September 1992 (Volume 8)
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.
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 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
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 post-stardom 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.'"
~~ Greg Mazurkiewicz