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GARTH BROOKS: Ropin’ His Way to the Top

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Singer Garth Brooks has achieved what most music-industry executives, even those at his own record company, wouldn’t have dreamed possible 18 months ago.

Not only has he become the biggest-selling artist in country music today, but his latest album “Ropin’ the Wind,” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart in September--the first time ever by a country artist.

The soft-spoken 34-year-old from Oklahoma, who spent more time in his youth playing football and listening to Elton John and James Taylor than emulating Hank Williams or Merle Haggard, takes the next big step of his career with his first network TV special “This is Garth Brooks,” Friday on NBC. Brooks talked to Times Staff Writer Randy Lewis about the show, and his rapid rise to the top.

What’s the format of your special?

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It’s 90% live footage, from a show at the Reunion Arena in Dallas in September. The other 10% is Garth on Garth--what I believe as far as musically, and it might even go outside the bounds of music. There won’t be any special guests.

Why the heavy emphasis on the concert footage?

The one thing that separates people who believe in us and people who don’t get it is that the people who believe usually have seen the live show. ... It’s not like making records, where it’s just Garth Brooks. We’ve got six, sometimes seven people, sometimes 14 or 15 people on stage when the crew gets involved. ...

(Besides,) my crowd steals the show. If you’ve ever been to a Garth Brooks show, you know there are times I can walk offstage and the audience would never know it. They’re raising hell, having fun. ... They’re crazy--that’s what I like about our crowds.

Speaking of the people who get it and those who don’t--do you get it? Why has Garth Brooks achieved this phenomenal popularity over so many other country contenders?

Man, nobody’s ever asked me that question before. No, I guess I don’t get it. I know who I am, and who I continue to be. It’s kinda weird. I’m not who I look up to. I’m not one-tenth of the people I look up to. It’s difficult to understand why the hell this thing is happening ike it is.

Who are the people you look up to?

James Taylor, Billy Joel, Elton John and some groups that have long since parted, like Kansas and Boston, and I’m still looking up to Dan Fogelberg. George Strait and George Jones are my anchors in country music.

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In some interviews you come across as a serious, almost somber guy, but on stage you’re quite the extrovert. Which is the “real” Garth Brooks?

People who know me know there are two different Garths: the one you see on stage and the guy I am 90% of time. And they are totally different people.

Some of the things the guy does on stage are created by the other guy, but a lot of the things I do on stage I wouldn’t have the guts to do when I’m off stage.

There’s a real high being on stage; it’s like an added protein or a pill you take.

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In the Dallas shoot, for instance, there was something I was so glad we captured: There was a cable of some kind hanging off the back of the stage and below it was a 14-foot drop. In the middle of the show, I just leaped for it, swung out over the crowd, then it brought me back to the stage, just like it was planned. I was really lucky. It felt so good, but I never would have done that without having the pump I’m getting from the people.

You seem fascinated with your ability to control the mood of your crowds. As your popularity continues to rise, does that kind of power make you nervous at all?

It gets scary, but to tell you the truth, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say this, it’s a cool feeling when you’re scared. We were doing a show in Tucson, and the crowd had torn through the security line, and people were jumping off the stage and I thought, “With one more twist, this place could erupt.” But you have to have a responsibility to the crowd not to take it to that level because somebody could get hurt. At the same time, I was thinking ‘This is great!’ even though I’m scared (to death).”

Just when this TV special is giving much of the nation its first glimpse of a Garth Brooks concert, you’ll be on a break from touring until next summer. Why not just wait for a more convenient time for this hiatus?

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For me, my family comes first. I have one friend with a daughter who just celebrated her first birthday and he said in that year, he’s seen her for 48 days. It hit me, ‘Garth, the only people you’re going to have around you when this whole thing blows over are your family and friends, so you better make sure you take care of them.’ ... It might be the death of me (professionally), to tell you the truth, but I’ll sleep better knowing I’m doing this.

“This is Garth Brooks” airs Friday at 9 p.m. on NBC.


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