An Intimate Moment with the Thunderous Garth Brooks

 In Culture, Interviews

In the late 1960s, there was a home in Yukon, Oklahoma, occupied by an ex-Marine, a former country singer and their blended family of six children. Troyal Brooks, Jr. and his wife Colleen McElroy Brooks—both united by their second marriage—held weekly talent nights wherein each child was required to perform a skill. Their youngest, Troyal Garth Brooks, was the happy peacekeeper in the competitive group. And as the years passed, he would form the close relationship with his mother that many youngest boys do. He was the baby, after all.

When I stand across from Troyal—he now goes by Garth—in 2019, he’s 57 years old and has since lost his mother to cancer. When I bring her up, he blinks back tears and takes a moment to clear his throat.

“I just hope she’s proud of me,” he says quietly. It’s almost a whisper. The sincerity in his voice and the tears in his eyes are something he’s become known for. I pick up my cellphone and hold it closer to him. I’m recording this conversation inside The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, participating in a press conference, because country music icon Garth Brooks has just sold more tickets to his forthcoming stadium kickoff performance here than have ever been sold since the venue’s opening.

The man needs little introduction, but if for some reason you’ve avoided television, radio and most media since the early 1990s, here’s a quick recap. Garth Brooks is the best-selling solo artist ever in the United States, eclipsing legends like Elvis Presley or modern superstars like Beyoncé, and second only to The Beatles in overall album sales. He’s received every award the music industry can bestow, and his tour sales dwarf records recently held by bands like The Rolling Stones. In fact, his recently wrapped tour sold more than 6.3 million tickets, making it the biggest North American tour in history.

Before our conversation, I sat—along with around 30 other journalists—in a small room lined with cameras for a short press conference ahead of the first show of his five-stop stadium tour, which kicked off in St. Louis. He entered the room quietly, stepping in front of the group in a ball cap, wearing a shy smile. I noticed first the ironed pleat in his new jeans, clumping onto the tops of a pair of un-scuffed work boots—a dead giveaway of a country boy trying to look nice. I grew up in a small town surrounded by guitar-strumming, truck-driving boys not so different than Garth Brooks, so his calmly confident Carhartt-draped shoulders surprisingly put me at ease.

Perhaps the leather jacket, cowboy boots and jeans I donned stood out, too, because as he turned to call on me when I raised my hand he said, “You look like trouble.” Later, in the short time I had with him one on one, I would introduce myself as “Trouble,” and we both had a laugh. It was at once surreal and relaxed, mind-blowing and comfortable, and that—I imagine—is exactly as he likes it.

The writers in the room, not surprisingly, peppered him with questions about why he had chosen St. Louis to kick off the tour.

“The last time I was in St. Louis on my last world tour, you guys were having a pretty tough time,” he noted. He was referring to December of 2014, only months after Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year old African-American man, was fatally shot by 28-year old Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

“During the time I was here, I felt nothing but love.” He went on to gush about the warm welcome his fans in St. Louis always show him, saying if they could do that then, he knew he’d receive a warm welcome now. It’s worth noting as well that, throughout the interview process, he thanked the media and his fans no fewer than 10 times. That admiration and gratitude for the people who continue to lovingly write his checks comes up again during our one-on-one conversation when I ask him what he’d prefer his legacy be for his children and for his fans.

“Well, that’s totally different for my fans and for my daughters,” he says. “For my daughters, I want them to say, ‘We were his every breath.’ I hope you get them all three in a different room, and I hope all three swear that they’re my favorite. That’s my job.”

He’s getting choked up again.

“My legacy for my fans? I hope they say, ‘This guy gave a shit. He cared. He tried to do this for us and make each show different.’ But honestly, what they say is what they’re gonna say, ya know?” He’s deeply emotional to a fault.

The next evening, around 8 p.m., I’m sitting in a stadium with close to 70,000 people. When the lights dim and Garth Brooks emerges on stage, he’s dressed no differently than when he played nearly 30 years prior in Nashville’s honky-tonks. A black button-up is tucked into jeans fastened with a sparkling silver and black leather belt. His black cowboy boots carry him around the stage as he runs to greet his fans with an acoustic guitar dangling from his shoulders.

He joins his band to play a hit-filled 30-song setlist, with special appearances by his famous wife, Trisha Yearwood, and sentimental moments with his college roommate and early bandmate, Ty England. After high-energy songs, he pulls his hat off and wipes sweat from his face, revealing a seasoned performer who needs a breather. But before we’re out of his grasp, he throws his hands to his sides, lays his head back and yells, “ST. LOUIS! Are you ready? Because I think this is going to be the best night of my life!” and he’s off and running again.

True to his sentimental nature, he plays solo for a good portion of the evening, taking requests for old songs and spending good chunks of time reading signs in the audience. He accepts an American flag afghan from a woman and takes the time to learn her name as he holds it up for the crowd (pictured above). He gets on his hands and knees to take a selfie with a group of front-row fans, and he stops the show to sign the poster of an 8-year-old birthday girl.

Close to 10 p.m., you can sense that he’s closing in on the show’s finish. He’s drenched in sweat and pausing before each song to catch his breath. Behind the stage, there’s a group of cellphones in the crowd lighting up a poster. He’s as close to the edge of the stage as he can get, trying to read it.

“Damn, I can’t see it. Can someone read that for me? I can’t read it. What does it say?” A crew member jumps on stage and leans near Brooks’ ear to tell him. The sign reads that the woman holding it is a 28-year-old recently diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. He’s visibly choked up.

“Honey, all I can say is you have all of our strength right now,” then he continues screaming, “And you KICK ITS ASS!” He leans over his guitar and starts the quick strumming of his 1993 hit “Standing Outside the Fire.” Quickly each of his band members joins him again on stage, and they barrel through the closing number with the same energy that ignited the show.

For a musician where “legend” is not a descriptive word out of range, when you meet him in person you see jointly a self-assured superstar who humbly loves his fans and intensely accepts their admiration. You see a young country boy who grew up in honky-tonks and loved his mama. You see a dad who fiercely loves his wife and children, and a world-famous rock star in confident command.

Featured image courtesy of 8 Ten, Inc.

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