In 1990 at Farm Aid IV in Indianapolis, I wanted to interview one of the many little-known acts on the lengthy bill. Anyone, really.
Backstage, I spotted a husky, small-town Oklahoma singer standing alone, his chest still heaving after playing two songs in the sold-out Hoosier Dome.
We shook hands.
He said the gig was by far the biggest one he had ever done. He usually played county fairs and clubs.
Marveling at the event’s enormity, he rattled off names of the lineup’s country and rock stars.
“I’ll be down-to-earth honest with you, pardner,” Garth Brooks continued. “I’m just damn flattered to be here.”
Somewhere between that point and now, Brooks became the second best-selling artist in history.
Only the Beatles have sold more albums.
(Pause to let that sink in.)
Garth has sold more than Michael Jackson.
More than Elvis.
More than Randy Travis, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and George Strait. Combined.
At 34, Garth (only the first name’s necessary) launched a worldwide tour last month to support “Fresh Horses,” his sixth album of original material.
Breaking box office records wherever he goes – Atlanta; Cleveland; Baltimore; Manhattan, Kan. — Garth opens the first of three sold-out shows at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center tonight.
And, yes, he broke a record here, selling 54,000 tickets in less than two hours. (Eric Clapton held the previous record with 18,700 seats sold in the same amount of time.)
“Garth is an event,” says Tom Oakes, operations manager at Q10 6/FM, “not just a concert, an event.”
“There are a number of powerful stars from Reba to Alan Jackson to Brooks & Dunn to George Strait,” he adds, “but Garth is his own part of the universe in country music.”
I offer three reasons:
He’s a natural showman who tore the stuffing out of sedate country concerts.
His music manages to appeal to adult fans of mellow ’70s rock and a larger-than-you’d-think contingent of teenagers.
He’s a savvy marketer with a fanatical need to sell records.
First, the showman part.
A few months after meeting Garth in spring 1990, I saw him perform as an opening act at the Illinois State Fair.
It was a rainy Monday night, causing officials to close the muddy horse racing track between the stage and the permanent seats. Only 2,000 people sat in a dumpy venue suited for seven times that number.
From the start, Garth seemed possessed to entertain, moving around the stage like a rodeo bull.
Upset with the distance between the fans and the stage, he took a cordless mike, stepped into the ankle deep mud and walked across the slop to perform two songs.
The crowd went bonkers.
Before Garth, country acts seemingly performed in straitjackets, the microphone stand usually serving as a life preserver.
In 1991, Garth returned to the Illinois State Fair’s Grandstand as a headliner, setting an attendance record and presenting a bombastic, thrilling show more suited to his ’70s rock heroes, like Kiss and Queen.
Conway Twitty never climbed a 20-foot high stage scaffold to sing a Billy Joel cover as an encore.
Reason two: the music.
His 1989 debut album remains his best work. It includes the fine ballads, “The Dance” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” as well as the sly, Lyle Lovett-ish “Nobody Gets Off in This Town.”
Garth — while occasionally offering a Bic-waving single (“Friends in Low Places,” “Rodeo”) from his repertoire — has slowly slipped since then.
Pandering to commercial demands, Garth is bound by huge sales that have tied him to the middle of the road artistically.
Although radio programmers lick his boots, he’s content to hand them calculated fluff like “She’s Every Woman,” something Dan Fogelberg would find too mushy.
Garth, who co-writes most of his songs, often holds his finger to the wind and records accordingly.
After the Rodney King case, he offered the let’s-join-together “We Shall Be Free”; a year later, he pandered to the redneck crowd with the goofy “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association.”
An Oklahoma State University graduate in advertising, Garth released his first single, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” after several years as a Nashville demo singer.
At the time, the foundation for today’s country boom was set, thanks to Randy Travis’ popularity and radio’s shift from established stars (Merle Haggard, Eddie Rabbitt et al) to new ones.
Garth capitalized on that while attracting listeners — weaned on the Eagles, Journey or James Taylor — who were dissatisfied with the grunge rock storm on rock radio.
(Check out Garth’s cover of “Hard Luck Woman” on the Kiss tribute album, and you’ll hear someone who’s spent more time cruising back roads singing along with Paul Stanley than George Jones.)
At his worst, Garth presents silly tales in big hit songs.
“Papa Loved Mama” describes a woman who drives a truck through her cheating husband’s hotel room (with him in it!); and “That Summer” tells a Playboy-lite story of a teen’s sexual prowess in satisfying an older, sultry farm woman.
He also has inspired a line of watered-down, radio-ready Garths from John Michael Montgomery to Clay Walker.
It’s a shaky legacy.
No. 3: He’s a marketing man.
The last time I met Garth was at an August 1992 press conference in St. Louis, one of eight cities he visited in less than three days to promote his Christmas album.
Although scheduled as a press-only affair, a radio station brought 50 listeners to the event. They approached the question-and-answer session as if speaking to a deity, begging for hugs and reading poems to Garth.
Embarrassed by the adulation – “I hope you never know the real me,” he said softly – Garth didn’t waver from his guy-next-door image.
(Garth’s personal file: He married his college sweetheart, and they have two children, including one girl named Taylor Pearl after James Taylor and Minnie Pearl.)
Throughout his career, Garth has capitalized on every career advantage he could muster: home videos; TV specials; appearances at the Grand Ole Opry when the Opry needed him far more than he needed it; 10-hour autograph sessions at Nashville’s annual Fan Fair; and even a recent guest spot on “Regis and Kathie Lee.”
In 1994, Garth filled a CD with secondary tracks from previous albums, dubbed it “The Garth Brooks Collection” and let McDonald’s sell a few million low-price copies with Big Macs.
Most important, Garth keeps his concert ticket prices affordable to any cash-strapped Wal-Mart worker.
At a time when the Eagles gouge their well-heeled fans for $100 per ticket at Alpine Valley, Garth set his prices low: $17.95 for every seat at the Bradley Center.
In addition, despite the fact he could sell out Camp Randall, Garth opted for the relative intimacy of 18,000-seat arenas with multiple-night stints at each city.
It’s an admirable decision.
You get the feeling he’s still just flattered to be here.