Garth Brooks' new pop audience -- How the country star is dealing with his new fame

No musicians are more respectful of their musical elders than young country singers. Instead of bragging about their new album, as pop stars routinely do, they humbly thank great country predecessors like George Jones or Hank Williams. So Garth Brooks, country’s newest young beacon, was thrilled last year when a New York radio deejay said that Brooks reminded him of a certain balding luminary. ”Wow!” Brooks replied. ”James Taylor’s a huge idol of mine.”

It’s not that Brooks doesn’t also love George Jones. But in the past two years, the beefy 28-year-old Oklahoman has sold a lot of records to folks who couldn’t name even one of Jones’ four wives. Brooks’ second album, No Fences, rose to the top 20 on the pop charts soon after its September release, higher than any country singer since Kenny Rogers’ Eyes That See in the Dark hit No. 6 in 1983.

”My mother must be buying a hell of a lot of albums,” he says. ”I can’t explain it; I wish I could.” All he knows is what he calls ”the plan we had from the start.” He’s sitting next to his wife, Sandy, a former rodeo champion whom he frequently credits as inspiration. They’re in a kitschy country-themed bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, seated on a low leatherette sofa that reminds Brooks of his grandparents’ decor back in Tahlequah, Okla. One critic wrote that he has ”a face like a thumb with a hat on it,” and in jeans and a sweatshirt, without his hat, he couldn’t look less like the elaborately dressed country forefathers featured in the bar’s framed photos. ”We decided we could play what we call ‘heart music.’ That’s music that bypassed the mouth and ears and just drew a straight line from one heart to another. Not everybody is country, but everybody has a heart.”

Brooks’ affinity for country comes naturally; his mother, Colleen Carroll, recorded several country songs in the ’50s before retiring to raise a family. (”I’ve got them collected,” says Brooks. ”I’m gonna put them on digital audiotape, then frame the singles for her.”) But he grew up in the ’70s, considered a bad time for country music — too many mild-mannered singers like John Denver and Linda Ronstadt, not enough fiddle and steel guitar — and his tastes included some of the era’s most maligned noncountry music: ”I’m a huge fan of the commercial late-’70s rockers,” he says. ”Boston, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller.” His enthusiasm hasn’t faded: Before shows, he and his band blast Queen’s ”Tie Your Mother Down” for inspiration.

As a kid, Brooks says, he ”ran from responsibility.” But he won a track scholarship to Oklahoma State, where he threw the javelin, majored in advertising (a background that, he says, helps him now to craft video images that match his music), and first learned guitar. He traces the onset of his delayed maturity to the unlikely night in 1984 when he met Sandy. Working as a bouncer in a Stillwater, Okla., nightclub, he helped her remove her fist from a wall she’d smashed throwing a punch at a jealous rival. ”Just wanted to scare her,” Sandy explains. ”I meant to hit the wall.” Before they got married in 1986, Brooks had been, as Sandy says, ”a ladies’ man, different women all the time.” And after his debut album broke big, he acted the part of a star: ”Play every night, party every night, drive to the next town. I was killing my marriage,” he admits with gentle intensity. What made him stop? ”Sandy told me I had an ultimatum. I found myself on my knees. I never want to get that close to that again.”

And that’s where the James Taylor connection kicks in. Many of Brooks’ lyrics were nourished by personal ordeals; they tell intimate stories, country cousins of those told by Taylor and other ’70s folksingers. There’s nothing in them remotely like the macho imagery favored by an older generation of male country stars. In ”If Tomorrow Never Comes,” which he wrote in memory of two friends who died while he was in college and now calls ”my signature song,” he sings about death, and how it taught him to express his love to the living. This intimacy helps attract fans outside country circles. ”I get a ton of ’em. They say, ‘Hey man, I don’t like country music, but I sure like what you do.”’ His reaction, though, is more than a little ambivalent: ”I go, ‘Thanks…I think.’ The first thing I feel is, My God, they don’t think I’m country.” Because Garth Brooks still sees himself as a solidly traditional country singer, unchanged by his dramatic pop triumph. ”I ain’t looking to cross over,” he insists. ”I’m very flattered — but country music is my home, and I’m not going away from it.”