Originally published in the March 23, 1999 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Lynn Shults didn’t expect lightning to strike when he walked into Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe in 1988.
After all, the featured singer was a youngster the Capitol Records executive had turned down just a month earlier.
But the nervous Garth Brooks who flunked that office audition was transformed from the moment he stepped onstage. “The bells and whistles went off,” says Shults. “It was a magical moment.”
The executive offered Garth a second chance — and ignited an explosive career that’s rewritten the history of country music in the decade since Garth’s first single, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)”, debuted on March 25, 1989.
“Garth was exceptional,” says Schults. “His vocal performance and magnetism of his personality connected with people who didn’t even know who Garth Brooks was.”
But it took a while for the magic to catch on. The song debuted at No. 94 that week behind some fierce competition ‑‑ including Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley and Clint Black.
But Garth didn’t mind. “That put us as an underdog,” he said, “which is exactly where I like to be, because the element of surprise is yours.”
Sure enough he caught everyone off guard. “Much Too Young” reached No. 8. Its followup, “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” streaked to the top of the charts, and Garth sold 250,000 records in his first seven months.
He opened concerts for his hero Chris Ledoux, who he had mentioned by name in “Much Too Young.” The experience inspired him to pull out all the stops in his own show.
“Chris comes out blowing out with a smoking organ, and the crowd went nuts!” Garth recalls. “He’s like a rocker with a cowboy hat on.
“I looked at my band right there and said, ‘There it is. There’s our show.’ It told me country music and a wild show can go together. From that point, it was just a matter of having the guts to do it myself.”
Now it’s Chris’ turn to admire the man he inspired. “You never know what to expect from Garth when he hits that stage,” says the bull rider-turned-singer. “He expends so much energy during his shows I expect one night that spontaneous combustion will get him. He’ll simply explode — boom!
“I know Garth credits my stage performance for inspiring his stage show. But now that he’s taken live performance to an entirely new level, I’m borrowing a few ideas from him. Hey, turnabout is fair play!”
But Garth offered more than an amazing show. His moving ballad, “The Dance,” turned him into a phenomenon. The video’s message about heroes like John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., John Wayne, the Challenger crew and rodeo rider Lane Frost deeply impacted fans.
“He took a song with very simple lyrics,” says Garth’s college pal and bandmate Ty England, “and made that song mean the whole world to people. That definitely changed my outlook on what music can be and how it can affect people so profoundly.”
Kent Blazy, who wrote “If Tomorrow Never Comes” with Garth, says, “He’s got a better instinct and vision than just about anybody I’ve come across. And he had that before he had a record deal.
“He was just very secure in who he was and what he was trying to do. When we wrote ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes,’ the man was probably 25 years old. He had a depth and wisdom far beyond his years.”
He also had a red-hot career. In August 1990 his second album, No Fences, was released. Its first single, “Friends in Low Places,” showed Garth’s party-hearty side. Within nine weeks, the collection had gone platinum.
In October, he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and by the following spring he won an unbelievable six ACM awards.
Garth was also breaking new ground. In his video for “The Thunder Rolls,” he played an abusive husband who’s gunned down by his wife. CMT refused to air it.
“This video is a side of real life that people don’t really want to see,” explained Garth. “I refuse to do a video that is just ordinary. It wastes the viewer’s time and mine and the label’s money. I simply refuse to make a no-brainer video.”
Onstage Garth was in a class by himself. He climbed ladders and swung over the audience on a rope. There was smoke, fire, water and all kinds of special effects.
“I try to approach all these shows like I’m going to entertain the guy who’s bought the worst seat in the house,” he says. “I want to do the best job I can for the couple in the nosebleed section — then I know those lucky people down front have gotten their money’s worth too.”
Garth also endeared himself to fans by keeping his ticket prices under $20. “The people come first. They always do,” he says. “It’s kind of like the Wal*Mart theory: Price it at the lower end of everyone else’s price, and hopefully twice as many people will come out. It’s kind of a gamble, but for the most part it works.”
When Ropin’ the Wind was released in September 1991, it quickly sold more than 4 million copies. It included a version of Billy Joel’s pop hit “Shameless.” A year later he landed his first TV special, This Is Garth Brooks, which was a top 10-rated show for the week. And the praises rolled in.
Rolling Stone‘s headline screamed, “With Garth Brooks Leading the Way, Nashville Is Booming.” Entertainment Weekly said, “Garth Brooks is the hugest pop phenomenon in several years.”
Despite the attention from the pop world, Garth was country to the core.
“I don’t want us to court pop radio,” he insisted. “I am a representative of country music.”
Even at that early date, Garth shared his success with other country artists. “Garth took a big risk when he asked me to open his shows in 1991,” says Trisha Yearwood. “He had never even seen me perform live before! I will always be grateful to him for giving me that incredible opportunity.”
Garth offered Martina McBride her own incredible opportunity in 1992. “He knew I was in the middle of making an album,” she says. “And he asked me, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like you to open my shows next year.’
“I was shocked and amazed. I felt the pressure of being a virtual unknown opening for Garth Brooks. It pushed me to really dive in and make it work.”
No one could match Garth’s numbers. His Christmas album, Beyond the Season, was released August 1992, and sold 3 million copies. He followed it with The Chase in September — another 8 million. In Pieces was next in August 1993, also clocking in at 8 million.
In October 1994, Garth decided to take a break from touring to spend more time with his wife Sandy and their growing family.
He wrapped up “phase one” in his career with The Hits in December. Fans snapped up 10 million copies. The following year, he released Fresh Horses — it sold 4 million within six months of its release.
When he finally returned to the road in 1996, he did so with vengeance.
“I want the show to be better than ever and out there on the cutting edge of technology,” he declared. “I want to demonstrate country can be as high tech and advanced as any other type of music.”
Garth was the hottest ticket in town. He sold out every show in 1997, and his concert in Central Park in August drew an estimated 250,000.
“It’s just a personal challenge,” he said of the New York extravaganza. “The goal is to represent country music and our music as well as Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel represented theirs.”
One thing’s for sure: As long as Garth keeps making music, no sales record is safe. When Sevens came out in 1997, it sold 897,000 copies in its first week. Fans bought 2 million copies of his 1998 boxed set, The Limited Series. It contained six CDs, so sales were certified at 12 million. Add to that another 12 million with sales of his Garth Brooks: Double Live album.
And Garth says he’d like to sell 100 million records by the year 2000.
Still wealth has never been the point for Garth. “I’m not a big fan of money, never have been,” he says. “Money’s cool and it’s nice to have, and it’s nice to know your children’s college is taken care of.
“But I don’t think for anybody in music it’s a driving force, because there’s no money on the front end of this business. So you get into it for the love of the whole thing.”
Those who know him say he’s never satisfied.
“He’s a very competitive person,” says his older brother Kelly. “That goes hand in hand with his music. He’s always wanted to try to do the best he can. It’s nothing to do with others, it’s just a competition with himself.”
“There’s no great secret to Garth’s fame,” says former Oklahoma bandmate Matt O’Meilia, who wrote a 1997 book about the superstar’s early days. “He works hard. He is a driven man.
“I’ve never known anyone in any walk of life who was so completely hell-bent on making it to the top. That’s why few who know him were surprised Garth entered the spotlight.”
Whatever his reasons, there’s no doubt that country music is better off because of Garth. Says Chris LeDoux, “I can’t say enough good about him or what he’s done for country music and the fans out there. He really reached out and touched people.”
Tim McGraw adds, “Garth knocked down a bunch of doors for guys like me who can do the kinds of records we’re doing and the kinds of shows we’re doing. He’s done big things for all of us in country music.”
What’s next for Garth? He’s writing screenplays and is producing a thriller called The Lamb.
“That will be very different for me,” says Garth, who hasn’t decided if he’ll play the lead role himself. “The character is a rock-pop artist — kind of an alternative-meets-the-Beatles kind of thing.”
Then there’s baseball. Garth has been spending spring training in Arizona with the San Diego Padres and donating his salary to his kids’ charity, Touch ‘Em All.
“I’m living out my dream and helping children at the same time,” he says.
After an amazing decade, Garth’s philosophical about his future in country music.
“You’ve got to remember that I’m the last guy who wants to see it over for Garth Brooks,” he says. “But it’s not up to me. When the people are through with me, then it’s over.
“There’s nothing I can do to make it last one day longer. Maybe that’s why I have all that energy onstage. Maybe I’m just trying to make sure there’s one more day.
“I have always done this simply because I thought that’s what I was here to do.”