Garth Brooks

Music's living legend

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By Matt Ashare  

The year was 1991 and the American popular culture landscape was about to be turned upside down by the triumph of a new force in music. This change was embodied by a young man who wasn't from New York, L.A., Chicago or any other major metropolitan center. But his impact would be felt in all of those places as his songs flooded the airwaves and his second album shot to the top of the charts. 

People in New York, L.A. and Chicago would even start dressing like him, as his success signaled one of music's periodic mini-revolutions, an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new coup of sorts. If you're part of the loud minority of American music consumers who made up the Alternative Nation demographic in the early-to mid-'90s, then Kurt Cobain, the singer/guitarist of Seattle's Nirvana is probably the first person who comes to mind. But a far bigger commercial and cultural triumph was achieved that very same year by a man whose name became even more familiar beginning in 1991: Garth Brooks.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on February 7, 1962, Brooks first arrived in Nashville in 1985, where an ASCAP vice president famously discouraged the 23-year-old from pursuing a career in music and sent him packing back to Tulsa. He returned in '87 with a band and a demo that was promptly rejected by all of the seven major country labels. But, as luck would have it, a Capitol Records executive managed to catch a live solo set by Brooks in 1988, and was impressed enough to offer the young singer a recording contract.

Garth Brooks, with its cover photo of a young, stern-looking Garth in a big, brown cowboy hat, was released by Capitol in April of the following year with a minimum of hype. It would be the first and last time that a Garth Brooks CD would arrive in such a modest manner, thanks to instant classics like the rootsy, fiddle- and steel guitar-laced rodeo-tale "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" penned by Brooks and Randy Taylor, the bittersweet ballad "If Tomorrow Never Comes" also co-written by Brooks and, especially, "The Dance."  Brooks spun the latter tune, written by Tony Arata, into pure gold with his resonant melancholy vocal delivery and a country pop arrangement that transcended genre and crossed demographic frontiers to make Brooks the best-selling country artist of the '80s.

As strong as Garth Brooks was, it only hinted at what was to come. While a crop of new alternative rock bands who had recently signed to major labels (Nirvana and Pearl Jam among them) worried about how they might maintain their underground credibility in the face of a mainstream success, Brooks aimed to reach an even larger audience than the eight million who had purchased his debut. He met with unqualified success as the world greeted his second album, No Fences, with open arms, and country audiences embraced another instant Garth classic, the honky-tonk styled anthem "Friends In Low Places."

No Fences also gave Brooks his first opportunity to generate public controversy - something he's since become somewhat notorious for - with a $130,000 video for the disc's opening cut, the heavy-handed though completely effective and affecting tragedy, "The Thunder Rolls."  In the song, a dark and moody roots rocker with an ominously slow beat and the sound of thunder rolling dramatically in the background for emphasis, a man, smelling of another woman's perfume, returns home to his wife - and it's left to the listener's imagination to figure out what transpires next.  But in the video, the husband, played by Brooks, cheats on and beats his wife until, in the final scene, she exacts her revenge by shooting him dead. The CMT and TNN networks both banned the video, and a media circus, with Garth at its center, quickly ensued, bolstering Brooks' status as a household name.

No Fences went on to sell over 13 million copies, making it the top-selling country music album of all time and making it the tenth highest-selling album in any category of all time. It also went a long way towards establishing Brooks as not only the new king of country, but of all of pop music. 

Boston-based Matt Ashare is a music journalist and former music editor of the Boston Phoenix.