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Garth Brooks: The most popular singer in America

Garth Brooks: The most popular singer in America — Country’s brooding rebel on his new album, violent video, and off-the-wall fans

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There’s a lull in the photo session, so Garth Brooks steps out of the hot lights to cool off while the photographer changes film. He spots a 36-inch-floor fan, howling like a banshee and whirling brisk air around the room. Brooks walks up to the fan, sees it has no grill covering its blades, and sticks the brim of his black Stetson into the outside edges. A sharp flick-flick-flick results, but the hat is undamaged. So, like a kid seeing how far he can go, Brooks slowly pokes his fingers into the rotors.

”Every time I see a fan, I’ve just got to stick my hand in it, ever since I was a kid,” he says in a soft Oklahoma accent. ”If the blades go this way” — he gestures — ”you’re fine. If they go the other way, you’re in trouble.” A beat. ”Whoops!” he yells in mock alarm, yanking his hand away and holding up the forefinger. ”Just the tip!”

Since the release of his debut album, Garth Brooks, in 1989, Brooks has made a practice of taking risks and defying the rules, jamming his hands into all sorts of star-maker machinery and seeing exactly how far he can go: for example, writing ”The Thunder Rolls,” a song about a man who cheats on his wife, and making a video for it that shows not only the husband’s torrid affair but his violent comeuppance. In Nashville, where newcomers are practically issued handbooks on the accepted ways of doing business — which means playing it safe — that’s living dangerously indeed.

But that boldness has also helped the 29-year-old to vault far over his less venturesome competition. In April, Brooks toted home six Academy of Country Music awards — one in every category in which he was nominated, including Entertainer of the Year. He’s had a steady string of big hits: ”If Tomorrow Never Comes,” ”The Thunder Rolls,” and ”Friends in Low Places” have all been No. 1. His debut album has sold more than 2 million copies and is still No. 50 on Billboard‘s pop charts after 71 weeks. Best of all, sales for his second, No Fences, which came out a year ago and hit the No. 4 slot on the pop chart, have passed the 4-million mark. And his record company received advance orders of 2 million copies for his just-released third album, Ropin’ the Wind.

All that means that Garth Brooks is not only the biggest country superstar since the Urban Cowboy boom of the early ’80s, but the most popular male singer of any kind in the country today. And although he has a reputation as a keen strategist — one music journalist even called him ”a calculating fake a clone of George Strait” — no one is more surprised at the magnitude of Brooks’ success than Brooks, who has been a professional musician only since 1985.

”I really don’t have a clue why it happened to me,” he says. ”Because what I deserve and what I’ve gotten are totally off balance. Right now, if this world was split where part of ’em went to heaven, and part of ’em went to hell, you’d probably be seeing me right on the front line of people going to hell. All I can say (about the success) is that it’s divine intervention.”

There are more earthly explanations. The resurgence of country music has created a new generation of performers, including Clint Black and Alan Jackson, who write and play a surefire brand of classic country and are enjoying surprising success outside the traditional audience for the genre. In this group, 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, whether a cabdriver in New York or a forklift operator in Omaha, can relate. Brooks gets letters from people who say they played ”The Dance,” a thoughtful ballad about life and death, at a family funeral, and ”If Tomorrow Never Comes” for loved ones to whom they cannot open their hearts. And who can resist the good-time ”Friends in Low Places” (even if those who celebrate it as a classic drinking song miss its anti-drinking sentiment)?

Certainly not the 9,000 fans who stream into the Tulsa Convention Center in late August. An hour before the show, they’re already gearing up to pay homage to a native son and get loose. They’re also checking to see who obeyed the dress code. Garth Brooks clones wear starched jeans, vertically striped shirts, and hats, while their dates, hair moussed into gravity-defying swirls, model a combination of flaps-and-chaps jeans called Rockies. And everyone is in cowboy boots — round-toed, low-heeled numbers called Ropers. It looks like a Will Rogers convention, and it sounds like one, too: None of them ever heard a Garth Brooks song they didn’t like.

Backstage, Brooks’ gregarious mother, Colleen Carroll Brooks, a country recording artist in the mid-1950s, is holding court. Flashing her silver fingernails studded with sparkling red and blue beads, she greets what looks to be the entire town of Yukon, Okla. (population 22,000), a dot 90 miles away on the outskirts of Oklahoma City where Troyal Garth Brooks grew up. Right next to Mrs. Brooks is Jacque Weber, who runs Jacque’s Family Hair Styling in Yukon, a Steel Magnolias kind of shop where she keeps a Garth Brooks shrine in the corner and Old Glory in the front window. Jacque hands out slices of homemade coconut-cream pie backstage and talks about Garth’s kindness: how he flew all the band members’ wives into Dallas once when the guys were out on the road too long, how he tries to keep his T-shirt price at $15 because he’s already selling $60,000 to $70,000 worth of merchandising a night, and how, for gosh sakes, he always says grace before a meal, no matter where he is.

Yukon is a farming town, where Garth’s laconic father, Troyal, has worked as a draftsman for Union 76 for 33 years. The Brookses still live in a modest split-level house, ”in the middle of average Oklahoma, in the middle of average America,” as their son likes to say. Back in the 1800s, Yukon was a cowboy-and-cattle stop on the Chisholm Trail. Today it’s a Wal-Mart and Conoco kind of town, a place where a high-haired woman at Braum’s ice cream store isn’t embarrassed to wear a heart-shaped rhinestone pin with ”Jesus” written across it in fancy script. God is still God here, but Oral Roberts and Merle Haggard aren’t far behind.

Home, religion, family, and flag — these are country-music clichés, but they form the very real heartland values that along with a healthy sense of competition shaped Garth Brooks. As the baby among six kids, Garth learned to compete during the family’s Funny Nights. He put on skits and hammered out tunes on a variety of musical instruments.

But the dominant force in Brooks’ life was athletics. He played four sports in high school (football, basketball, baseball, and track and field) and attended Oklahoma State University on an athletic scholarship. It turns out that Brooks isn’t a real cowboy, but a jock. He may have worked on a horse ranch in college, but he never learned to rope and bulldog. One time at a rodeo, he was slapped astride a horse and couldn’t get the animal to do anything but back up. In truth, says his manager, Pam Lewis, he’s afraid of the critters. His mother laughs about it. ”I told him, ‘Son, I’d like to see you get out and ride just a little bit to where you’d feel more comfortable.”’

A self-described mama’s boy, Brooks says college taught him how to act around guys. He majored in advertising and marketing, hoping to adapt his original music to jingles and creative copy, and he found time to pick out other people’s tunes on the banjo and guitar, usually songs by his idols, James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg. For a time, he played in a bluegrass band (”His songs could bring tears to a glass eye,” remembers classmate Mike Jones) and worked at a club called Tumbleweeds as a bouncer. It was there that he met Sandy Mahl, the woman he would live with for two years and then marry. One night Sandy, now 26, uncharacteristically got into a brawl in the ladies’ room, threw a punch, and put her fist through the wall. It was still stuck in the Sheetrock when bouncer Brooks came to investigate. But it wasn’t Sandy or music that really drove Brooks then, only the thought of being the biggest and the best in the javelin throw.

Today, Brooks wants to be the biggest and the best country-music entertainer who ever set foot onstage, but his concerts have much of the flavor of sporting events. Equal parts John Wayne and Mick Jagger, Brooks throws water on his band, climbs a rope ladder into the light chambers, and generally acts like a wild man in an attempt to separate his shows from the solid but tame performances of the competition. Since the bulk of his fans are women, he also does it to make up for what he sees as his relative lack of hunk appeal among today’s country singers.

”I can’t just go out and stand there and sing,” he says. ”George Strait can do it, but he’s a good-looking kid.” A laugh. ”Hell, I’ve even caught myself looking at George like that.” And so Brooks gives the audience something simultaneously comfortable and exciting. Says Sandy Brooks: ”He loves it when he can make them be quiet as church mice, and then rowdy as cowboys in some drunken bar somewhere. He loves that control.” In Tulsa, after Brooks adds an impromptu last verse to ”Friends in Low Places” — in which he rhymes ”I tip my glass” with ”kiss my ass!” — the crowd goes crazy. Brooks pumps his fist in the air and strides around as though approaching spontaneous combustion.

”Be careful,” he sputters over the roar. ”You’re winding the fat boy up! He’s gonna go! He’s gonna go!”

Later, in a parked car, Brooks admits that winding the fat boy up is not such a good idea, because there’s no telling what might happen. ”They’ll tear the building down if I tell them to,” he says. ”In Tucson, they started pulling the monitors into the crowd. All of a sudden, there were cops and security guards everywhere, just waiting for this thing to go. People were sticking their hands on stage lights that had been burning for three or four hours — I could see the smoke rising off. They were just pulling and feeding on the excitement! That’s when you’re walking the line, and you’re saying, ‘My God, this thing could explode any minute,’ but at the same time I want it! I mean, someone could get hurt. Wow! What a feeling!”

Whether Brooks was really hoping for an Altamont in Arizona, comments like these reveal another side of the man, a dark side. Sandy says he manages to hide this aspect of his personality except when he gets tired and turns cynical. In Tulsa, after the strain of the day, the man who starred in the domestic-violence video ”The Thunder Rolls” tells a wife-beating joke: A husband informs his wife that if dinner isn’t on the table in five minutes, she’s not going to see him for three or four days — by the time the third day comes around, she can see him a little bit out of her left eye. Not only does Brooks think it’s funny, but, he beams, ”It kills me! Because it’s so absurd to think that wife-beating should happen. Maybe that’s the real me, but when there’s a crisis, I sort of laugh at it.”

Brooks’ dual nature reveals itself most clearly in his preoccupation with death. It began in the early ’80s when two close friends were killed in airplane and auto accidents. ”Death kicked my ass all over the place,” he says. ”I went into darkness.” Sometimes he thinks about dying onstage while trying some stunt. ”That,” he concludes, ”ain’t so bad.” He’s written about death in ”If Tomorrow Never Comes” and an unrecorded, early song, ”Twilight Flight.” Then there’s the fatal ending of the video for ”The Thunder Rolls.” And there are the black armbands he and his band wear in concert to mourn the loss of Reba McEntire’s band in a March 1991 plane crash.

And yet Brooks claims that he’s finished with ”the death thing” now. Today he insists that the energy onstage is predominantly sexual. A great concert, he says, ”is like any great sex, where you get wild and frenzied, then turn that around quick to something gentle, tender, and slow, and then get wild and crazy again and just keep doing that over and over until one of you drops dead. It’s the same great, physical thing with the music, and it happens every night.”

Sometimes Brooks gets more than he bargained for. One night, a woman in the audience got so caught up in his stage persona that she yelled, ”I’ll give you $500 to (let me perform oral sex).”

Backstage after the Tulsa concert, the energy level has come way down and the Garth fans have split into groups, each with its own agenda. A bevy of young women with Instamatics stands anxiously in one corner, waiting for a glimpse of the star. A clot of middle-aged women with Marine haircuts slug each other on the arm and wait for Garth’s bass-playing half-sister, Betsy Smittle. In his dressing room, an older woman is telling Garth, ”I’ve never had a hero or an idol. But you make me believe that good still exists.”

Yet not everyone is having the time of her life. Over in yet another corner backstage, the soft-spoken Sandy Brooks is keeping a low profile, talking with her mama. At 1 a.m., she’s hoping everyone will go home so she’ll have 45 minutes alone with her husband, who will leave for South Dakota the next day while she’ll go home to Nashville. Even though she trusts him with women on the road, she can’t help but worry about them, too.

In a way, their relationship seems curious. He hauled her up on-stage with him to accept the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award last year, and praises her in interviews — tells everybody that it was Sandy who kept him going by working three jobs and refusing to move back to Oklahoma when at first Nashville rejected him. Yet he all but says that when they married in 1986, he was apparently more interested in how she could help him achieve his dream than what really mattered to her. The most important person in his life, he admits, is his brother (and road accountant) Kelly, an attachment he says Sandy has learned to accept. ”I love my wife to death, but Kelly and I should have been Siamese twins.”

In 1989, Sandy almost left her husband because they never had any time together. Since he’s been on the road, ”it’s almost like we’ve both had to learn to live separate lives,” she says, a discernible lump in her throat. Beginning in mid-December, Brooks will take six months off the road to write and to get reacquainted with his wife. They have a big new house in Nashville for which they’ll buy furniture when he comes home.

Both Brooks and his wife know that personal sacrifices are all part of launching a career. On the whole, Garth says, ”This is a rush like I never dreamed music would be.” Then, in the next breath, he talks about how scared he is that it’ll all end tomorrow. He knows he could please the powers that be in Nashville by playing it safe — steering away from controversy and never veering too left of center. But, there’s that little kid inside of him that can’t resist pushing things to the limit and ignoring the danger signs — sticking his fingers in the fan.

”Ultimately,” says Sandy Brooks, ”Garth wants to be able to sit back and say, ‘Yes, I did it. I did it my way, and I had a hell of a lot of fun.”’

At the least, the fat boy is on his way.