Garth Brooks: The Next Bill Clinton?

Garth Brooks

Versions of this article appeared in The Hamilton Spectator and Country Weekly. but this particular feature was written for Toronto on-line magazine Magnet in 1995, which lasted only one issue.




by Nick Krewen


Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the future President of the United States Of America….Garth Brooks.

Okay, I’m joking. Garth Brooks hasn’t declared his candidacy, nor did he mention any political aspirations whatsoever during our 30-minute interview. But make no mistake about it: If the man born Troyal Garth Brooks in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in nearby Yukon ever decided to run for the Oval Office, he’d win by a landslide.

Garth Brooks
Photo: Steve Jurketson, Creative Commons

There’s a good chance that at the moment, Garth Brooks is the most popular man in all 50 states. In little more than six years, he has rocketed from promising EMI signee to the record company’s flagship artist, identified regularly on a first name basis, to moving close to 60 million albums in the U.S. alone. When he recently announced the first dates at The Omni in Atlanta for his upcoming three-year world tour, all 80,000 tickets for the March 13-17 shows sold out in just under three hours.

It’s Garth Brooks who is busily rewriting the rules of country music as we speak, trying to stretch the boundaries artistically and commercially further than the game has ever allowed.

It’s Garth Brooks who has almost single-handedly spread the gospel of country music from nationwide popularity to unprecedented worldwide prominence: a trend that even caught the music industry by surprise a few years ago when Billboard introduced its computerized SoundScan system to measure the accuracy of retail sales and thus instantly vaporized the notion that country music doesn’t sell.

It’s Garth Brooks who has almost single-handedly taken the art of country music performance to dramatic new heights, incorporating flashy rock ‘n roll pyrotechnics and thrill-seeking theatrics, eliminating the days when country singers simply stood in front of microphones and strummed their guitars (yeah, give Barbara Mandrell and Reba McEntire some of that credit). And all at an average price of $18.50 U.S. per ticket.

It’s Garth Brooks who has put the marketing degree he earned from Oklahoma State University to good use, from renegotiating his EMI recording deal to obtain a higher royalty rate (some whisper as much as 50 percent in exchange for personally assuming all recording costs) to his McDonald’s charity album (raising close to $12 million Brooks had in mind for Ronald McDonald House and associated charities).

And it’s Garth Brooks, who through such hits as 1991’s “The Thunder Rolls” and 1992’s “We Shall Be Free” encouraged others to break taboos and sing about socially important issues.

In his drive to become Master Of The Country Universe, Brooks is the first to admit he hasn’t done it alone. Friends and family are essential to his happiness, and give him a sense of identity. Remove them, and he panics, as he confesses he did during his first trip to Nashville after he left the security of Stillwater, where he managed a sporting goods store named Dupree’s after his days at Oklahoma U.

“I don’t know if it was the ignorance-is-bliss thing, or because I didn’t get a million dollar cheque the first day I was there,” Brooks recalls in a boardroom of a posh Toronto hotel, on an early December Sunday morning.

“People weren’t throwing themselves at my feet saying, ‘You’re the greatest.’ I don’t know if that’s why I left, or because hopefully I was smart enough to realize that it wasn’t the right time at all to be there.

“I can remember that I never unpacked my car. I had a survival bag, and as I sat there and unpacked it in that hotel room, I realized that everything that was “me,” I just left behind. Everything. So I had to get back to “me.” There’s a difference to being alone in Nashville, and being by yourself — and then not even having yourself. And I didn’t.

“It rained all day — that was a sign for sure. I rolled into town around 9 or 10 in the morning, and left probably 7 or 8 in the morning the next day.”

Garth Brooks

Brooks admits life would have been very different if his first trip to Nashville had been a success. For instance, wife Sandy would have been history.

“I was dating her at the time, and I wasn’t going to come back to her, either. If it had happened in Nashville, I would have been this swinging kind of guy that would have definitely blown everything I had.”

Instead, he returned to Stillwater and continued managing the store, playing a bar called Wild Willie’s and bouncing at another called Tumbleweed’s, bonding with friends and family in his immediate circle.

When he finally signed with Capitol (Liberty Nashville at the time), Brooks surrounded himself with familiar faces. College pal Ty England — now a BMG recording artist with one successful solo album to his credit — became his acoustic guitarist. His sister Betsy Smittle — recently branching out on her own as a solo artist — joined him on the road on bass. Brian Petrie, a former bartender who worked with Garth, is now his stage production manager. Brother Kelly Brooks is tour manager.

“These guys are mostly people I’ve known,” says Brooks. “Everyone that you’ve seen in there that’s on the crew, I’ve known at least six years. So all these people are very much “me”. They keep me very grounded. They’re very honest with me.”

Brooks also extends his loyalty to his songwriters. Those who owe theGarth Brooks miracle country cure a ten-gallon Stetson of thanks for either their big break or higher profile include regular contributors Pat Alger (“The Thunder Rolls,”  “Unanswered Prayers,” “What She’s Doing Now, “”The Night I Called The Old Man Out”); Tony Arata (“The Dance,” “Same Old Story,” “Face To Face” ” Kickin’ And Screamin'” “The Change”); Larry Bastian (“I’ve Got A Good Thing Going,” “Cowboy Bill,” “Nobody Gets Off In This Town,” “Unanswered Prayers,” “Rodeo, ” “The Old Man’s Back In Town”; DeWayne Blackwell (“Nobody Gets Off In This Town, “” Friends In Low Places,” “Mr. Blue”); Kent Blazy (“If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “Cold Shoulder,” “Ain’t Going Down ( Till The Sun Comes Up)” “Cowboys And Angels,” “It’s Midnight Cinderella”); Stephanie Davis, (“Wolves,” “We Shall Be Free,” “The Gift,” “Learning To Live Again,” “The Night Will Only Know,” “Ireland”); Bryan Kennedy (“American Honky-Tonk Bar Association,” “The Old Stuff,” “The Fever,” “The Beaches Of Cheyenne”); Victoria Shaw (“The River,” “She’s Every Woman”); Kim Williams (“New Way To Fly,” “Papa Loved Mama,” “Cold Shoulder, ” “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Til The Sun Comes Up,)” “Cowboys And Angels,” “It’s Midnight Cinderella, ” “The Night I Called The Old Man Out”); and Jenny Yates (“Standing Outside The Fire, The Red Strokes, The Night Will Only Know, Ireland”).

While he’s also helped the careers of many female country singers (bluegrass phenomenon Alison Krauss; ex-receptionist Trisha Yearwood; former T-shirt vendor Martina McBride and veteran songwriter Shaw among them), it’s the songwriter with whom he feels a special affinity.

“The common theme that’s running through all my music is that it’s usually about passion, about believing in the small guy, and about believing in the underdog,” says Brooks, adding that he gets a gratifying kick when he sees them realize their potential.

“Jenny Yates is probably one of the most passionate people I’ve ever seen, and she’s lived a life of actually panhandling on the streets of San Francisco. She’s been past the point of coming back, and somehow managed to come back. She makes a good living now.

“I’ve known her for ten years, and she had this old beat up Subaru station wagon. She had it forever and ever, and last year she got a new car. When you see things like that, and see the smile on her face, it’s that self-pride and self-confidence that you’ve always seen in them but they haven’t seen in themselves that makes it worthwhile.”

Brooks says the newfound confidence in Yates and others ends up strengthening his own career in the long run.

“The Jenny Yates I’m writing with now is fifteen times stronger than the Jenny Yates I was writing with a few years ago. So we’re just now getting into the very meat of this relationship. People like Stephanie Davis are pinning their shoulders back and saying, ‘Yeah, dammit, I am a writer. And I’m a good writer.’ So you really want to hang around them more now than you did a few years ago.”

Brooks’ cardinal sense of community and his ability to recognize individual strengths are just two key ingredients that would ease him into power in Washington, Midas Touch aside.

Perhaps his most important asset is his basic regard for people. Whether they’re friends in low places or strangers in high spaces, Brooks treats them equally. The man is unfailingly polite, and will not let a conversation linger for too long without inquiring about the person’s name and personalizing the experience.

Watch him field phone-in questions from viewers on CNN’s Live With Larry King, and he always stops to ask their name, follows up with a personal greeting, before responding to their inquiry. Ditto for an appearance at the Canadian syndicated radio show Today’s Country. He’s a smooth operator who listens intently, and always says the right thing. When Capitol U.S. decided last year to present him with a plaque commemorating 50 million units sold, Brooks insisted that the ceremony take place at the company’s pressing plant. He treated everyone to lunch at his own expense, and met every single employee in attendance, thanking them for their hard work.

His sincerity during such moments is beyond reproach, but you can’t help but think that even naturally, Garth Brooks is the ideal politician. If you had a baby, he’d probably kiss it.

Other things seemingly too good to be true about Garth: his genuine honesty. Whenever he’s dealt with the press, he hasn’t evaded any inquiries. Maybe he’s smart enough to realize the truth comes out eventually, especially when you’re in the public eye as much as he is. In the past, he has aired his dirty laundry, the worse of which is an extra-marital encounter over which he has expressed his regret.

He and his wife Sandy have since ironed out any differences of opinion over the incident , and she’s presented him with two healthy daughters — Taylor Mayne and August Anna, with a third — Troyal John Strait if it’s a boy, Allie Colleen if it’s a girl — on the way this August. Chances are that if you read about it first in the pages of The National Enquirer, Brooks wouldn’t be the happy family man he is today.

Brooks also has a rare talent in that he can dismantle publicity, a trait for which most politicians would. How effective is he? Just ask the hundreds of fans who tried without much success to unearth details of the upcoming tour before they were officially announced in early February.

There were no leaks. Tour dates beyond July are still a mystery.

Admittedly, he’s a bit of a control freak. On this particular day, the press is not allowed to take photographs, because Brooks hates informal snapshots. Every piece of art you see from him — with the exception of live photos in newspaper or magazine concert reviews, and spontaneous fan pics — has been provided by GB Management, Brooks’ Nashville-based in-house management, marketing, promotion and publicity firm.

In person, Garth Brooks is extremely friendly. He greets you with a firm handshake, seems less chubby and more muscular in person, and the youthful fire burning in his blue eyes compensates for his hair, greying prematurely at 34.

When he talks, he is animated. When the talk turns to his tour, he gets enthused. His eyes brighten with excitement when he discusses anything that sparks a memory of being onstage, although he infrequently leaves sentences dangling and grasps at the air with his hands when he tries to verbalize a sensation, seemingly through osmosis.

He’s in Toronto to talk about Fresh Horses, an album that was a million seller practically out of the gate. Prior to the recording, he took a breather for about a year, pausing only to release a compilation called The Hits.

I compliment him on “Ireland,” Fresh Horses‘ grand finale and a song that loosely falls within new country definition with its Celtic heart and military rhythms. I remark on the tone of defiance that seems to resonate at the song’s core, and wonder if “Ireland” is a veiled salute to his native Oklahoma, a state that suffered the worst act of terrorism in its 220 year old history last year when a bomb claimed the lives of more than 100 people.

“‘Ireland’ is totally just a fantasy,” replies Brooks, nursing a bottle of Evian.

“It’s a nod back to a country that took my music in when I probably needed it the most. It was the first city on the European leg of the world tour, the first time I ever felt the music reach out across an actual body of water.

“I think ‘The Change’ is probably more for Oklahoma than anything else. It’s the third single, and the video is going to be all about the rescue workers. As far as hearing the defiant tone in ‘Ireland,’ thank you. That’s the kind of thing I wanted you to experience.”

Although he barely seems to make the pitch during the acapella introduction, Brooks says the toughest part about recording the song was a tempting Irish accent.

“For some reason, I kept having this Irish burr, and I had to get away from that as far as I could,” admits Brooks. “It’s still in there.”

Brooks says that Fresh Horses was the most difficult album of the bunch for him to record, although it’s not really clear as to why it was so strenuous.

“I just got so close to it in the studio,” says Brooks. “For two years, I have been out of the field of knowing what people thought about my music. There are a lot of things that get to me. So it was tough to get back into it, and I think that’s why it was so hard to let go.”

After the limited six-month window he used in 1994 to sell The Hits (eight million copies before he sealed the masters below his own star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in front of Capitol Records’ Los Angeles headquarters), Brooks says he used his time off to reflect and focus.

“Most of the conclusions that I came to were more about closing that first chapter with The Hits, and getting it behind us,” explained Brooks. “So now begins really the hardest part yet of the journey, trying to keep this thing feeling like it’s new. The answer lies in the people.”

Brooks says he and his band will be rocking your foundations with a newly designed, multi-million dollar stage set.

“I hate doing the same thing over and over again,” says Garth. “So we’ve got a new stage show for the first time in three or four years. A new stage. A new light rig. A new sound system. Everything’s new. The music, people make new every time we play it. ”

Brooks promises such hits as “Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old, The Thunder Rolls” and “That Summer” with at least six selections from Fresh Horses. He also may include a few tunes that aren’t his own.

“We haven’t decided on those yet. We do a week of sound check rehearsals, songs we only play in sound check. `You May Be Right’ was only played in sound check until one night it just felt good to try it. So we’re just going to do that through seven or eight songs. Probably three or four of them are Billy Joel tunes. There’s a couple (George) Strait tunes, a couple James Taylor tunes, so we’ll see.

“We’re fortunate enough to have a lot of stuff that has our name on it, so we might be sticking just to that.”

Closers will probably vary from “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Til The Sun Comes Up)” to “The Fever,” a slightly rewritten cover of the Aerosmith tune from Get A Grip.

“If we’re fortunate enough to play multiple nights, than we’ll try and make the shows different each night, because we have a small percentage of people that keep coming back and see two or three shows at a time.”

Brooks isn’t content with just adjusting the music you hear on a nightly basis; the stage set will also have a different look, beginning with the lights.

“The light rig has almost doubled in size, and it’s tripled and quadrupled in what it can do,” says Brooks. “It’s three different light rigs in one. It’s a complex, computerized system, but at the same time it’s very adaptable and changeable, because that’s what I require to make the show look different each night we’re lucky enough to do multiple dates.”

Brooks will be doing two North American swings. The first will last 46 cities, with a Canadian tour to begin in late August through mid-September. The final leg will be 77 dates, with 1997 devoted to Europe and Australasia.

And you can bet all the bells and whistles will be part of the Garth Brooks experience, to illustrate what he feels like when he takes to the stage.

“Other than waking up to my little girls, I think it’s probably when I’m the most alive,” he explains. “That’s when my little finger on my left hand knows what my little toe on my right foot’s doing.”

He draws an imaginary line from his forehead to the back of his skull as he speaks.

“Everything’s so alive, from the middle of your eyes all the way to the back of your head, it’s just burning. That’s the one gift I wish I could give back. If there was some way I could have anybody who wants to know what it feels like to stand in these shoes when it’s happening.”

You better catch him in concert while he’s hot, for who knows? Sometime in the next ten years, the ticket that Garth Brooks issues might just be a presidential one.