6’1”, 225-pound Brooks was a javelin thrower. In the classroom, he studied advertising, “hoping to adapt his original music to jingles and creative copy,” revealed Entertainment Weekly contributor Alanna Nash. Brooks also played his music around campus, performing duets with roommate Ty Englund and, for a while, performing in a bluegrass band.
He also worked odd jobs to help support himself. One
For the Record…
Born Troyal Garth Brooks, February 2, 1962, in Tulsa, OK; son of Troyal (an oil company engineer) and Colleen Carroll (a former country singer) Brooks; married Sandy Mahr, 1986; children: Taylor Mayne Pearl (a daughter). Education: Oklahoma State University, advertising major, graduated 1985.
Country singer, songwriter, and guitarist, 1985—. Played in a band during high school, and in a bluegrass band during college, early 1980s; also worked as a bouncer during college; signed with Capitol Records, c. 1988; released Garth Brooks, 1989; single “If Tomorrow Never Comes” became a Number One hit, c. 1989.
Awards: Country Music Association Horizon Award and video of the year citation, 1990, and Music City News/TNN Awards video of the year citation and Academy of Country Music best song citation, both 1991, all for “The Dance”; American Music Awards country song of the year citation, 1991, for “If Tomorrow Never Comes”; Academy of Country Music Awards citations for entertainer of the year, top male vocalist, best single, album of the year, and video of the year, all 1991; Country Music Association single of the year citation, for “Friends in Low Places,” and album of the year citation, for No Fences, both 1991; ASCAP Voice of Music Award, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Records, 1111 16th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212.
of these was as a bouncer at a club called Tumbleweeds. It was there that Brooks met his future wife, Sandy Mahr. She had gotten into a brawl in the Tumbleweeds ladies’ room one night; when Brooks rushed in, he found her with her fist through the wall. “All she said was, ‘I missed,’” recalled Brooks to Jane Sanderson of People. “I thought, ‘Man, this is nuts.’ Then I told her she had to leave, but as I was takin her outside, I kept thinkin’ about how good-lookin’ she was.” Sandy was a fellow student, and she and Brooks soon began dating. Before long, romance blossomed.
While in college, however, athletics were still the driving force in Brooks’s life—he wanted to be the best in the javelin throw. As People’s Jerome noted, “His dreams then were more likely about gold medals and the Olympics than gold records and the Opry.” But Brooks’s dreams of athletic glory were dashed when he failed to make the Big Eight Conference finals his senior year. “A coach came by and said, ‘Well, now you can get on with what matters in life,’” Brooks told People. “I wondered, ‘What the hell could that be?’”
After graduation in 1985, Brooks decided to head for Nashville to take his shot at country music stardom. He lasted only a short time in the country music capital. “I had thought the world was waiting for me,” he told People contributor Sanderson, “but there’s nothing colder than reality.” Garth went back to Stillwater, and he and Sandy worked various jobs while he polished his musical skills. They married in 1986 and, a year later, put together their last $1,500 to try Nashville a second time. Once again, however, Nashville was not eager to have Brooks. He struggled to get his music heard, pitching his songs all over town for months. He finally got his big break when he was added to a newcomer showcase at a club when another act failed to show. Brooks was noticed by a talent scout from Capitol Records and was soon signed to a recording contract.
His debut album, Garth Brooks, was released in 1989. The album generated four Number One country singles and “raised Brooks from honky-tonker to concert headliner almost overnight,” wrote Sanderson, who called the tunes on Garth Brooks a mixture of “soft laments and raucous cowboy rock.” Citing the singer’s “gift for finding something fresh in the familiar, something timely in the predictable and timeworn,” Jay Cocks of Time explained that Brooks makes “a direct assault on the heartstrings, singing in a kind of simonized tenor suitable for both serenades and bust-outs.” Other country stars were also impressed with Brooks’s talent. “There are lots of artists who can sing but who can’t impart the emotion and personality that make an entertainer shine,” country singer Reba McEntire said to People. “Garth pulls it off.”
Brooks’s first Number One hit, “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” was a ballad reminding people to appreciate their loved ones while they have them. “That song means a lot to me because of friends I’ve lost,” he told Sanderson. “There’s a million things you can say that need to be said,” Brooks explained about his songs, “messages that are of common sense, of values, things people have to be reminded of.”
In 1990 Brooks won the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award for most promising newcomer. He also won a Video of the Year award for his song “The Dance.” Also that year, he released his second album, No Fences. Sales of this follow-up recording zoomed, launching more Number One country singles and reaching as high as Number Four on Billboard’s pop chart. In the spring of 1991 Brooks won an unprecedented six Academy of Country Music awards—top male vocalist, single, song, album, video, as well as entertainer of the year. Later that year, Brooks’s debut album passed two million copies in sales, No Fences passed 4 million, and the rising star’s expected third album brought in advance orders of 2 million copies.
When, in the fall of 1991, Brooks’s album Ropin’ the Wind performed the amazing feat of opening at the top of the Billboard pop charts—unheard of for a country act—Brooks was indisputably hailed as the new champion of the music business. Entertainment Weekly contributor Nash proclaimed him “the most popular male singer of any kind in the country today.” Stereo Review called Ropin’ the Wind “his best yet.” The magazine allowed that No Fences, “with its provocative mix of styles and subjects, went a long way toward making [Brooks] stand out. But it [was the] third album that [told] the tale, primarily through the breadth of Brooks’s songwriting in a program that ranges from bluegrass … to Western-swing … and pop.” Discussing his third release with Celeste Gomes of Country Song Roundup, Brooks said, “I am the kind of person that can be happy with it if the people are. The purpose of Ropin’ the Wind is to hopefully convince people that No Fences was not a fluke. And hopefully to convince people that if they buy a Garth Brooks product, it’s 10 songs, not three singles and filler.”
Brooks admitted to Nash that he is quite surprised at the enormity of his success. “I really don’t have a clue why it happened to me,” he said. “Because what I deserve and what I’ve gotten are totally off balance.… All I can say is that it’s divine intervention.” Nash, however, noted that there are “earthly explanations.” Among the new generation of country stars, “Brooks is the performer who most understands common folk. A chubby, balding Everyman with boy-next-door appeal, he has exceptional taste in songs—both his own and those of others. It’s real-life music to which nearly everyone … can relate.”
An exuberant stage performer—more rock and roll on the boards than traditional country style—People called Brooks “an electrifying showman who choreographs his act with a unique, kick-ass abandon.” Entertainment Weekly described his concert performance as “equal parts John Wayne and Mick Jagger.” The comparison to John Wayne is an apt reflection of Brooks’s love for the legendary star’s movies. “I’d like to carry the same messages in song that he did in his movies,” Brooks said to Sanderson. “He stood for honesty.”
Brooks’s road entourage includes close friends and family. His lifelong friend Mick Weber is his road manager, old college roommate and partner Ty Englund his guitarist, and sister Betsy his bass player. Brooks’s brother Kelly, who is an accountant, handles tour financing and the star’s investments. “I surrounded myself with people who knew me long before I happened,” explained Brooks to People contributor Jerome. “So if I start acting different, man, they’ll square me in a minute.”
Despite his rocket to superstardom, praise for Brooks has not been universal. Nash reported that one critic called the singer “a calculating fake... a clone of George Strait.” And for all his success, Brooks’s poststardom life has not been without it’s difficulties. During his first six months on the road, in 1989, Brooks found women all around him, and the married man fell prey to temptation—wife Sandy told Jerome that “an informant” confirmed her suspicions. “Garth has always been a very sexual person,” said Brooks’s understanding spouse. “It was his ego: proving he could look out, point and conquer. What made it easier to cope with was that it wasn’t someone special. It didn’t mean anything.” Sandy, who didn’t tour with Brooks then, called him the night of November 4, 1989, to confront him and lay down the law. Brooks came home and begged her not to leave. “Garth has said to me a million times that was probably the best thing that ever happened to him,” friend Englund said to Jerome. “It took a helluva human being to forgive me,” Brooks himself said. “I had to promise I’d make this marriage work. It ain’t a bed of roses now, but we bust our asses, and it works unbelievably well. For the first time in my life, I feel good about being a husband and a partner.”
A drop of rain fell on Brooks’s professional parade in the spring of 1991 when the video for his song “The Thunder Rolls” was banned by America’s two biggest country-music cable networks. The video depicted a wife abuser who gets gunned down by his desperate spouse. The Nashville Network (TNN) would not air the video without a trailer from Brooks denouncing domestic abuse and vigilantism. Country Music Television (CMT) pulled the video when viewer response became negative. The bans were “a total shock,” Brooks said to People. Calling most videos “the same old crap,” he stated “I refuse to make a no-brainer. I would have never, ever done something TNN and CMT couldn’t use, but I’m not going to change what I do to fit their standards.”
In the fall of 1991, he did, however, give television a whirl; Brooks appeared on the NBC situation comedy Empty Nest— playing himself. “They filmed me, that’s about it,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “There were actors there, but I wasn’t one of them. To tell the truth, I feel lucky to be where I’m at in country music. I think I’ll just stay here.” Though Brooks may not have a second career as an actor, Entertainment Weekly reported in March of 1992 that the singer was close to endorsing a multimillion-dollar agreement to pen his official biography. The magazine further disclosed that Brooks’s literary effort would be packaged with an upcoming record.
Feeling as fortunate as he does, Brooks insists on keeping his ego in check. “I’m still a bum, I’m no different,” he said to Jerome. “I hate to take out the trash and clean my room. Sandy makes me do that stuff. I don’t wake up and say, ‘I cannot believe I am in the middle of all this.’ I just wake up and say, ‘You’re a bum, go do something worthwhile today.’”
Garth Brooks (includes “If Tomorrow Never Comes”), Capitol, 1989.
No Fences, Capitol, 1990.
Ropin’the Wind, Capitol, 1991.
Beyond the Season, Capitol, 1992.
The Chase, Capitol, 1992.
Country Music, September/October 1991.
Country Song Roundup, December 1991.
Detroit Free Press, October 3, 1991; October 28, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, September 20, 1991; March 20, 1992; March 27, 1992.
People, September 3, 1990; May 20, 1991; October 7, 1991.
Stereo Review, November 1991.
Time, September 24, 1990.
Guitar, singer, songwriter
Landing a record deal was the goal when Garth Brooks moved to Nashville in 1987. Becoming the largest-selling musical act of all time was the goal by 1998, when only the Beatles stood in his way. This dynamic country megastar—known for such hits as “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “Friends in Low Places,” “The Dance,” and “Rodeo”—is the highest-certified solo artist in U.S. music history, according the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). With more than 95 million album sales certified since 1989, he is also the fastest-selling album artist in RIAA history. Beloved by fans, Brooks played 350 shows in 100 cities during his 1996-98 concert tour, selling more than 5.3 million tickets.
Brooks had more than 20 number one hits, awards too numerous to count and his share of controversies, but in 1998, it was his sales numbers that drew the most attention. To surpass the Beatles, he would have to sell more than 100 million records, a milestone it took the Fab Four 34 years to reach. After ten short years, he was closing in on that record. “Being mentioned in the same breath with the Beatles is staggering for me,” Brooks told Brian McCollum of the Detroit Free Press. “Because no matter how many records we sell, we’ll never be on the same planet as the Beatles.” Capitol Nashville president Pat Quigley told Bryan Mansfield of USA Today, “If you were a betting man, a hundred million by the millennium is a good bet on Garth Brooks.” “I don’t want to be remembered as a scorekeeper,” Brooks told McCollum. “I just want to focus on the music. Then the number thing will take care of itself.”
Troyal Garth Brooks was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and raised in the small town of Yukon with country music in his blood. His mother performed on Capitol Records in the 1950s and his father taught him to play his first guitar chords. His sister, Betsy, who later became his bassist, was considered the musician among the six Brooks’ children. Garth was the athlete of the family, excelling at track, baseball, football and basketball in high school. His musical tastes ran more toward the rock of the day, such as KISS and Journey. He attended Oklahoma State University on a partial track scholarship for javelin, graduating with a degree in advertising in 1984.
Playing clubs while in college, Brooks first talked of Nashville before he completed his degree. His mother told Karen Schoemer of Newsweek, “I begged Garth not to go. I cried. I said, ‘I want you to get a real job. That’s why we sent you to college’.” Heeding his mother’s plea, Brooks stayed in school, working as a bouncer in
For the Record…
Born Troyal Garth Brooks Feb. 7, 1962, in Tulsa, OK; son of Troyal and Colleen Carroll (a Capitol Records recording artist in the 1950s) Brooks; married Sandy Mahl, 1986; children: Taylor Mayne Pearl, August Anna, Allie Colleen. Education: Graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1984.
Played in bands in high school and college, also worked as a bouncer during college; signed with Capitol Records in 1988; released Garth Brooks, 1989, with first number one hit “If Tomorrow Never Comes”; released No Fences, 1990; released Ropin’ the Wind, 1991; released Beyond the Season, 1992; released The Chase, 1992; released In Pieces, 1993; released The Garth Brooks Collection, 1994; released The Hits, 1994; released Fresh Horses, 1995; released Sevens, 1997; released The Limited Series, 1998; released Garth Double Live, 1998; subject of six NBC television specials; Garth Live from Central Park was highest-rated original program on HBO in 1997, and drew largest concert audience ever in Central Park.
Awards: Country Music Association music video of the year, 1990-91; Country Music Association Horizon Award, 1990; Academy of Country Music video of the year, 1990 and 1993-94; Academy of Country Music top male vocalist, 1990-91; Academy of Country Music song of the year, 1990; Academy of Country Music single of the year, 1990; Academy of Country Music entertainer of the year, 1990-93 and 1997; TNN/Music City News video of the year, 1991; Grammy, best male country vocal performance, 1991; Country Music Association single of the year, 1991; Country Music Association entertainer of the year, 1991-92, 1997-98; Country Music Association album of the year, 1991, 1992; American Music Awards favorite single, 1991-92; TNN/Music City News entertainer of the year, 1992; American Music Awards favorite male artist, 1992-97; American Music Awards favorite album, 1992 and 1996; Country Music Association vocal event of the year, 1993; ASCAP songwriter of the year, 1993-94; Academy of Country Music Jim Reeves Memorial Award, 1994; Academy of Country Music special achievement award, 1997; Grammy, best country vocal collaboration, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Records, 3322 W. End Ave., Nashville, TN 37203.
addition to playing with a band. He met his future wife, Sandy Mahl, when he was called upon to remove the fist she had pitched at a romantic rival from a bathroom wall. When he graduated from college, Brooks handed his mother his tassel and asked for her blessing to go to Nashville. She refused, and offered her prayers instead. He went to Nashville in 1985 but headed home less than 24 hours later. He married Mahl in 1986 and set out for Nashville once more in 1987, determined to make a go of it. He sang demos and worked in a boot shop until he signed with Capitol Records in 1988. In 1989, Brooks’ self-titled debut was released and a superstar was born.
Alanna Nash summed up Brooks’ early work in Entertainment Weekly; “From his first album… [Garth Brooks] has recognized that younger country fans demand more than three-chord celebrations of drinking and cheating, so he has deftly wed classic country vocal and instrumental elements with 1970s confessional folk-pop. With No Fences in 1990, he began to address such … subjects as wife beating, the topic of his controversial video for ‘The Thunder Rolls.’ The Chase is Brooks’ most mature and ambitious album. If he can alter country’s traditionally redneck attitudes toward blacks, homosexuals, and women, Brooks’ feat as a record-seller will pale by comparison.”
While his controversial message songs gained him praise, some of Brooks’ other choices drew criticism. He had his share of trouble adjusting to stardom, noted Schoemer in Newsweek. Brooks admitted infidelity in 1991, outed his sister as a lesbian in 1993 without first consulting her, and even refused an American Music Award for favorite artist of the year in 1996. Through it all, his fans remained loyal, and Brooks never forgot that they were responsible for his rise to fame and fortune. He insisted that concert tickets be held to a $20 average. At every arena he played, he moved through each section, checking the view and the sound. Producer Allen Reynolds said, “I’ve never known an artist who loves what he does any more than Garth Brooks. Nor an artist who loved his audience more.”
Brooks told Ray Waddell of Amusement Business magazine, “Everybody talks about paying dues. I don’t remember that part. It’s always been a blast, whether it was 20 people in a club or 20,000 in an arena. The audience keeps me fresh. But there’s another factor. When I step out on stage each night, there’s a thought running around in my head. What if something happened to me? What if this was the last show I ever played? Is it the one I’d want to be remembered for?”
Brooks gave his all for the fans, even if it meant losing lucrative endorsements. He told Waddell, “Our promoters don’t have any front-row seats to give out. We’ve never done an endorsement because of one phrase in every contract: ‘We need 20 of your best tickets every night.’ When you’ve got 20 people that would be somewhere else if they didn’t have free tickets, that sucks. We want everyone to be there because they want to be there. We’ve turned down $10 million, $15 million and $20 million endorsements because of that clause. We will not do it.”
Kate Meyers summarized the fan relationship in Entertainment Weekly; “He’s got Springsteen-like energy, but never screams; a Madonna-style mouthpiece, but he never grabs his crotch; fist pumps a la Arsenio, but he never barks. To me, a great performer is someone who, when it’s over, you’d walk through hell with them. You feel like, ‘Yeah, I believe!’ And sure enough, at the end of his shows he uncaps bottles of Evian and baptizes the adoring crowd, true believers all.”
Adored by millions of true believers, it seemed Brooks couldn’t lose. His next two albums, 1993’s In Pieces and 1994’s The Hits sold 8 and 10 million copies respectively. His four NBC television specials produced through that time were major ratings winners. But his 1995 album, Fresh Horses, was seen as a failure for selling only 6 million copies.
After Fresh Horses, Brooks had grave concerns about Capitol’s ability to market his work. Those concerns led to a three-month delay in release of Sevens in 1997, and replacement of the label’s president, Scott Hendricks. Sevens was originally timed for release to coincide with the HBO television special Garth Live from Central Park on August 7, 1997. The special drew the largest concert audience ever in New York’s Central Park, and was the highest-rated original program on HBO in 1997, drawing 14.6 million viewers.
But “by the beginning of June ,” Melinda Newman wrote in Billboard, “Brooks felt he had no decision but to pull the album, knowing full well that he was missing the opportunity of a lifetime by not coinciding the release with [the concert in] Central Park.” Brooks explained, “In 1992, I negotiated and worked real hard to gain the right [in my contract] that if I didn’t think things were right during the time of release, I didn’t have to release the record. And in my opinion, things were definitely not right.” He feared that without the proper marketing plan, Sevens would “fall on its face, and it would be over for me.”
As the situation dragged on, Brooks considered the possibility that the album would never be released. “My thinking in July is that I’m history,” he told Newman. “They’ve got my head under water, and I’m trying to remain calm, and maybe they’ll let my head up, and I’ll snatch a breath, but it’s getting to where I’m thinking I’m going to die down here.” Eventually, all Brooks’ demands were met, and Sevens was released on November 25, 1997. In seven weeks, it sold 3.7 million units, the same number it took Fresh Horses more than two years to sell. Never before had a performer wielded that kind of power on Music Row, and it made some industry executives nervous. “It’s like having a gorilla in the chicken pen,” former Capitol Nashville president Jimmy Bowen told Newsweek’s Schoemer. “Some of the chickens are gonna get stomped on. And the ones that don’t are gonna be nervous.”
Critics say that in his quest to become history’s biggest star, he has become ruthless and manipulative.” Brian McCollum also wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “sure, he wears his heart on his sleeve, they say. But that’s just so nobody notices his hand on his wallet.” However, Brooks told Ray Waddell of Amusement Business magazine, “that is the only true representation of success in this business, when people give up their money and their time. You can win award after award, and if you’re not selling tickets, the awards don’t mean anything. Tickets and CD sales can’t be hyped, and we take them both very seriously.”
In 1998, Capitol Nashville ceased production of Brooks’ first six albums to boost their sales as a boxed set. The Limited Series —so named because only 2 million copies were manufactured—created controversy among specialty retailers who would have seen greater profits from individual sales of the artist’s back catalog. The record company announced plans to re-release the albums individually on the 10th anniversary of the original release dates. Quoted in Billboard, Brooks said, “It’s just letting the catalog go, and hopefully when it comes back out, it will be an event. And we’ll probably do the same thing, bring it back out, and not service it for a while and then bring it back out again, following the Disney [video] model.”
1998’s Garth Double Live was preceded by a publicity blitz that included a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, an appearance with Jay Leno the night before release, a closed circuit performance beamed to 2,400 Wal-Marts the day of release, and three consecutive television specials—each of which aired live on NBC—the second day of release. The goal was to sell one million units the first day, but it took a week to sell 1,085,373 copies. There was speculation that Double Live would push Brooks over the 100 million sales mark.
“The 100 million thing has been so focused on in the public that if it happens, so be it,” Brooks told Melinda Newman of Billboard. “But truthfully, how I’d love the 100 million thing to work is I’d love to feel for the industry, for country music, what Mark McGwire felt from the sports industry on chasing the 70 home runs. I’d love to see us all enjoy and celebrate it and feel like it’s all ours and move forward from there and remember that the numbers aren’t what’s important. It’s the trip that gets you there.”
Ironically, the baseball diamond was where Brooks chose to watch for the 100 million milestone. Planning a year off from touring, he joined the San Diego Padres for spring training in 1999 to fulfill a lifelong dream and boost support for his children’s charity, “Touch ‘Em All: Teammates for Kids.” The foundation asked major leaguers to pledge a donation for each play in a chosen category, such as home runs, to be matched by both a corporation and an entertainer. If a player pledged $1,000 for every home run, the final donation would add up to $3,000. Quoted on planetgarth.com, Brooks told ESPN, “I want to change people’s lives. I want it to give opportunities to kids that do not have it. Those kids go on to do something with their lives that changes the world for a better place.”
Garth Brooks, Capitol, 1989.
No Fences (includes “The Thunder Rolls”), Capitol Nashville, 1990.
Ropin’ the Wind (includes “Rodeo”), Capitol Nashville, 1991.
Beyond the Season (includes “The Old Man’s Back in Town”), Liberty, 1992.
The Chase (includes “We Shall Be Free”), Liberty, 1992.
In Pieces (includes “That Summer”), Capitol, 1993.
Fresh Horses (includes “The Beaches of Cheyenne”), Capitol, 1995.
Sevens (includes “Long Neck Bottle”), Capitol, 1997.
Double Live (includes “It’s Your Song”), 1998.
McCloud, Barry, and contributing writers, Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, Perigee, 1995.
Amusement Business, Nov. 16, 1998.
Billboard, Jan. 31, 1998; April 11, 1998; Oct. 24, 1998.
Country Weekly, July 28, 1998.
Detroit Free Press, Nov. 15, 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, Oct. 2, 1992; Dec. 25, 1992.
Newsweek, March 16, 1998.
USA Today, Nov. 17, 1998.
The Artists —Garth Brooks, Country.com, http://www.country.com.
Brooks’ foundation a hit with big leaguers —and kids, planetgarth.com, http://www.planetgarth.com.
Additional information was provided by Capitol Records publicity materials, 1998.
—Shari Swearingen Garrett
Best-selling album since 1990: Ropin' the Wind (1991)
Hit songs since 1990: "Friends in Low Places," "The River," "We Shall Be Free"
The most commercially successful country singer of the 1990s, Garth Brooks was largely responsible for the massive crossover success country enjoyed during the decade. Brooks was the first country performer to treat his live shows like rock concerts, incorporating into his act lighting effects, wireless microphones, pyrotechnics, and harnesses (allowing him to take flying leaps over the audience). These "arena-rock" aesthetics appealed to rock and pop fans who were otherwise indifferent to country music. Through songs such as "We Shall Be Free," Brooks also injected a tone of liberalism into country's largely conservative world. By 1991, when his album Ropin' the Wind debuted at number one on the pop charts—the first country album to do so—Brooks was an international star, having brought country music to a new level of mainstream acceptance. While some critics complained that he had severed ties with country's roots, others applauded his ingenuity, also noting the compelling emotional current running through his work. By the early 2000s, Brooks's popularity had faded slightly, hurt by the unsuccessful promotion of his "rock-star" alter ego, Chris Gaines, and his own increasingly ambivalent attitude toward stardom.
Although Brooks achieved success with a rock-oriented style, his upbringing in Oklahoma points to more traditional forms of country music. Colleen Carol Brooks, his mother, was a part-time country singer who recorded several unsuccessful singles for Capitol Records during the 1950s. Although Brooks loved country music as a child, he also pursued athletics, playing football and basketball during high school and entering Oklahoma State University on a track and field scholarship. While attending college, he performed at local clubs before graduating with a degree in advertising. Deciding to pursue a music career full time, he made an abortive trip to the country music capital of Nashville, reportedly staying in the city only twenty-three hours before cowering home to Oklahoma. In 1986 he married his girlfriend, Sandy Mahl, and the couple returned to Nashville, determined to make it in the music business. The newly tenacious Brooks was turned down by several record labels before Capitol/Liberty signed him in 1988. His self-titled debut album appeared in 1989 and was an immediate hit, sporting a number one country hit single with the tender ballad "If Tomorrow Never Comes."
In 1989 Nashville was still in the midst of the "neotraditionalist" movement, which overthrew the lush strings and vocal choruses of 1970s "countrypolitan" for a more basic sound honoring country's past. In keeping with this style, Garth Brooks features tough, "honky-tonk" songs such as "Not Counting You," a swinging, up-tempo number that gives no indication of the pop sound Brooks would soon pursue.
In 1990 Brooks released his breakthrough album, No Fences, which eventually sold more than 10 million copies. The album received a strong advance push through the hit single "Friends in Low Places." A rowdy and humorous account of a country brawler wreaking havoc on a black-tie party, the song earned constant airplay on both country and pop stations, buoyed by a catchy melody and Brooks's rambunctiously likable performance. No Fences spawned three additional number one country hits, including "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House," a light-hearted portrayal of marriage that retains a traditional country feel through prominent fiddles, a tinkling piano, and the exaggerated twang in Brooks's singing. The album's other hits, such as the brooding, atmospheric "The Thunder Rolls" and the sentimental ballad "Unanswered Prayers," sport blaring electric guitars and slick strings, marking Brooks's initial foray into a pop and rock sound. As a vocalist, Brooks's great strength is his sincerity. Delivering his songs with an appealing catch in his voice, he cultivates a straightforward, nice-guy persona—an every-man whose approachability attracts listeners from diverse social and economic backgrounds.
Now a major star, Brooks returned in 1991 with Ropin' the Wind, an album that equaled the commercial success of its predecessor. Despite containing a humorous country tune, "We Bury the Hatchet (but Leave the Handle Sticking Out)," the album solidified Brooks's rock reputation with a hit version of "Shameless," a ballad first recorded by the pop artist Billy Joel. By this time Brooks was becoming famous for his live performances. In addition to the flying contraptions and flashy lights, he surrounded his band with large ramps that allowed him to careen back and forth among various areas of the stage. Many writers lambasted his overblown style; a notable exception was the esteemed music critic Robert Christgau, who claimed Brooks possessed "the most voracious emotional appetite of anyone to hit pop music since R&B star Aretha Franklin." Critics edged further toward Brooks's camp with his next album, The Chase (1992), which features the adventurous song "We Shall Be Free." Perceptively noting gospel music's historic ties to the struggle for civil rights, Brooks imbues the arrangement with a stirring piano and gospel-flavored choir. Making a plea for unity among humanity, Brooks advances racial equality and—in a mainstream country first—gay rights: "When we're free to love anyone we choose / When this world's big enough for all different views . . . we shall be free."
Artistic and Commercial Uncertainty
Despite its artistic success, The Chase was far less popular than Brooks's previous two releases, prompting a return to safer themes on his next album, In Pieces (1993). In what critics decried as a hypocritical pandering to country's conservative audience, and as a means of defusing the mild controversy "We Shall Be Free" had generated, Brooks recorded "American Honky-Tonk Bar Association," a mildly jingoistic song that criticizes welfare recipients. After releasing two more albums, Fresh Horses (1995) and Sevens (1997), Brooks began to set his sights on goals outside of music. In 1998 he tried out, unsuccessfully, for the San Diego Padres pro baseball team, and soon after began expressing an interest in film acting. After much lobbying, he won the role of fictional rock star Chris Gaines in The Lamb, a thriller to be produced by the famed R&B artist Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. In a measure of his excitement over the role, Brooks developed a persona for Gaines in advance of shooting the film, reinventing himself as a tough, leather-sporting rock star and releasing an album titled Greatest Hits (1999). The record-buying public, largely unaware of the forthcoming film, treated the album with puzzlement. Once Greatest Hits fizzled and record stores began selling it at cut prices, plans for the film were scrapped. The imbroglio hurt Brooks's credibility, keeping him out of the studio for the next two years.
After enduring a divorce from his wife and the loss of his mother, Brooks released Scarecrow near the end of 2001, announcing the album would be his last. Applauded by critics as a welcome return to form, Scarecrow features a broad range of material, from "Beer Run," a rousing, humorous duet with country legend George Jones, to the breezy, pop-influenced "Wrapped Up in You." Brooks strikes a personal chord on several of the tracks, particularly the ruminative ballad "Pushing Up Daisies," in which the narrator's father becomes helpless after his wife's death: "Now Dad turns his back on each day that he's given / Because he'd rather be pushing up daisies." Heralding his return, the Houston Chronicle advised Brooks to "stop pretending to retire and make more albums like this."
During the early 1990s, Brooks led country music's crossover into the pop mainstream, paving the way for the success of artists such as Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill. While he benefited from good timing and a listening public receptive to new, rock-oriented trends, Brooks also succeeded on the strength of his memorable material and a direct, engaging singing style. After enduring personal and career problems in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Brooks continued to record successful, vital work.
Garth Brooks (Liberty, 1989); No Fences (Liberty, 1990); Ropin' the Wind (Liberty, 1991); The Chase (Liberty, 1992); In Pieces (Liberty, 1993); Fresh Horses (Liberty, 1995); Sevens (Liberty, 1997); Scarecrow (Capitol, 2001); As Chris Gaines: Greatest Hits (Capitol, 1999).
Brooks, Garth, 1990s country sensation who broke through big time on the pop charts; b. Luba, Okla., Feb. 7, 1962. Brooks’s mother, Coleen, was a small-time country singer who worked sporadically in their native Okla. on recordings and radio. Brooks himself grew up interested in sports, playing football, basketball, and track in high school, and entering Okla. State on a track-and-field scholarship, with a specialty in javelin throwing. His guitar playing career began in high school and continued in college, where he worked college-area clubs performing a mix of James Taylor folk-pop and country. He made his first trip to Nashville in 1985, without success, returning home with his college-sweetheart wife, Sandy Mahl. Returning to Nashville in 1987, Brooks attracted the attention of Capitol Records and producer Allen Reynolds.
His first album was successful, but the followup, No Fences, really began Garthmania. It sold 700, 000 copies in its first ten days of release, and stayed on the pop charts for over a year. His third album, Ropin’ the Wind, entered the pop charts in the #1 position, the first country album ever to do so. Brooks’s hit singles from these albums combined country bathos (“If Tomorrow Never Comes,” a ten-hanky weeper about a husband’s realization of the value of his marriage), with neo-honky tonk (“Friends in Low Places,” a cleverly humorous song with its tip-of- the-hat bass vocals recalling George Jones), and even the feminist “The Thunder Rolls.” a story of a cheating husband (whose message is made graphic in a video that ruffled quite a few conservative Nashville feathers with its depiction of a physically abusive husband).
Brooks’s performing style captured the attention of the major media. Learning a lesson from the arena rock stars of his youth, Brooks built a special set featuring large ramps enclosing the band (enabling him to dramatically charge up and down around his backup musicians), and even installed a rope so he could swing out over the audience, in shades of Ozzy Osbourne-like theatrics! With his portable mike neatly hooked to his ten-gallon hat, Brooks is one of the most mobile and energetic of all country performers, although recently he has descended into such schmaltzy tactics as waving and winking at the audience, and blowing air kisses at his fans.
Brooks 1992 album, The Chase, reflects a further nudging towards mainstream pop, particularly in the anthemic single “We Shall Be Free,” whose vaguely liberal politics also sent shivers of despair through the conservative Nashville musical community. Less successful than his previous releases (although still selling several million copies), Brooks followed it with 1993’s In Pieces, featuring a safer selection of high-energy honky-tonk numbers and even the odd “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association,” in which Brooks beats up on welfare recipients, a shameless attempt to cater to Country’s traditionally conservative audience.
During the mid-1990s, Brooks seemed obsessed with topping The Beatles’s record of selling over 100 million albums; by this time, he had already passed 60 million, and set himself the goal of beating The Beatles by the year 2000. To meet this goal, Garth began a series of clever, if stunt-like promotions with his 1994 The Hits collection, originally issued for a “limited time only.” Blue-light shoppers were thrilled, and the CD sold like crazy. That same year, Brooks teamed with the burghers of burgerland, McDonalds, to release The Garth Brook’s Collection, only available to buyers of the Big Mac (and only for a “limited time”). And, if that was enough reworking of his back catalogue, he also originally packaged his Hits collection with a second CD entitled CD Zooming, which featured snippets from all of his work to date.
Garth’s mid-1990s work has been less-inspired than his earlier work. When he tried to break out of the box with 1995’s New Horses, his fans didn’t tolerate the dreamy folk-flavored material (“Ireland”) or country-styled reworkings of rock songs (Aerosmith’s “The Fever”). In 1996, Garth claimed his label was not adequately promoting his records, withholding his next record, and even lobbying successfully for new management. 1997’s Sevens returned Brooks to more comfortable country ground, but by now the formulas were beginning to wear thin. Nonetheless, record sales were up.
In 1998, in another unusual marketing gambit aimed at getting Garth over the 100-million album mark, he issued The Limited Series, a boxed set “limited” to two million copies, featuring all of his previous albums, each with one additional cut.
Garth Brook’s career took a surreal turn in 1999 when he issued the album Garth Brooks in... the Life of Chris Gaines. Supposedly a “greatest hits” album by an 1980s-era pop rocker, the album was a “pre-soundtrack” to a film Brooks says he will make about the fictional rocker. Not surprisingly, given Brooks’s love of mainstream pop-rock of the 1970s and 1980s, Gaines’s “hits” are very much in a mainstream mold, given a competent if not inspired production by pop producer Don Was. Brooks’s vocals lose their country warble, and he even attempts some R&B-flavored falsetto.
The album was greeted by mixed reaction. Some critics lambasted the singer for not having enough courage to “go pop” under his own name. Few thought the music was inspired, and the hubris of labeling new material “greatest hits” which have never been actually on the charts undoubtedly annoyed many rock and country writers. The record’s sales were pitiful by Brooksian standards, a clear sign that his fans were not yet ready for Garth-without-a-hat. He followed up with a hastily assembled album of Christmas standards, which also failed to make much of an impact among the record-buying public.
Nonetheless, Brooks’s phenomenal success in the 1990s is a combination of genuine talent, shrewd marketing, and being “in the right place at the right time (with the right act)” His neo-country act draws so much on mid-1970s folk-rock and even arena rock (in its staging) that it’s hard to think of him as a pure country artist. The fact that several of his albums have shot to the top of the pop charts, outgunning Michael Jackson, Guns ’n’ Roses, and Bruce Springsteen, underscores the fact that Brooks is a pop artist dressed in a cowboy hat. Still, Brooks draws on genuine country traditions, particularly the honky tonk sound of George Jones, and he’s managed to popularize country music without diluting the sound.
Garth Brooks (1989); No Fences (1990); Ropiri the Wind (1991); Beyond the Season (1992); The Chase (1992); In Pieces (1993); The Hits (1994); Fresh Horses (1995); Sevens (1997); In the Life of Chris Gaines (1999).