Garth Brooks: The Path To ‘Fun’ Hasn’t Always Been

When he was growing up, country music legend Garth Brooks remembers the rough-and-tumble nights at home. His father, Troyal Raymond Brooks Jr., was a former Marine and Golden Gloves boxing champ who created something of a “boxing ring” culture at home for Garth and his five siblings. As a result, there was ample competition and creative tension underneath the family roof. This ultimately strengthened the brood — especially the youngest son, Garth, who would go on to sell more records than any single recording artist in United States history. 

But not every night included a sibling fistfight.

“My older brother Mike brought a James Taylor record into our house and our house finally agreed on one music,” says Brooks, whose new record, Fun, is set for release later in 2020. “I owe James my life because, you know, our house was not an easy house to grow up in. If you had an argument, you ended up in the backyard. But if you came home and heard James Taylor on the stereo, it was going to be a good, peaceful, wonderful night. I’ve tried to explain that to James, how much I appreciate it. But he’ll never know the godsend he was to our family.” 

As a result, perhaps more than anything else, family has become central to Brooks and his career. In a word, his parents and siblings shaped him. From his early days listening to James Taylor to playing guitar and banjo in the family’s weekly home talent nights, Brooks’ family members have been the lenses through which the world has made the most sense for the platinum-selling artist. 

Later, as a father himself, he sharpened and honed new familial tools, which have since helped him form strong, lasting bonds with his three daughters (with former wife, songwriter Sandy Mahl) — Taylor Mayne Pearl, August Anna and Allie Colleen — as well as with his current long-time (and quite successful) wife, country music star Trisha Yearwood. 

“If everything goes to shit, they’re still going to love you and hug your neck and you’ll belong to a family,” Brooks says. “That’s a big thing for me.” 

As a father, Brooks does not lavish extravagance on his daughters. In the 2019 two-part documentary series The Road I’m On, Brooks and the three young women build an impressive, long and sturdy bridge together. (“We believe we need to show our daughters that something given to you is not as valuable as something earned,” Brooks says.) In the documentary, Brooks speaks openly and emotionally about the people in his family, particularly the women. He wears his emotions on his sleeve; that he’s comfortable doing so is a testament to his core and loving support system. 

“I cry at commercials now,” Brooks says with a laugh. “I think it’s from surviving three teenage daughters — I really do. In the documentary series, they asked me about my mother. I’m her biggest fan and I love her death and miss her so much. Then they were like, ‘OK, talk about your wife,’ who is the love of my life. After that, they asked about my three girls, who have changed everything for me. It just kept getting more and more emotional, like, ‘Do we have a shot of this guy when his eyes aren’t wet?’” 

That family remains paramount for Brooks perhaps began first with the relationship he forged with his mother, Colleen McElroy Carroll. Brooks’ mother was a successful recording artist with Capitol Records in the 1950s when she walked away from her own career to raise a large family in their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. As such, music was always a part of the family DNA. One of Brooks’ older sisters, the late Betsy Smittle, was also an exceptional blues guitarist. (“A badass female before there were badass females,” Brooks says.) Smittle, who was gay and helped shape Brooks’ relationship to LGBTQ+ issues, would go on to play bass for years with Brooks’ band and record and release her own original music. 

“We’ve always had the dream that something crazy like this could happen,” Brooks says. “But no matter how much you dream, you can’t believe it when it actually happens. It’s been a wild ride.” 

Along with James Taylor, the family listened to musicians like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Rita Coolidge and many others. In high school, Brooks became a standout athlete in track, football and baseball — he’s famously since signed minor league contracts with the New York Mets, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates to raise support for charity. To hype himself up before high school games, he would listen to rock ’n’ roll artists like Freddie Mercury. 

Now successful and a point of inspiration for many, Brooks in turn looks to achieve that same height in his own work. 

“I was lucky enough to see Freddie Mercury when I was 17,” he says. “Crazy night. I just wanted for three seconds for him to look me in the eye. I was in, like, row 13. I had great seats. And I just wanted him to look me in the eye and I could tell him in that three seconds, ‘Thank you.’ Thank you for giving me the courage to tackle things I didn’t like. Thank you for getting me fired up to play football on Friday nights. Thanks for being yourself and being proud of it. And I look for that in anything I do.” 

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Brooks is an intense performer and prolific artist. One of the most indelible images of the musician is seeing him on stage, mouth wide open as he roars like a lion meandering about his pride. At the same time, however, Brooks is one of music’s most down-to-earth megastars. He’s relatable; almost unnervingly so. He isn’t easily or often caught up in the hype his name frequently stirs up. For someone who seesaws constantly with Elvis for the most records sold in human history (or thereabouts), Brooks is especially congenial. 

“I think anything good comes from Jesus and God and your parents or brothers and sisters, the ones who raised you,” Brooks says. “The rest of it, I don’t buy into it. They’ll put your name in the same breath with The Beatles and Elvis and I’m not anywhere near in whatever that group is. So, everyone else can talk about it. But I don’t believe it. I feel lucky that I get to play, and all I can control is the music and how it’s presented.” 

When it comes to what Brooks can control — namely, the music and how it’s presented to the world — he’s done pretty darn well. With all-time hits like “The Dance,” “The Thunder Rolls” and “Friends In Low Places,” Brooks’ catalog alone would cement him in the annals of music history. But it’s his live shows that have garnered mythical status. To name one remarkable feat, Brooks brought out a cool one million people to a 1997 live show in New York City’s Central Park. He’s also sold nearly 160 million albums domestically in the United States and more than 170 million abroad. 

Brooks’ career began in earnest in March 1989 when he released his first hit, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” The success of the track led to others, which led to more and more albums. Including Fun, Brooks boasts 15 studio albums to date (often recorded with the “G-Men” as his backing band), including 1999’s solid (though oft-ridiculed) Garth Brooks in… The Life of Chris Gaines. In 2001, after more than a decade of non-stop work, Brooks retired to spend more time with his family. The choice reshaped his life. But about a decade later, Brooks returned to recording and touring to staggering success. 

Brooks and his signature black Stetson hat are the stuff of storybooks. While the artist has been criticized for veering more pop than country (mostly because of his giant audiences), he’s certainly received more acclaim than derision. This year, Brooks accepted two prestigious awards that even his humble self couldn’t deny. He received both the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (the youngest recipient ever) and the National Music Publishers Association’s Songwriter Icon Award. While these represent rarified air for any songwriter, Brooks says achievements like these were never his outright goal when he first devoted himself to writing and performing. 

“I’m not an awards guy,” Brooks says. “But what killed me was the guys who were nice enough to show up for me in my honor (for the Gershwin Prize). I’ve never been the guy in the box; I’ve always been the guy performing for somebody in the box. … Any award they give you only means as much as the names already on it. So, it’s cool when you get an award that Smokey Robinson was given, an award Ray Charles got.” 

Then Brooks adds, “I’m so glad I accepted the award but at the same time, it should have been James Taylor. He’s one of the greatest songwriters of our lifetime.” 

While awards may be piling up, Brooks may have to prepare for a few more. His new album, Fun, is making waves even before its release. Lately, between COVID-19-era Facebook Live-crashing streamed shows and appearances on CBS with Yearwood watched by millions, Brooks has released hit songs like “Dive Bar” (featuring Blake Shelton), “Courage to Love” and “We Belong To Each Other.” The first is an anthem to celebrate everyone’s favorite local watering holes and the latter two are songs meant to celebrate inclusivity and human understanding. It’s important to Brooks for people to commune together, he says. So, of course, his music reflects that. 

“I found that if you exclude somebody, you know them less than you did before you started,” Brooks says. “If you include people, you start to understand they are a lot like you, they have children just like yours, they have fears just like you do. Maybe that understanding keeps you from fighting or shows that the differences between you may be your saving grace, instead of the basis of your fears.”

While sending messages of acceptance is nothing new for Brooks, “Dive Bar,” on the other hand, was a rare chance for him to collaborate with Shelton, a megastar in his own right. While Brooks and Shelton are two of the most commercially lucrative artists in country music today, they are also some of the most unassuming and relatable people in the business. Whether donning denim or hunting gear, both Brooks and Shelton sport a proverbial blue collar at all times. 

“He is the least ‘celebrity’ guy you’ll ever meet,” Brooks says of his duet partner. “If you can’t find him, it’s because his phone is on silent and he’s duck hunting or he’s in a blind or he’s out fishing. He’s just the most regular guy on the planet. It was fun to get to hang out with another artist who wasn’t worried about what was coming out of his mouth.” 

The experience with Shelton was but one of the many highlights of producing Fun, Brooks says. The album balances two important worlds that remain so crucial to Brooks’ creative spirit: The reality that everyone is different and should be able to love and be loved by anyone they wish, and the hardworking, feet on the ground, hands in the earth mentality instilled in him by his parents. Joy and hard work — together they make Brooks’ signature creative-genetic double helix. And perhaps nowhere else is this more evident than on Brooks’ timeless ballad, “The Dance,” which appeared first on his self-titled debut LP.   

The song, written by longtime friend Tony Arata, discusses the beautiful-yet-tragic relationship between beginnings and endings, starts and finishes. The thrill of the beginning must always lead to the sadness of the departure. That’s the tragic thesis of any life well lived. For a moment, however, the fateful waltz of life can be truly blissful. So, cherish that moment, Brooks tells us in the song. Cherish it and sing of it whenever possible. “Our lives are better left to chance,” Brooks croons, “I could have missed the pain / but I’d have had to miss the dance.”

Considering the song today — and given Brooks’ long career, many awards, seemingly billions of records sold and all of the ups and downs that come with fame — Brooks allows himself to be emotional. In a way, “The Dance” is a prescient work, foretelling his own story and fruitful career even before it unfurled so prolifically. In The Road I’m On, Brooks attempts to define the idea of stardom, stating simply that it’s not wanting to say goodbye to those you’ve connected with over the years. And this dynamic is what’s summed up so movingly in “The Dance.”  

“If we are remembered at all, there will not be a picture of us that isn’t shown” — Brooks begins to cry — “without ‘The Dance’ in the background. It’s who we are. I hope it’s who we always will be. It’s a blessing and a curse. For one, there are artists who go their whole career and never find their song. My blessing was that I found it. The curse was I found it on the first record.”

While reflection and emotion are constant and prominent forces in Brooks’ life, so too is the reality and necessity of music. Ever since those early days, hunkering down with his family in the living room, improvising skits and riffs on the guitar and banjo, music has been an important companion for Brooks. Through football practice and college, through living at home and trying to make it in Nashville and beyond, through successes and failures and love and criticism, through close times with family and those times when he felt too far apart from them for comfort, music has been the one reliable aspect in the world that Brooks could always look to for solace. 

“What I love about music most is that it’s forever there,” Brooks says. “It can be 3 a.m. when no one else wants to talk to you and music will speak to you. Or it will listen. Or it will play along with you. We used to have a T-shirt and on the back of it said something like, ‘I’ve watched music make enemies dance together. I’ve watched music make people who couldn’t speak the same language communicate with each other. And I’ve watched it make friends of foes.’” 

Many music lovers think of the art form as the “universal language.” It can often reach and include many people within its essential melodies and rhythms. But, as usual, Brooks, an artist with eight diamond-certified records to his name, presents the concept in a different but equally affecting light — one that especially hits home, if you will. 

“I can’t help but wonder if music is truly the voice of hope,” Brooks says. “It’s certainly a monster of a weapon for us to use to bring people together.”

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