From the old cowboy movies, you’ll know they speak their mind in the American South. So when a guy from Oklahoma sells millions of albums – and brings country music to a new and previously unthinkable level – that’s going to put some people’s noses out of joint, country music outlaw Waylon Jennings’ chief among them.
n 1997 he spoke his mind, with this infamously indelicate remark about the new king of Nashville: “Garth Brooks did for country music what pantyhose did for finger f**king.”
In 2012 another hard man of country music, Merle Haggard, stood up in Brooks’ defence. “Well, I think Waylon got dumber with age,” he said. “I think what Waylon meant by that statement was that somebody ought to be able to walk out on a stage with a guitar and put on a good show that people can enjoy. We don’t really need explosions to enjoy a concert, do we?”
Ironically, walk on stage with a guitar and put on a good show is just what Garth Brooks did at the Bank of America in Charlotte, North Carolina, last month.
There are no cannons. There are giant screens that tower over him, but overall, the sense is of Brooks as Everyman. Wearing a cowboy hat with the traditional cattleman’s crease and cowboy boots, denim shirt and jeans, one of the biggest-selling solo artists in American history (170 million albums sold), looks like he got up out of the crowd, put on a wireless headset mic, and sang a few songs that sounded like they could have been performed as intimately in some down-home bar.
He looks, in fact, like a lot of the men in the audience – carrying a few extra pounds (fine for his age), a little out of breath when he runs around the stage, his hair (when he takes off his cowboy hat) a little thin on top.
Brooks’ media team were keen to impress on People & Culture that the show in North Carolina was not the same as the shows he will be playing in Ireland to almost half a million people. Yet they declined to elaborate on what kind of show he will be bringing here.
Presumably, we can expect the hits and maybe a new song or two. At the press conference before the show in North Carolina he spoke about his philosophy for live performance: “Play the music they came to hear is always a smart start… nothing will piss you off more than going to a concert and they dump a whole new album on you. And if you play enough of the old stuff, they’ll let you do some new stuff.”
He also joked that “capital punishment would be great for scalping”, in reference to the grifters who sell over-priced tickets outside his shows.
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Capital punishment notwithstanding, the atmosphere in Charlotte during the two nights he played to 85,000 people at the Bank of America Stadium bordered on Garth-mania. Outside the stadium, there were thousands of fans in cowboy hats and boots and Garth T-shirts, enjoying the summer heat, some of them singing ‘Friends In Low Places’. Others were carrying home-made signs with requests for their favourite songs on it. The local police were all smiles. The mood in the stadium was one of a giant communal country singalong.
They say country music is best when listeners can relate to the songs and invest them with their own life experiences. This is especially true of Brooks fans like Melanie Gamble from Raleigh.
“A couple of his songs like ‘Unanswered Prayers’ have sweet meanings to them that you can connect in your real life,” she tells me. “It makes me think of first crushes or the guy I thought I would marry when I was 23 and I didn’t – and thank God that I didn’t.”
Broadcaster, historian and expert on Nashville music Brian Mansfield says Garth has “superhuman abilities”.
“He is one of those people, when you interact with him, he makes you feel like you are the only person who is in the room, and he is just glued on you. But I can tell you a story that explains why people look at Garth the way that they do… Garth has this freaky ability to remember every person he has ever met,” he says.
On October 26, 2000, Mansfield went to the superstar’s 100th million sales party at an arena in Nashville. Despite 2,000 people in attendance, Brooks had set up a receiving line, because he wanted to say hello to everybody.
“I’ve known him for years, since 1988,” says Mansfield.
“Our ties go back to even before we met. So, in the receiving line, he says hello to me and then he turns to my wife and says: ‘You must be Nancy.’ Garth has never met my wife. I have never talked to Garth about my wife. I’m looking around to see who’s speaking in his ear, giving him names as he meets them, and there was nobody, which meant Garth had memorised the faces and names of everyone in that building, which ranged from Hall of Fame baseball players to wives of reporters.”
He was born Troyal Garth Brooks on February 7, 1962, in Yukon, Oklahoma. The youngest of six children, he grew up in a musical family in Oklahoma. His mother, Colleen McElroy Carroll, was a country singer (of Irish ancestry) who signed to Capitol Records in the 1950s.
“Friday and Saturday nights at the house, Jerry played guitar, Jim played the harmonica, Mike played guitar, Betsy played guitar, and, of course, Dad played guitar,” Brooks once told Playboy about his siblings. “Mom sang her butt off, Dad sang, Betsy sang, Jerry sang, Jim sang, Mike sang. Kelly and I played the wax comb.”
After graduating with a degree in advertising from Oklahoma State University (where he met his future wife Sandy in his senior year), he played in bars and clubs such as Wild Willie’s Saloon in Stillwater.
In 1988, after initially rejecting the songs on his demo tape, Capitol Records signed him. By September 1991 his first three albums (1989’s eponymous debut, 1990’s No Fences and 1991’s Ropin’ the Wind) had sold over 30 million copies. He had crossed over from country music superstar, to superstar who could sell out arenas across America as quickly as the Rolling Stones or U2.
However, he encountered some cynicism from within the country music establishment.
“With his initial ascent, there was some resentment,” says Peter Cooper, singer, songwriter, producer and author. “But if you do go back and listen to the music now, it is not auto-tuned. It is quite traditional in a lot of ways. Any time someone becomes that popular, there is going to be some resentment. It had to do with jealousy.”
“I would love to say this: back then you would go into a restaurant or bar room and there would be people who would shit-talk Garth. But for everyone who would say anything negative out loud, there was someone else who heard it and would say: ‘When my mom was in the hospital, he paid the bill.’ He is such a generous man. There are many stories of his decency.
Craig Havighurst of WMOT Roots Radio 89.5 FM in Nashville says: “Initially those of us who followed ‘deep country’ music had mixed feelings about Garth and his influence on the industry and the tone of live country shows.”
He adds that in the early 2000s as a reporter for The Tennessean in Nashville, it was easy to tell that songs like ‘Friends in Low Places’ “were well-written and clever and definitely hit material”.
“I also think that while he is a very good singer, he is not George Jones or Alan Jackson and back in the early days that was one of the things we thought: ‘Is this the voice that is going to represent country music?’”
“The rock ’n’ roll presentation and the bombastic stage dynamics were something that we thought was so foreign to the country music concept of intimacy between the performer and audience and the emotional connection. How can that work? But Garth Brooks just won us over.”
“He won the fans over initially but won even us partial sceptics over time because of a sincerity that rivals anyone in country music. I think perhaps for a time it felt like a pose. It felt like feigned sincerity. But over time there is a consistency about him and a returning to the fans, a returning to solid music.
“He won over the cynics by continuing to write new music and work on that live show and give the proverbial 100pc to his audiences.”
It is the same ethos of him signing autographs nonstop for 24 hours at a meet-and-greet in Fan Fair in Nashville in 1996, he says. “I think that was real, and he has shown that kind of commitment in other ways.”
In 1999, Brooks and his wife of 14 years, college sweetheart Sandy Mahl, announced their divorce. They have three daughters, Taylor Mayne Pearl (born 1992), August Anna (1994) and Allie Colleen (1996). In 2000 he retired from music to focus on being a full-time father on his ranch in Oklahoma.
Mahl said in a subsequent interview for the A&E documentary Garth Brooks: The Road I’m On: “He’d be gone eight to 10 weeks at a time. He’d come home [and] there would be number-one parties, or shows, or CMAs, or ACMs, American Music Awards, so it was constantly going. We both grew apart really, really quickly.”
Following his divorce, he started dating country music singer Trisha Yearwood.
In a 2013 interview with Ellen DeGeneres, he said he and Yearwood first met in 1987, and that it had an effect on him. When Kent Blazy, who had introduced the pair, asked Brooks what he thought of her, Brooks replied: “Well, it’s strange, because I felt that feeling like when you just meet your wife, but I’d been married for 13 months.”
In May 2005, he asked Yearwood to marry him before thousands of his fans at the unveiling of a bronze statue of himself at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, California. In December 2005, they married in Oklahoma.
“When he took his break [retirement] there seemed a real sincerity in his intent to be a dad and be a family man with Trisha and to devote himself pretty intensely to his inner world,” says Havighurst “Then he comes back [from retirement in 2009], it’s like he never missed a beat. He took up where he left off with these shows that are gargantuan in scale.”
In the video for the 1990 hit ‘The Dance’, Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral was featured. This was unusual subject matter for country music stars. He took the politics further on his 1992’s gospel-tinged ‘We Shall Be Free’.
“We shall be free,” he sang, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose.” According to the New Yorker magazine, this was “the most famous mention of gay rights in a country song”. A social anthem of inclusion for all in America, ‘We Shall Be Free’ was also one of his least successful singles commercially and one of his least played on country radio in the south.
Country Thang Daily wrote: “Brooks’ message of the song fell on many deaf ears in Nashville, who only listened long enough to be insulted over the song’s defence of gay rights.”
It was not a surprise that Brooks would write a song about tolerance and equality when Betsy Smittle, his sister, who played in his band and died in 2013 at the age of 60, was LGBTQ+ herself and an outspoken advocate for those rights.
Inspired by watching the LA riots following the Rodney King verdict on TV, this was by his own admission the most controversial track Brooks ever released.
Even more controversial, at the Super Bowl in 1993 – between the Buffalo Bills and the Dallas Cowboys – at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, he wanted the video for ‘We Shall Be Free’ (which featured footage of the Ku Klux Klan, bombings, riots, intravenous drug use, cross and flag burning) played before he sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.
NBC felt the clip was too political and disturbing for its family-friendly 110 million viewers. Brooks stood his ground. An hour before kick-off, he left the stadium and would only return if they agreed to air the video. He won. As Taste of Country magazine wrote: “The biggest sports event in America was delayed for the first time in its history to show Brooks’ video.” It was an act of courage.
Brooks has been called everything from country music’s liberal conscience, country’s most famous liberal voice and “too liberal” for country (when ‘We Shall Be Free’ was released), yet it would be difficult to identify his politics.
“I have no idea about his politics or how he votes,” says Cooper. “But I know, like Dolly Parton, he is a fan of people and is against things that would prevent people from being themselves. That comes a lot from his parents. They raised him to be a decent human being.”
“My guess is that he is very careful to be political but not partisan,” says Mansfield. “I don’t think it would be very easy to lock him into a binary choice politically. I don’t think he looks at things in terms of Democrats and Republicans. He has his own view of the world he would like to see. It takes elements from a lot of different elements and that’s the world he is working towards.”
So what is Garth’s appeal to 200 million fans – from North Carolina to North Dublin for Croke Park?
“A lot of his appeal is that you always get value for your money out of Garth,” says Mansfield. “That sounds very commercial. What I mean by that is that he goes to great lengths to make sure that his concert tickets stay affordable. You don’t have something happening with Garth and his tickets that you do with Bruce Springsteen and his tickets,” he says, referring to the fact that some of the tickets for Springsteen’s forthcoming tour in America are on sale for over $4,000.
“There is also that Everyman component to Garth, where people identify with him and the songs he sings and the passion that he brings across in his performance.”
“The songs are so solid,” says Havighurst. “When we think about the catalogue that he can reach into, I’m sure he can play completely different sets over those five nights in Dublin and that is one of the important factors.”
In a 2014 radio interview, Brooks addressed the infamous Jennings comment about him.
“It was tough for me because he was a country legend and for some reason, I was the guy that got the brunt of it. I never took it that personal. I just think he was addressing the different sound in country music and the changing of the guard. That’s tough for anybody to handle. The guy’s a legend and deserves nothing but respect.”
I kind of feel the same way about Brooks after a few days of him, his music and his fans.
Sunday 2am in a bar in downtown Charlotte after the second concert: fans are singing ‘Friends in Low Places’. No one wants to go home. Except me.
In 12 days’ time, 85,000 people in and around Croke Park in ‘lil ol’ Ireland will be belting out that honky tonk classic like they were born in the American South.
Back at the ranch: Why we love Garth
“I first met Garth Brooks when I was recording with Allen Reynolds in 1989 in Nashville. I can remember he came into the studio. He too was recording with Allen. He had just started touring and had recorded ‘Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)’. He was so excited about it.
“I can see him, to this day, standing on the little stairs going up into the control room in the studio. I have watched with great interest and pleasure to see somebody doing so well in his chosen career. Of course, I met him then when he did the Point Theatre in 1994 for all those [eight] nights. It was a super show. And he was just as nice then as he was the first time I met him.”
“He has enough of the cowboy to appeal. Ladies love cowboys, didn’t you know? Okay, he’s not Waylon Jennings, he’s not Willie [Nelson], but still. My favourite song is ‘Friends in Low Places’ because I have lived an interesting life. It will be a hot day in Croke Park in September but maybe I’ll put my boots on for Garth.”
“Garth Brooks was the soundtrack to my childhood. I played his album No Fences until the tape got so thin it tore. Then I bought it on CD and played that until it was scratched. I did line dancing classes in Kelly’s Hotel one summer. I had my thumbs tucked into the belt hooks of my jeans and was grapevining to ‘Friends in Low Places’.
“I’m not sure why my childhood self related so strongly to the honky tonk folky ballads littered with lyrics about marriage breakdowns, midlife crises, beer runs and shuffling off the chains of capitalism so we can be free, but I was hooked.
“Even now there is nothing like a Garth Brooks ballad to get me blaring the radio in the car and singing like I’m trying to communicate with him in real time wherever he is.
“His folksy sound is emotive, but for me it’s also tied to the nostalgia of my childhood. Garth taught me that life and love weren’t gonna be easy, but if I persevered, it’d work out OK.”