Earlier this week (April 7), the Academy of Country Music Awards featured performances that ranged from arena-ready spectacles by Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, and Thomas Rhett, to more traditional presentations by legends George Strait and Reba McEntire. You could argue that the link that connects these different approaches to country music is Garth Brooks.
Indeed, Brooks became enamored with country music after hearing George Strait. As he told an industry crowd at the Country Radio Seminar in February, “I’ll never forget the first time I heard George Strait. I’ve wanted to be George Strait my whole life.”
You can hear Strait’s influence, particularly on Brooks’ self-titled album, which turns 30 this Friday (April 12). “Not Counting You” (written solely by Brooks), “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” (both co-written by Brooks) and “The Dance” all sound like songs that King George might have recorded.
But Garth Brooks’ vision for what country could be was different from any of his influences or any of his peers, and it was a vision that was decades ahead of its time. In the 1980s, country music very much had its own corner of the radio dial and the record store. Occasionally, country acts crossed over to the mainstream – Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream” topped both the country and pop charts in 1983. Willie Nelson had a hit with his cover of “Always On My Mind” a year before. But those hits always felt like “events,” like country music was merely visiting the pop charts.
In Garth’s vision, country music should be as popular as rock and roll or pop music. He wasn’t satisfied with country simply being the best music in the world; he also wanted it to be the biggest. But he also didn’t see the need to keep it separate from everything else; he was influenced by a number of mainstream acts, including James Taylor and Billy Joel. Another influence, the Eagles, were commonly referred to as “country rock,” and they filled stadiums from coast to coast in the ’70s. Why couldn’t an actual country artist do the same?
A less likely influence was KISS, the theatrical hard rock band. Their stage show famously included (and still includes) makeup and costumes, but it went far beyond that: KISS also breathe fire, spit blood, shoot rockets from their guitars… and they fly.
Garth wasn’t interested in taking on a different persona as Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley did (we won’t discuss Chris Gaines right now). But the idea of making himself larger than life, while still being a relatable guy? That was something he was interested in. He would go on to make country music concerts that were stadium spectacles; no venue was too big for him. He played Central Park, as Elton John, Diana Ross and Simon & Garfunkel had before him. He played Yankee Stadium, as Billy Joel, U2 and Pink Floyd previously had. To this day, he keeps finding attendance records at America’s biggest baseball and football stadiums to break.
It’s also noteworthy that he didn’t only want to be influenced by rock and pop artists; he was also interested in coming face-to-face with their fans. One of his biggest crossover hits was his cover of Billy Joel’s “Shameless,” from 1991’s Ropin’ The Wind. Why choose a Billy Joel song that was just two years old? It was surely because it’s a great song. But we know that Garth and his team are clever marketers: they knew it would get the attention of Joel’s fans, and that’s surely what happened. For people who didn’t have a country radio station in their city or town, it was a gateway to Garth and his catalog, and from there, the rest of country music. “Shameless” didn’t feel like a stunt, it was simply a great pairing of a singer and a song. His 1994 collaboration with KISS, on a cover of their country-rock “Hard Luck Woman” had more of a feel of stunt-casting, but Garth was a genuine fan, and Simmons and Stanley clearly appreciated that. There aren’t many (or any) other examples of the self-styled “Hottest Band In The World” backing up any other artists. Brooks made genre-crossing seem less weird than it ever had, and reminded country fans that their record collections could be as broad as they wanted. In subsequent years, we saw Tim McGraw collaborating with Nelly, Keith Urban jamming with Alicia Keys on a Rolling Stones classic and Florida Georgia Line with the Backstreet Boys.
Three summers ago, I saw my first Garth Brooks show at the aforementioned Yankee Stadium. The setlist included hit after hit, and it’s not hyperbole to say that everyone in the sold-out venue seemed to know every word to every song, including “The Dance,” a song that still resonates as strongly as it did in 1989 when it closed the Garth Brooks album.
For his final encore, Garth returned to the stage alone, armed only with his acoustic guitar. He played “She’s Every Woman,” his cover of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” and “Wrapped Up In You.” He closed with, of all things, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Now, that’s a move that takes guts: playing Billy Joel’s signature song, in the biggest venue in Billy’s hometown. And let’s not forget, he played “Piano Man” without a piano. But it worked: I’ve seen Billy Joel play “Piano Man” at Yankee Stadium and Garth’s audience was just as enthused as Billy’s was.
And that’s the thing about Garth: he can make things larger than life, but he can bring things down to earth and make you feel like he’s singing just to you. He’s always a relatable guy, even when he’s soaring over your head, with fireworks exploding in the background.
His last big televised performance was “Stronger Than Me” from the CMAs in December. He shed all the showbiz trappings: he didn’t even use his signature headgear mic. It was just Garth and his acoustic guitar and a microphone on a traditional mic-stand(!). There wasn’t a dry eye in the house (Trisha Yearwood’s eyes certainly weren’t). It was a reminder that the guy who brought stadium spectacle to country music could still bring you to tears with just wood, wires and his voice.
Today, there’s a small handful of country stars who can play stadiums and make the people in the cheap seats feel included: Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood and a few others. The reason they’re able to do it is because they have that rare combination of talent, charisma and great songs, along with the ability to be relatable, while also seeming larger than life. That’s a model that Garth designed, and country music – and its millions of worldwide fans – are fortunate that he did.