The fastest-selling solo artist in music history, Garth Brooks sold in excess of 100 million albums in just ten years, now topping 105 million. His body of work propelled country music as a genre to the front pages of newspapers worldwide and the covers of magazines, to the point where Forbes declared on its cover, "Country Conquers Rock." And, he accomplished it without courting pop radio. Garth’s attitude was – let the pop audiences come to country.
Assessing his career, the UK’s Country Music International determined that, “Garth Brooks has taken country music further than any other performer. He has reached the widest possible audience, gained phenomenal success, yet still retained the basic ingredients of country music. There is no compromise.”
It has been said that through the 1990s Garth's only real competition was himself. He brought daring individualism and a love of music, ranging from working class blues and honky tonk to bluegrass and arena rock, to the musical table. And he had the talent to serve it up tastily. His easy-going, approachable charisma was matched only by his fearless willingness to take chances and step outside the lines. He has had an unprecedented run so far, and opened the doors for many more country artists to follow.
The youngest of six children, Garth was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on February 7, 1962. Four years later the Brooks family moved to Yukon, where his father Troyal, a former Marine, worked as a draftsman in the oil industry. His mother, the former Colleen Carroll, recorded for Capitol Records in the mid-1950s and performed with Red Foley on the Ozark Jubilee. But Colleen wasn’t Garth’s only musical inspiration around the house. His father played guitar, teaching Garth his first chords, while his sister Betsy “…could play anything with strings or keys.”
Musical influences at the Brooks home were wide ranging. Troyal and Colleen loved country artists like Merle Haggard and George Jones. Garth’s siblings had tastes that stretched from Janis Joplin and Townes Van Zandt to Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Boston and Journey. Garth listened to it all, especially drawn to singer/songwriters like James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg.
The Brooks household was fertile ground for creativity and spontaneity backed by a steady sense of reality. Colleen, known as “the happy child” while she was growing up, fostered a confident, free-spiritedness in her children. “Mom wasn’t above telling little white lies to make her children feel good,” Garth has laughed. “Once when I messed up in football, she told me that the guy sitting next to her in the bleachers was yelling for the coach to send me back in. Later I found out she invented the story just to make me feel better.” Troyal was the realist in the family, mindful of the importance of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” in life. The combination of those character traits developed on Yukon Avenue proved invaluable to Garth’s professional life. He became a risk-taker, willing to put everything on the line to make a better recording, a more exciting performance. Yet he paid careful attention to his career, his business dealings and his employees.
In high school Garth was more interested in sports than music, playing football, baseball, track and field for the Yukon Millers. But by the time he started college at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, he was beginning to pick and sing, jamming with friends in Iba Hall, the athletic dorm where he lived. Although he was attending college on a partial athletic scholarship (javelin), and majoring in advertising, Garth was becoming more and more interested in music as a career.
By 1983 Garth was playing gigs around Stillwater and picking up some extra money as a bouncer in local clubs. After graduating from OSU in December of 1984, he opted to make the move to Nashville. Colleen Brooks was not thrilled about his decision. “Mom had seen the bad side of the business, when management wasn’t professional,” Garth recalled. “She pretty much saw the ditches of music. So she prepared me for all that, which was great. I didn’t come in here with a sun-shiny face thinking everything was going to be rosy.”
The first trip to Nashville was anything but rosy, and Garth returned to Oklahoma within 23 hours. He continued playing the Oklahoma club circuit, married his college girlfriend, Sandy Mahl, in 1986, and returned to Music City the following year with renewed determination. Right away he began meeting and working with songwriters around town. One of them introduced him to ASCAP’s Bob Doyle, a respected song man known as a friend to writers. Bob was so impressed with the Oklahoman that he quit his job and took on management duties. And when talent agent Joe Harris heard Garth sing, he broke company policy and started booking the still-unsigned artist together with the band he’d put together, appropriately named Stillwater. Garth took the business seriously, playing any gig Joe Harris could book, and giving his all whether it was a crowd of 30 or 300.
It was by chance that Capitol Records’ A&R man Lynn Shults heard Garth sing “If Tomorrow Never Comes” at a writer showcase at Nashville’s Bluebird Café. Although Capitol had once turned down Garth, Shults offered him a record deal on the spot. The label set up a meeting with producer Allen Reynolds (Don Williams, Crystal Gayle), and the two began the process of making an album.
Released on April 12, 1989, Garth Brooks contained four hit singles including "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)," "If Tomorrow Never Comes," "Not Counting You" and Garth's signature song, "The Dance." This debut recording went on to become the biggest-selling country album of the 1980s.
Garth’s live show got an early buzz on the tour circuit. On August 10, 1989, Garth and Stillwater played a show at Tulsa City Limits. John Wooley, music critic at the Tulsa World, wrote: “After seeing what he can do in concert, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Brooks, showman and talent that he is, is going to be country music’s next big thing.”