As 1991 began, Garth Brooks was still the Avis of country music’s ”hat acts,” playing second fiddle to Top Hat Clint Black. In February, when the two headlined concerts at Houston’s Astrodome, hometown hero Black set an attendance record of 57,333. Brooks, a 29-year-old former nightclub bouncer from Yukon, Okla., missed eclipsing Black by all of 86 tickets.
That was then. Ten months later, Brooks is so huge he can afford to take six months off from touring and pass up an estimated $6 million worth of concert bookings. He’s not merely country’s top hat act, he’s America’s best-selling male vocalist — confirmation of country’s popularity in the midst of a music-industry recession and validation of a jug-eared, balding Everydude who can tell a story set to music as few peers can. Less than three months after his Houston gig, his triple-platinum album No Fences reached No. 4 on the pop sales charts after more than eight months in release. That was followed by six Academy of Country Music awards. And in September, Brooks made pop history with his third album, Ropin’ the Wind. It entered the charts at No. 1, an unprecedented feat for a Nashville performer, and stayed there for most of October and November.
If ever there was a star primed to reflect the mood of the ’90s, it is the plain-speaking Brooks. The Merle Haggard twist he put on the vocals of his 1990 hit ”Friends in Low Places” and his standard-issue countrypolitan uniform of wide-brimmed Stetson, pressed Wranglers, button-down oxford shirts, and round-toed boots initially suggested he was little more than the latest neotraditionalist. But unlike many of his more reserved contemporaries, Brooks speaks to the hard-core, two-stepping honky-tonk crowd with earthy, plain-talking fare like ”We Bury the Hatchet (With the Handle Sticking Out)” and ”Papa Loved Mama (and Mama Loved Men).” And he doesn’t shy away from singing about touchier subjects, such as mortality (”The Dance”) or the downside of cheatin’ situations (”The Thunder Rolls,” which spawned a controversial video), either. That duality has found a resonance among disaffected baby boomers who are weary of the excesses of rock & roll, rap, and metal but prefer their country with some kick and content.
Brooks’ crossover appeal is most apparent onstage, where his soft, reflective side is counterbalanced by an extroverted kind of showmanship that his country brethren lack. Simply put, he’s the only buckaroo of his generation who can jump from amps with the unfettered zeal of a Ted Nugent in his prime.
So is there any new territory left for Brooks to conquer? Does he have the staying power to become another Oklahoma legend like Gene Autry, or will history record him as just another cat in a hat? Brooks himself has the answer to that question written right on the cover of his second album: no fences.