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Garth Brooks: hitting 'em in the heart.

"I like to bypass the listeners' ears and hit 'em in the heart," says Garth Brooks, the hottest thing in country music since pedal steel.

No matter if you've got the only broken seat in the house, nobody sits down at a Garth Brooks concert anyway. As artificial smoke begins to rise on the stage and anticipation hits the boiling point, the crowd is on its feet, girls screaming from their perches on boyfriends' shoulders. A spotlight hits a lone guitar and the roar echoes off the rafters as the star strides onto the stage.

Is this the heartthrob--this pudgy, balding, self-deprecating 30-year-old from Oklahoma? You'd better believe it. By "hitting |em in the heart," a mystique which even he is at a loss to understand, his shows are sell-outs within 20 minutes after the ticket windows open. Brooks has sold more albums faster than anyone in the history of country music. His face has recently graced the covers of Life, Time, and Forbes. Thus to this Nashville phenomenon goes much of the credit for bringing country music into the floodlight of national popularity.

Garth Brooks' sudden success is what happens when you combine energetic rock-'n'-roll showmanship with the poignant lyrics of country music--born of a man who doesn't believe he's good-looking enough just to stand still and sing. He works the stage like a caged animal, pacing nervously, stopping only to share small, intimate details of his life as they relate to the songs he sings. Onstage, he represents nonconformity, escape--helping fans to shed their inhibitions and get in touch with their real feelings--that's what makes him exciting.

Brooks has that ephemeral "star" quality both Elvis and Hank Williams possessed. It has little to do with his voice--hundreds of singers can sing just as well. It has everything to do with heart-to-heart communication, the ability to reach down and touch the soul of an audience.

Which is exactly what he's done. And he's touched their wallets, too. Brooks' album sales of nearly 20 million knocked even Michael Jackson from the top of the charts and outsold rock stars like Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, and U-2, earning the Yukon, Oklahoma, native a plethora of awards, including Billboard's 1991 Top Pop Album Artist. His third album, Ropin' the Wind, made music history by becoming the first album to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's country and pop charts.

The youngest of six children, Brooks was fed a steady diet of music by his parents. His mother, Colleen Carroll, had been signed to Capitol Records in the '50s and performed regularly on Red Foley's Ozark Mountain Jubilee. ("One time Jackie Gleason even sang background," Garth boasts.) His father plays guitar, and an older sister worked with recording artist Gus Hardin. Brooks learned to play guitar at 17 and by 20, was playing paying gigs, but during high school and college, music took a backseat to sports. He attended Oklahoma State University on a track scholarship, played in honky tonks on weekends, and focused on music only when he failed to make the Big Eight Conference finals his senior year.

Brooks hit Nashville in 1985, convinced he could be a star, but left 23 hours later, discouraged, after meeting an indifferent music industry face-to-face. "I thought the world was waiting for me," he says, "but there's nothing colder than reality." Two years later, even more determined, he returned, this time with a college degree in advertising; his new bride, Sandy (the girl he'd left behind in '85); and a band called Santa Fe, a regional group he'd played with at OSU. "It was fun for the first month, living with your dreams," he recalls, "but once again reality rang the doorbell. It just fell apart right in front of our eyes."

The band disintegrated, but gradually Garth's solo career began to take shape. In between his shifts at the boot store where Sandy also worked, he started singing songwriter demos and writing songs. He got his big break when Capitol Nashville executives heard him perform at a Nashville Entertainment Association showcase and inked a recording contract.

You'd think a man like this would be confident, maybe even arrogant, since he accomplished all this in a mere two years. Not Brooks. "Just for the record," he says, with a penetrating look, "I don't think I'm at the top. The top is reserved for people that aren't me; I like being the underdog."

There are two sides to Garth Brooks, and both are public. Sometimes he's manic, unpredictable, the ultimate showman--even his band doesn't know what he'll do next. Grab a rope and swing out over the audience? Spray his guitar player with string-in-a-can? Smash a guitar? But he's also tender, vulnerable, real--and that's what pulls his audience in closer; because he lives his songs, his listeners do, too. It's OK to laugh during a Garth Brooks concert; it's also OK to cry.

"He's like yin and yang," says syndicated music critic Robert K. Oermann. "Anytime you've got somebody who can melt your heart with a ballad, then turn around and dazzle people onstage, you've got a star. The does both--he's a sensitive poet and the wild showman--that's the combination that touches people. He's everyman; he's a people's artist, an everyday guy who made it."

Brooks is compulsive about his career, explaining, "The only time I know I'm really alive and doing something in God's great earth is when I'm in between those speakers and the lights are up and the music is loud. I never want to get down; I never want to get off the stage."

He's so driven, in fact, that he's carefully tucked all of his awards in the basement closet of his Nashville home, fearful he'll get complacent if he sees them every day. It will be hard enough to sustain his current level of success, he points out.

To what does he attribute his mass appeal? "I don't have a clue," Brooks says, slowly shaking his head. "It's a cool thing to look out and see as many men as you do women; it makes you feel like they're not here for the shell. Could it be that they're here for the music? And that's when everything inside of me clicks--I can't believe somebody's here for what it's actually all about."

But it is the music his audience comes for. Showmanship is wonderful, but you can't hum it on the way home. Garth and producer Allen Reynolds (also known for his work with Kathy Mattea) are widely respected in the music industry for their stellar song selection. "It has to mean something to me," Brooks says. "I would rather have one song that was from the heart than 80 songs that were clever and went to No. 1 on the charts. If I get a song that I feel is on a parallel from my heart to yours, instead of coming from my mouth to your ears," he says, "then I think I've got something."

"I felt that way from day one with "If Tomorrow Never Comes" and "Much Too Young To Feel This convey a feeling that people can relate to--that's important to me. I got a letter from a lady in Texas that said, 'I followed you three nights in a row throughout Texas and heard "If Tomorrow Never Comes" every night but never heard it until I went out and bought the tape. This past week my father passed away; now I know what the song is saying. Keep up the good work, good luck--I've got to go now 'cause I've got to tell some people that I love 'em.' When you read things like that, that's when you look back and say, |The first trip to Nashville was worth it.' All the heartaches I have suffered because I have chosen music over other things is worth it."

His "hands down" favorite is "The Dance," from his first album. "When I'm listening to the album, I still push repeat and play it seven or eight times, just like I did the very first time I ever heard it. It just doesn't wear or bum out for me." It's the one he wants people to remember him by. "If I had to trade one yesterday so I could have one more tomorrow, I don't think I'd do it," he says pensively. He may change his mind about that statement in July, however--that's when the couple's first child, Taylor Mayne, will be born.

Brooks readily confesses that despite his dynamic onstage persona, he loves to be "babied" by Sandy off stage. Nevertheless, he took months off the road to stay with her, take care of her and "be a husband," not an easy task since she was under "threatened miscarriage" during much of the pregnancy. Although instant fame hasn't been easy on the couple, they've survived the tough times and forged a strong bond. "When the label and management asked us to pull back from publicity," he says, "we pulled back and found that inside our house, it was just me and her. I introduced myself to her and she introduced me to one of the neatest people I've ever met--I've been living with her for six years and didn't know her."

And one of the reasons all those music awards are hidden away under the basement stairs is that, "Our house is a house for loving, for fighting and making up, for learning, for screaming at each other, for laughing--it's not a house for music. Music has given us the house, music has given us the food to eat, but that house is for Sandy and me as a family."

This quiet time (interrupted by a few interviews and multiple recording sessions--he's been working on two albums) has been a reflective time; he realizes he'll have to make major changes in his life after the baby arrives. "I've always had a wife who understood the big weight I put on music, but a child will not and I understand that. Out of all the things I remember as a kid, it was the attention--to know that someone was interested in what I was doing."

Will he handle child rearing responsibilities differently from his parents? "You know I really wouldn't," he says. "There's things that I should do differently, but to tell you the truth, if I was in their shoes and my son was looking at me saying, |I really don't want to go to college, I want to play music,' I'm going to take the kid by the hair and try to throw him through a wall and tell him, |No. You get your college degree, then go start your music,' the same way my parents told me." That's probably why he's so tickled their firstborn will be a girl. "I think I'd probably be too hard on a boy," he confides.

What does the future hold for Brooks? Will he be able to sustain his success? Adjust to fatherhood? He shrugs and says, "I'll just have to look at it as the next phase of where Garth Brooks is going."
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McGraw, Marjie
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Embrace the Serpent.
Next Article:The voice in the earphones.

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