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Humble in the Saddle : Country’s Hottest New Star, Garth Brooks, Is Just a Cowboy at Heart

<i> Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Garth Brooks isn’t immune to bad luck, after all.

Riding a tour bus from Nashville to California last week, Brooks had to spend the two-day trek sleeping off a virus.

“I think I was just plain tired and worn out,” Brooks, the country singer whose career has gone from a brisk simmer to a furious boil over the past few months, said in a phone interview after disembarking for a concert date in Sacramento. “There’s been a lot of stuff to do. I’m not complainin’.”

Given his run of good fortune over the past two years, the husky, cowboy-hatted, 28-year-old Oklahoman doesn’t have much to complain about.

His 1989 debut album, “Garth Brooks,” was a big success, yielding four hit singles on the country charts. Then, with the release of the follow-up, “No Fences,” last August, Brooks became a phenomenon. The album went where few country albums have gone--into the upper reaches of the pop charts. Brooks has achieved a coveted “crossover” breakthrough, in which a performer from a specialized genre like country becomes a mass commodity.

“No Fences” recently peaked at Number 11 on the Billboard pop charts, a position exceeded in the ‘80s only by two of country’s biggest commercial juggernauts, Kenny Rogers and Alabama. As of this week, Brooks was still number one on the country albums chart, and his new single, “Unanswered Prayers,” was moving upward in a bid to become his fifth consecutive Number 1 country single.

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Consequently, Brooks has been in demand and on the run. The past few weeks have brought a round of national TV appearances and a flight to England to meet the press and lay the groundwork for an upcoming British concert tour. Brooks and his wife, Sandy, got back from England just in time to spend their Thanksgiving morning riding a float down Broadway in the annual Macy’s parade.

“We rode the turkey that day, with the moving wings and the flashing eyes,” said Brooks. “It’s the same one I’d seen all my life. I always used to get up real early and watch the parade.”

With all that activity, it’s not surprising that Brooks got a little worn down. He is looking forward to the Christmas season, which will bring his first extended vacation--a month off the road--since the middle of last year. First he will play a series of West Coast concerts, including two sold-out nights at the Crazy Horse Steak House that figure to be his last club dates for a while to come (Brooks is playing the shows as makeup dates for performances he had to cancel at the Crazy Horse about a year ago).

At this point, even Brooks sounds a little amazed by his good-luck streak. The way things are going, he mused, if a truck hit him and knocked him through a hole in the ground, he’d probably come to and find himself sprawled on a cask of buried and forgotten treasure.

Brooks is effusively thankful for all this good luck, and unswervingly humble about his rise.

When he rubbed elbows earlier this year with the likes of Muhammad Ali at a charity event billed as “Night of 100 Stars,” Brooks recalled, it was really “99 stars . . . and me.”

“It’s a lot easier to cash my checks at the grocery store now,” he said. “But as far as being a star, that’s pretty much a four-letter word in my book. I’m just a guy who plays country music and happens to love what he does.”

Ask Brooks to account for his rising fortunes, and he just rolls the credits. “The people around me have worked very hard,” he begins, then starts listing his managers, his record company, his band, his record producer, his wife, and don’t forget the good Lord. “I ain’t worth a flip in upholdin’ (religious observance), but I do know without him, I’m nothing.”’

Told that fans had lined up for hours last month to buy tickets for his four Crazy Horse shows, Brooks was characteristically appreciative. “It just makes your heart (swell) up,” he said. “You don’t know why it’s happening, but you’re sure glad it is.”

Brooks was only a contender, not a phenomenon, when he first played Orange County last April in a show at the Celebrity Theatre. Only about half a house turned up for the double-bill in which Brooks opened for the better-established Holly Dunn.

But by the time Brooks had finished his set, it wasn’t hard to tell, as Stephen Stills once put it, that there was something happenin’ here. Something about him truly got through to the audience, which awarded him repeated, rapturous ovations--the sort of endorsement usually reserved for established stars, and then maybe only on an unusually good night.

Brooks’ humble and sincere persona was in full effect, and it must have helped endear him to the audience. “Wow, this is neat, man,” he gee-whizzed after winning a long ovation for his sentimental, old-West hero’s tale, “Cowboy Bill.” After another ovation, he suggested that maybe he should quit while he was ahead. Brooks let everyone know how appreciative he was: “It’s a great gift you’ve given me. Thank you very much.” And then, borrowing not one, but two famous hyper-sentimental exit lines (Lou Gehrig’s and Tiny Tim’s), Brooks walked off after telling the audience, “You’re lookin’ at the luckiest man in the world. God bless us all.”

The ability to seem sincere while mouthing hokey nostrums obviously plays in Brooks’ favor. Country fans do like their heroes to be regular folks who embody homespun virtues (although embodying all-too-human vices doesn’t hurt, either). Brooks and his advisers also have shown a savvy understanding of the audience by stocking his two albums with songs that honor some of the deeply held myths and credos of country music.

Cowboys figure prominently in Brooks’ repertoire--and if that’s not country, what is? “Cowboy Bill” is an ode to a once-heroic Texas Ranger, now old and forgotten. Each of the two albums also has a song about a rodeo cowboy paying an emotional price for staying on the competitive circuit.

“I think country music and I owe the cowboy something,” Brooks said. “Every album I’ve got will have at least one cowboy song on it. The cowboy is very real and very right in his passion to hold onto something that just doesn’t make money anymore.”

Brooks said he felt that most recent song portrayals of cowboys weren’t according them their proper stature. “The actual authenticness of a cowboy had slipped. It seemed every song you heard about cowboys was (set in) west Texas dance halls with sawdust floors and Stetson hats.” Brooks’ songs put the cowboy back on the rodeo circuit, or on the range.

Being a country fan, like being a fan of punk rock or rap or heavy metal, is often a social statement as well as a musical choice. Two songs from “No Fences” speak, at least indirectly, to a working-class pride, and an economic insecurity, with which many country fans might well identify. “Wolves” uses a range metaphor--wolves preying on a cowpoke’s herd--to evoke the broader theme of foreboding in the face of sinister economic forces. The barroom drinking ballad “Friends in Low Places” has an undercurrent of class resentment in it. Its protagonist gives the kiss-off to an old girlfriend, saying he prefers the lowdown company he finds in his favorite gin mill to the high-society circles in which she prefers to move. He does it by showing up uninvited to a fancy reception for the ex and her new beau.

Blame it all on my roots/I showed up in boots/And ruined your black-tie affair ,” he begins, before toasting her ironically, unhinging the new fellow, and retreating to drink off his sorrows with his fellow honky-tonk denizens--his “friends in low places.”

The jaunty, humorous sing-along chorus probably had a lot to do with the song being a recent hit, but many country fans probably drew some satisfaction from its opposition between salt of the earth “us” and phony, fancy-pants “them.”

The key, said Brooks, is “relatin’ to the people.” A song like “Friends in Low Places” hits home, he said, because “everybody has wanted to tell an old ex to kiss off.” He downplayed the class-conflict appeal, though. “I don’t know if they want to see (the upper crust be shown up), or the opposite: they want to see the underdog pull it off.”

Brooks also has succeeded with wistful, sensitive ballads that become comforting little homilies about life and love. In “Unanswered Prayers,” his current single, he praises divine providence for not giving him the first girl of his dreams--because he ultimately wound up with someone much better. “The Dance” speaks of the need to accept life’s aches equally with its high points. “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” Brooks’ first number one country hit, echoes the central theme of the hit film, “Ghost” (which Brooks said he has not seen). The song’s narrator, feeling intimations of his own mortality, wonders whether he has adequately expressed his love for his wife:

If tomorrow never comes

Will she know how much I loved her . . . .

And if my time on earth were through,

And she must face the world without me,

Is the love I gave her in the past,

Gonna be enough to last,

If tomorrow never comes.

Brooks grew up the youngest of six children in Yukon, Okla., where his father worked as a draftsman in the oil industry. “I was just an average kid in an average neighborhood in the middle of Oklahoma,” Brooks said. His mother had been a country singer, recording briefly for Capitol Records in the 1950s as Colleen Carroll. “She was the one who tried to keep me from (a singing career),” he said. “She got a bad taste of the business when she was in it.”

Brooks started playing the guitar as a hobby while he was earning his advertising degree from Oklahoma State. In 1985, the year after he graduated, he decided to try his luck in Nashville.

He went with high expectations and the name of a single contact in the music industry. Brooks said it took one meeting with this would-be mentor to dash his dreams of quick stardom.

“He told me how it was. He told me I could starve” in Nashville’s competitive scramble. “The last thing I wanted to hear was how it was. I wanted to hear some lies. I got scared to death, and I headed back home.” Brooks said his first assault on Nashville lasted precisely 23 hours before he beat his retreat.

“I went and hid out at my folks’ house for a couple of weeks. Then I went back with my tail between my legs” and asked to be rehired at the club in Stillwater where he had been singing and the sporting goods store where he had his day job.

Two years later, Brooks returned to Nashville, this time without illusions about easy success but with the confidence to compete. The big difference, he said, was being married. (Brooks met his wife while he was working as a nightclub bouncer. Summoned to look in on a little altercation in the women’s room, he found that the woman he would later marry had punched a hole in the wall and gotten her fist stuck.)

Marriage “meant commitment,” Brooks said. “I’d never committed to anything in my life. When I got married, I realized commitment was a good thing. Whatever it takes, Sandy and I are going to be there.”

Brooks said he auditioned for all the big labels and was turned down. But executives from Capitol Records got a second look at him at a club showcase for aspiring singers. “The guy who was supposed to go on second didn’t show up,” and Brooks was summoned as a last-minute substitute. It was the start of his good luck streak--his performance prompted Capitol to reconsider and sign him.

There has been one downside to the subsequent burgeoning of his career, Brooks said: the round of constant touring has taken a toll on his songwriting.

“It’s not going too well for me,” he said. “The last thing I wrote was ‘Unanswered Prayers,’ which was 14 months ago. I’m getting in a dry spell out on the road.”

Brooks wrote or co-wrote five of the 10 songs on his first album; on “No Fences,” he shares writing credits on four songs. He said he would try to get back into his old writing regimen during his month off for the holidays.

If Brooks needs a prod to keep pushing as a songwriter and performer, he has one in the form of Clint Black. The two singers have risen simultaneously to become the dominant new faces in country music. Black recently won out over Brooks when the Country Music Assn. named him the best male singer, but Brooks led the field with five nominations and two trophies--the Horizon Award, for career advancement, and best video, “The Dance.”

Black has written or co-written everything on his two albums, while Brooks has relied on outside writers for about half his material. He doesn’t concede an advantage to Black, however. Without directly criticizing Black’s songwriting, Brooks questioned whether writing all the songs on an album is the best policy.

“To say that someone could write all 10 of their songs and have the best album they could possibly find, I don’t think it can be said. " If Black is interested in making a statement that only he can express, “he should stick to his 10 songs,” Brooks said. “Me, I like to get out there and be somebody else.”

Brooks said he isn’t bothered by the prospect of vying with Black at every turn as their careers go forward. “It sure as hell can’t hurt. The best things come out of competition.”

Who: Garth Brooks.

When: Monday, Dec. 10, and Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Where: Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana.

Whereabouts: Take the Costa Mesa Freeway to the Dyer Road exit. Go right on Grand Avenue, then take the first right, Brookhollow Drive.

Wherewithal: $26.50. All shows are SOLD OUT.

Where to call: (714) 549-1512.


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