Garth Brooks: It’s Over! Or Is It? (2000)
The news dropped like a bomb.
On December 15, in the middle of an interview on Crook & Chase, Garth Brooks said that he'd “probably announce ... retirement at the end of next year."
"You're kidding!" host Charlie Chase gasped.
"Oh, my gosh, Garth!" added his partner Lorianne Crook.
Garth's fans were equally stunned. Could it really be true? After all, Garth has made the same noises before.
In 1992, after the birth of his first daughter, Taylor, Garth insisted he would give up his career to spend time with his family. In 1994 he again promised that he'd be hanging up his Stetson for at least two years. In each case, the prophesy rang false — Garth kept right on going.
But if it's the real thing this time, then country music will have to do without the biggest star it has ever known. Since his 1989 debut, Garth has sold more than 89 million albums, making him the best-selling solo artist ever. Not Paul McCartney, not Elton John, not Mariah Carey, not even Elvis has sold more albums than Garth Brooks.
He has topped the singles charts 17 times with hits like "If Tomorrow Never Comes," "The Dance," "Friends In Low Places," "Unanswered Prayers” and "The River."
Garth's dynamic stage show was unlike anything country music had ever seen before he came along. With lights flashing, smoke bombs exploding, the star climbed ladders, swung on ropes, flew from wires, danced inside rings of fire and sprinted across the stage like a madman. His shows became the hottest ticket in town wherever he appeared, and Garth, became the first country star to rack up rock-star sized concert-sales figures.
But that's all business talk. None of it would have happened had it not been for the unique combination of talent and personality that makes up Garth Brooks.
He was born February 7, 1962 in Tulsa, Okla., and raised in tiny nearby Yukon. According to his mother, Colleen, who had been a singer for Capitol Records in the '50s, Garth's first complete sentence was, "I'm the boss around here."
It was his first accurate prediction. In his teenage years he played with various bands, then graduated from Oklahoma State in 1984 with a degree in advertising. In 1985, he gave Nashville a shot, but after only 23 hours he returned home disillusioned by the staggering odds against making it.
Back in Oklahoma, he encountered a feisty young woman named Sandy Mahl in a bar where Garth was working as a bouncer. They didn't exactly meet under the most romantic of circumstances: Garth interceded in a fracas in which Sandy was involved, removing her arm from a hole she made in the wall when her misdirected punch missed its mark.
Garth and Sandy fell in love and married in 1986. A year later, a more determined Garth, with his new wife in tow headed back to Music City, where he took a job in a boot store and began singing on demo tapes.
By Nashville standards, success came quickly for Garth; within 11 months of his arrival, he was signed to Capitol Records. In March 1989, his debut single, "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)," was released. It eventually reached the Top 10. "If Tomorrow Never Comes," a tender, insightful love ballad, followed and sped to the top of the charts.
With his star clearly on the rise, Garth opened concerts for the Judds and for his idol, Chris LeDoux, whose no-holds-barred approach to performing made an impression on the young upstart. "Chris came out blowing with a smoking organ, and the crowd went nuts!" Garth once recalled. "He's like a rocker with a cowboy hat on.
"I looked at my band right there and said, 'There it is. There's our show.' It told me that country music and a wild show can go together. From that point on, it was just a matter of having the guts to do it myself."
Guts were one thing of which Garth had plenty. He took Chris' energy and spirit and amplified them tenfold. But there was more to him than flash. Once he grabbed people's attention, he touched their hearts, too. His moving ballad, "The Dance," made him a household name. The song's video evoked images of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., John Wayne and the Challenger crew, reminding listeners to make every moment count.
"He took a song with very simple lyrics," says Garth's college roommate and bandmate Tyler England, "and made that song mean the whole world to people."
His popularity snowballed when Garth's sophomore album, No Fences, was released in August 1990. It went platinum in a mere nine weeks, and its party anthem "Friends In Low Places" became Garth's signature tune.
The honors piled up quickly. In October he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, and he scooped up a whopping six ACM awards the following spring.
He showed that he was willing to tackle serious subjects with the video for "The Thunder Rolls," in which he portrayed an abusive husband who gets a lethal comeuppance from his wife. When CMT refused to play the clip, Garth snapped. "This video is a side of real life that people don't really want to see,” he said. “I refuse to do a video that is just ordinary. It wastes the viewer's time and mine and the label's money." Eventually, public demand forced CMT to show the clip.
The former advertising student knew what his fans wanted and he delivered it. For starters, he kept his ticket prices under $20 when he could have charged much more. "The people come first. They always do," he said. "It's kind of like the Wal-Mart theory: Price it at the lower end and hopefully twice as many people will come out. It's kind of a gamble, but for the most part it works."
And how! When his third album, Ropin' the Wind, was released in September 1991, it swiftly sold more than 4 million copies.
Even the mainstream media took notice. Rolling Stone screamed "With Garth Brooks Leading The Way, Nashville Is Booming." Entertainment Weekly chimed in, "Garth Brooks is the hugest pop phenomenon in several years."
By 1994, Garth was on top of the world -- and exhausted. In October he contemplated early retirement in order to spend more time with Sandy and their growing family. Chapter One of the Garth story finished up with The Hits, which came out in December 1994 and sold an astounding 10 million copies. A year later, four million fans grabbed a copy of Fresh Horses.
Garth returned to the concert stage in 1996, unveiling a staggeringly eye-popping new stage show. "I want the show to be better than ever and out there on the cutting edge of technology," he promised. "I want to demonstrate country can be as high tech and advanced as any other type of music.”
It was a winning formula; Garth sold out every show in 1997, and topped it off with a concert in Central Park that drew 250,000 fans.
Garth's popularity translated into sheer power. When he was unhappy with the marketing of Fresh Horses, he withheld the release of 1997's Sevens until Capitol Records overhauled its executive staff, all the way up to the head of the Nashville record company. It worked and once released, the album sold nearly one million copies in its first week.
In August 1998, No Fences became the best-selling country album of all time with 16 million copies, and Garth won his second straight CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy two months later. His Double Live set sold 12 million copies.
Finally in November 1998, Garth wrapped up a remarkable 33-month world tour. Along the way he proved he was king of the road, playing 348 shows in 100 cities, selling 5.3 million tickets and grossing $105 million.
Last February, he swapped his cowboy boots for baseball cleats and attended spring training with the San Diego Padres. He established his Touch 'Em All charity foundation for kids, enlisting many major leaguers for help and contributions.
It seemed as if Garth had conquered everything. Now it was time to let his imagination roam free. He invented an alter ego, a rock star named Chris Gaines. The fictional musician would star, Garth said, in The Lamb, a film he'd write and produce. In a novel move, Garth released The Lamb's soundtrack album, In The Life Of Chris Gaines, before the movie had begun filming.
Though the Chris Gaines episode left most country fans confused, it proved Garth had no fences, indeed, when it came to his drive and ambition.
Or did it simply prove that Garth was tired of being Garth Brooks, superstar? Even though he has threatened to quit several times, the world still wonders if he really means it this time. After all, Garth has made no secret of his desire to pass the Beatles' sales record of 106 million albums.
"He's a very competitive person," reveals Garth's brother, Kelly. "That goes hand in hand with his music. He's always wanted to do the best he can. It's nothing to do with others, it's just a competition with himself."
But even if he bows out of that competition, Garth can rest assured that he has transformed country music like no one else before him. History will record one fact for certain: Garth was the single biggest reason for the country music boom of the '90s.
"He knocked down some doors," says Steve Wariner, "and has really taken country to places it's never been before and exposed it to people that would not normally be accepting of it."
While Garth's announcement scares some, industry experts see a bright future even without him. "We can assume that people enjoy country music, and enjoy spending their time and money on the stars," says Ed Benson, executive director of the CMA. "If there's not a new Garth album out there, they'll buy someone else's."
Even if country fans do find another star to track, they will be trying to fill a gaping hole left by the man some call "Garthzilla." It's worth noting that, in 1998, one out of every nine country records sold were by Garth. Country music will likely never see that kind of dominance by a single act again. And it'll likely never see another Garth.
And of course, if Garth decides to stick around, it won't have to.