Garth Brooks is the hottest ticket in music, with four shows at Croke Park in July selling over 300,000 tickets. Twenty years ago, the News Letter’s BILLY KENNEDY was one of the first UK journalists to interview Garth in Nashville. Billy looks back on Garth’s exclusive interview in an attempt to explain his enduring appeal
June, 1993 was when I took off to the United States for the first time on a two-week exploratory trip in Tennessee for the News Letter tracing the culture, music and the historical connection in the frontier state with the hardy Ulster-Scots who trekked there in big numbers in the late 18th century/early 19th century.
It was a journey which ultimately led over a period of 20 years to 11 books on the pioneering Scots-Irish (Ulster-Scots) who created a civilisation out of the wilderness on the American frontier.
Country music was a very obvious interest on my 1993 trip and, with the influential Tennessee Tourism Board in Nashville setting up my schedule, doors were opened and special locations of interests identified.
“Would you be interested in an interview with Garth Brooks?” my tourism guide Barbara Parker asked me when I arrived in Music City. I readily accepted the offer and, after a call to the singer’s management, we set off for his base in the up-market, fashionable west end of Nashville.
On arrival, I was told by one of Garth’s minders that I had just 20 minutes for the interview, but when the time elapsed and there came a knock on the door, Garth insisted that the interview should continue, and we chatted amiably for a further 20 minutes. He came across as a down-home straight-forward sort of guy, as I again found out when he played five concerts at the King’s Hall, Belfast in November 1998, wowing 35,000 fans.
Right away in the 1993 interview, Garth spoke about upcoming concert appearances in Ireland, with Dublin his first port of call.
“It will be my first appearance in Ireland and I’m really looking forward to it, especially as my mother (Colleen Caroll Brooks-McElroy) is of Irish descent.
“We’re planning to be six weeks in Europe next spring and I suppose our shows will depend on demand. It will be a long tour for us, we are used to four or five days work in the States and coming home again,” he said, pleasantly modest and unassuming about his initial success.
His record sales at the time were bigger than Michael Jackson and Madonna.
“I was probably the last person who thought this would happen and I am now getting reports of my record sales in England, Australia, Japan, Germany and Ireland. There are opportunities opening for me in the rest of the world. But I am finding it a bit scary. I don’t know if anybody out there will show up, but we’ll see.”
An amazing observation, considering his mega-appeal today, but seen in the context that up to then Garth’s shows had only been staged in the US.
“I’m not going to take the credit for what has happened to country music over the past few years. But if I was able to bring people into country music who did not listen to country before then I’d be flattered. I’d also have to say they are better off listening to country music. I love country music.”
Unlike most other top Nashville country performers, Garth is not a natural instrumentalist. “I don’t play like Ricky Skaggs and though I own a number of guitars, I’m not really an instrumentalist. I’m a singer.” His country influences come from performers like George Jones, Merle Haggard and George Strait.
“George and Merle are performers from the period when country music wasn’t that different. But today we have various strands of country, with traditionalist and country rockers. There is real difference today.
“The country music you’re hearing in Nashville is Eastern-influenced. there is a different kind of country music in Oklahoma and Texas.”
He told me his singular interest was in his family and his infant daughter Taylor Mayne Pearl and wife Sandy Mahl, who he has since divorced and is now re-married singer Trisha Yearwood.
Garth, then just turned 30, said he enjoyed a tremendous rapport with his fans, but in the interview I found that the warmth of the man was not just extended to those who were into his music.
“I enjoy people a lot, whether they are my fans; whether they like what we do or not; we sit and have a good conversation about what they don’t like about me. My fans mean a lot to me...they’re the people I get to do what I do.”
The week before, Garth stood for nine hours at his Nashville Fan fair booth signing autographs for his fans.
“I’ve stood as long as 13 hours in one day...my hand wasn’t too bad after that encounter, but my feet were sore.”
A person of great Christian faith, Garth admitted to me he has tried to spiritually walk on “both sides of the fence”.
“I’ve tried to walk without God and said: ‘Look see what I can do by myself.’ But usually I fall right on my face. I honestly believe God exists and I know he does.”
His mother Colleen Carroll Brooks, he said, was a solo country singer who performed in the mid-western states of Oklahoma, Ohio and Arkansas during the 1950s and sang with Nashville star Red Foley and recorded with Capitol Records.
“My parents greatly influenced my singing career and the direction I have gone in. I was taught to keep my feet firmly on the ground. I don’t think you can take on a goal without holding your own ship right.”
Before moving into music full-time, Garth had a variety of jobs - selling shoes, cleaning a church and working as a bouncer.
Even 20 years ago, he was a solidly built chap, who in his college days, showed considerable prowess in American football, baseball, basketball and athletics.
He told me: “I’m really excited about coming over to Europe, particularly Ireland, and the important thing for me is not the number of people who show up. It’s how those people who come to the show walk away. Here the people who come out to hear me are my own people, but it’s very flattering to come to another country and they still show up.”
Twenty years on, and with Garth now in his early 50s, folk are still turning up for his concerts, in numbers that are nothing short of astounding. He is a showman extraordinaire, but at heart Garth Brooks remains an ordinary guy.
Garth Brooks plays Croke Park, July 25,26 , 27 and 28.