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In February of 1962, according to the Census Bureau, 318,090 people were born in the United States. These babies entered the world with the potential to be or do anything. In America, a land of limitless opportunity where citizens were encouraged to reach for the sky, no dream was too big, no ambition unattainable.
Troyal Garth Brooks was born on the seventh day of February 1962, at St. John Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In America's heartland, wheat grew tall, cowboys stood taller, and proud Native Americans kept the country's true history alive. Giant oil rigs gushed black gold, fueling the prosperity and peace that made dreaming possible.
Two weeks after Garth's birth, John Glenn safely orbited the earth three times and President John F. Kennedy traveled to NASA headquarters in Florida to personally welcome him home. Meanwhile, back in Washington, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was conducting the first nationally televised tour of the White House. From suburban New Jersey to rural Arkansas, the talk was of desegregation, as Martin Luther King, Jr., was spreading his dream. Overseas, the United States was expanding its military role in a country called Vietnam. And a "crisis of abundance," a surplus of agricultural products, including milk, led the government to pay farmers to produce less.
The proud parents on that seventh day of February 1962, Colleen Carroll Brooks and Troyal Raymond Brooks, had begun their lives together with a family that consisted of three of Colleen's children and one of Troyal's. Together they had been blessed with one son, Kelly, and now, eighteen months later, they completed their family with the birth of their last child. Two loving parents and six lucky children formed a household where the words stepchildren, half brother, and half sister were never used.
Tulsa was a town that loved music. Cain's Ballroom, over on Fourth and Main, was known as Western Swing's own Alamo. Cain's had been christened by the sounds of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the swingin'est band in the West, which played there almost every Thursday and Saturday night from 1935 to 1943.
Bob Wills's unique style--a mix of everything from the blues to cowboy music, from Mexican mariachi to German polka, and from Dixieland jazz to pure bluegrass--did more than transform American music forever. It drew everyone at Cain's Ballroom to the curly maplewood dance floor mounted on sets of Dodge truck springs. Another attraction at Cain's in the 1930s and '40s was the availability of bootleg whiskey--Prohibition wasn't repealed in Oklahoma until 1957. Dancing and booze made for some wild times. When things got too rowdy, Bob Wills tapped the microphone with his fiddle bow and played a church hymn.
Colleen Brooks, Garth's mother, loved music herself. As Colleen Carroll, she'd been a featured singer on "Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee," the pioneering radio and television show. Her black curly hair draping down to her shoulders, a ribbon tied sweetly at the neckline of her fringed shirt, Colleen sang her heart out. Her strong, sweet, clear voice captured the attention of the folks at Capitol Records, where she recorded four singles in the mid-1950s. Her talent might have led to fame and fortune, but it was hard to be a female singer back then, and even harder if you were married and had children. Colleen loved music, but she loved family life even more.
Troyal Brooks, called Raymond by everyone who knew him, was a former U.S. marine. He worked as an engineer and draftsman for one of Tulsa's many oil companies, Union of California (Union 76).
The big city of Tulsa was exciting, but Colleen and Raymond wanted a quieter life for their family. In 1966 they moved to Yukon, a town of 10,000 residents about fifteen miles southeast of Oklahoma City. The ride from Tulsa to Oklahoma City was along America's most famous highway, a road of legend, music, and dreams--Route 66. Woody Guthrie's folk music, John Steinbeck's classic novels, and Jack Kerouac's amazing book On the Road all memorialized the lives that were spent, enjoyed, endured, and sometimes lost on Route 66. What a fitting backdrop for a future American hero.
Yukon sits squarely on the famous Chisholm Trail. Less than a mile from the Brookses' new home was a remnant of the trail where, in the late 1800s, more than a million longhorn cattle traveled from San Marcos, Texas, to railroad loading yards at Abilene, Kansas. This was cowboy country, pure and simple. It is also flat country with sweltering summers, frequent tornadoes, and winters that see fierce blizzards.
Over on Main Street in a town where kids could roam freely as long as they came home in time for supper, two-story brick and cinder-block buildings housed the town's businesses and stores. The MFC Farmers Co-op and Yukon's Best Flour Mill across the street were the tallest structures in town. Several blocks south of Main Street, at 408 Yukon Avenue, was the white split-level house where Garth Brooks grew up. From the street, the Brooks home looked like any other pleasant, quiet suburban home in 1960s America.
Inside was a different story. How quiet could it be with six kids running around, feeling free to play, laugh, enjoy life, and listen to music? As Garth would later say about the home he grew up in, it was "just totally cool. You could live in the house. You could try things, stretch your imagination." Like other households where the kids were encouraged to dream and allowed the freedom to falter, it was, he said, "a house you could make mistakes in."
Colleen and Raymond were serious about raising their children right. When the kids asked permission for something, the answers were clear: "yes" or "no." "Maybe" was not an option and "We'll see" generally meant no. Garth wasn't allowed to go out of his yard unless he asked his mom or dad. With all those older brothers and a big sister, who he says was tougher than any of the boys, Garth was surrounded by lots of love and plenty of protection.
The Brookses didn't have much money to spend on their children, but they gave them something more valuable--time and attention. Many evenings would find the whole bunch of them sitting around telling jokes. Raymond Brooks enjoyed picking the guitar and singing as a hobby. Jerry, Mike, and Betsy played the guitar too. Colleen still loved to sing songs like "Kansas City," "Lo Siento Mucho," and "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" for this audience of her biggest fans. With Jim on harmonica and Garth and Kelly playing the waxpaper comb kazoo, the happy sounds of music filled the house.
But the most fun on those Brooks family "funny nights," as they were called, came when each kid took center stage to tell more jokes, do some solo singing, or devise a skit. Colleen says it was always Garth who would "come up with some of the darnedest stuff you ever heard in your life." Even at the age of two, Betsy said, Garth would "capture your attention." As the youngest of the six children, he got plenty of it.
If the game involved Kelly pretending to "shoot" Garth, Garth would take as long as he could to "die." As long as he could hold the attention of the family, he'd try to keep it.
Maybe that's why he was bold enough to repeat the words he'd often heard his dad say. Colleen says that Garth's first complete sentence was "I'm the boss around here." This from a man still in diapers.
Decades after he was in diapers, and long after he'd become one of the biggest stars in the history of American entertainment, Garth Brooks surprised everyone by putting on a baseball jersey and joining the 1999 spring training camp of the San Diego Padres. Snorting doubters all over America wondered what made Garth think he could play baseball. Well, his love for all sports started in Yukon, first in the backyard, where Raymond taught his sons about football, baseball, and being team players. Garth learned about competition--particularly competition with himself. He played on the Little League teams his dad coached. Right back then, he began developing the competitive instincts and belief in his own talents that would sustain him when it looked as if he'd never achieve his dream of a career in music.
Garth credits his mother with giving him permission to have unlimited dreams and his father with giving him frequent doses of reality. Raymond set standards of perfection, and Colleen said, "Hey, a mistake is okay if you tried your best."
At Central Elementary School on Oak Avenue and Seventh Street, Garth learned to read and write. In second grade, he became friends with a guy named Mickey Weber.
Garth's third-grade teacher, Pearl Kinsey, said, "I never had a discipline problem with Garth. He was a very good boy. The only problem I had was I couldn't keep all the little girls away from Garth." LaDawna Urton, his fourth-grade teacher, said that after he participated in a school talent show she knew he was destined for stardom.
"Anyone who can pat their head, rub their tummy, dance, and sing a jingle about a Fig Newton will make it far in the entertainment world," Urton said. Perhaps one of the things those Oklahoma schoolgirls loved about the young Garth Brooks was his unabashed love of music and his delight in sharing that love with anyone who would listen.
People listened to all kinds of music at the Brooks home, where dozens of kids came to the scores of parties the family loved to host for Halloween, Christmas, birthdays, and often for no reason at all. Garth's mom loved Harry Belafonte's captivating Caribbean rhythms. Raymond had Johnny Horton's Greatest Hits album, Merle Haggard's Swinging Doors, and The Best of George Jones. The age range in the household--Garth's oldest brother was fifteen years his senior--meant that Garth was exposed to music of many eras. He heard Peter Paul and Mary, Tom Rush, and Arlo Guthrie. His sister Betsy loved Rita Coolidge and Janis Joplin and Janis Ian. Of course, the family often tuned in to the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts from Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium and later from Opryland.
When Garth was about ten years old, one of his older brothers bought a James Taylor album. Garth probably didn't actually put the record on the turntable, but James Taylor's music entered his ears on an almost daily basis. Years later, he and the world would discover just how strong a connection had been made from the soul of James Taylor to the heart of Garth Brooks.
That heart was touched in another way on December 31, 1972, when he heard the tragic news that baseball player Roberto Clemente had been killed in a plane crash while flying to Nicaragua to deliver supplies and humanitarian aid to earthquake victims. Clemente, born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, in 1934, had been a star right fielder for eighteen years with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He led the league in batting four times during the 1960s. A few months after his death, Clemente became the first Latin American player to be elected into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
Roberto Clemente Sports City was established a few years later in Puerto Rico, with a museum dedicated to Clemente, facilities for a variety of sports, and many counseling and rehabilitation programs. The facility serves as a recreational area, but it is really a launching pad to a better life for many Latin Americans.
It's easy to see why Clemente became a hero to the young Garth Brooks--and fueled Garth's own dream to excel, to help people in need, and to leave his mark on the world.
At Yukon High School, Garth's passion was sports. "I really stunk at sports," he said, "but that's what I wanted to do."
Garth played for the Millers, Yukon High's football team. He was a distance runner on the track team. Raymond and Colleen attended almost every one of their kids' games and other school events, Raymond taking time off from work for what mattered most to him.
As Garth was growing up, the farming town of Yukon was becoming more suburban, like thousands of small towns across America. The mom-and-pop businesses were being replaced by national chains. But Rick's Donuts, a coffee shop on Main Street just across from the bowling alley, stayed in business. Garth loved to walk over to Rick's for the delicious, fresh-baked sweet rolls.
In the ninth grade, Garth played a lot of music with his friends. His first acoustic guitar was a Gibson, which he played at first with only three strings, adding strings as he learned to play better "to keep from killing my fingers." Then he got an electric guitar and an amplifier. For his sixteenth birthday, Garth was given a banjo. That got him interested in bluegrass, so he formed a bluegrass band. In his senior year, he sang in one of the school's vocal clubs. He started another band called The Nyle with his good friend Mickey Weber, but as Weber's mother Jacque said later, the other kids in the band gave up. Garth, however, began to say music was something he was going to put his mind to.
Garth appreciated the pure country sounds of Merle Haggard and George Jones. He especially loved Billy Joel and Elton John. He was a huge fan of Dan Fogelberg. Disco was hot, the Eagles were soaring, and the lines between country, pop, and rock were blurring every day. Even with all of the rock music dominating the airwaves, it was kind of hip to be square and to like country music. Groups like Poco, Pure Prairie League, and the Byrds were combining southern rock with traditional country. In the seventies, rock and roll radio played a huge variety of music--some of which would surely be called country today. The hard-rock groups KISS and Queen could often be heard blasting from Garth's stereo, and when he went to a Queen concert for the first time in Oklahoma City (he's still got the ticket stub), he noticed how great it felt when Freddie Mercury seemed to look straight at him from the stage.
When Garth first heard Don McLean's epic "American Pie," he was hooked on the song, which told of a generation's journey through the worlds of politics and music.
Raymond Brooks brought Garth a poem called "The Man in the Glass" and hung it in Garth and Kelly's bedroom. It was an amazing bit of foresight on his part--telling his son that you're not a success until the man in the glass looks at you and says you are. Be true to yourself, Raymond was telling Garth, and the rest will fall into place.
Garth was popular in high school. He enjoyed being the center of attention. He didn't date until he was sixteen, and then, he says, he "went from one girl to another." He was vice president of his freshman class and senior homecoming king. Can't you just see Garth Brooks escorting the homecoming queen into the prom? He even had the guts to do something most teenage boys wouldn't want to be caught dead doing.
The Future Homemakers of America club had begun a campaign to convince young men to take home economics courses. Garth accompanied Yukon High's home-ec teacher, Pam Sheldon, to some speaking engagements. "Garth said, ÔGuys, it's okay to be in home ec and to be in FHA chapters,'" Pam Sheldon says, adding that Garth was always easygoing and well mannered, one of those guys who got along with everyone.
Yukon High football coach Milt Bassett reluctantly asked Garth to give up his position as starting quarterback on the Millers in his senior year. The coach wanted a junior to take that spot and have time to develop into a stronger player. Garth agreed. Bassett thought it "took a lot for a young man to give up the starting quarterback position and still play for the team."
Even with the time he spent on music and sports--and on his part-time job reading water meters for the city of Yukon--Garth got good grades in high school. Education was important to the Brookses, and all of Garth's brothers had gone to college. (His sister Betsy went to college for one day and didn't like it.) Garth was accepted into Oklahoma State University in Stillwater (remember that name) before he graduated from high school in the spring of 1980. His brother Kelly was already there on a track scholarship. Garth got a sports scholarship as well, a nice break for a family with two kids in college at the same time. No doubt it was also nice for the Brookses that OSU was only an hour and a half's drive from Yukon.
Music filled the corridors of Iba Hall, the athletic dormitory at Oklahoma State University where Garth roomed with his brother Kelly. The hauntingly rich and beautiful voice that has now enthralled millions around the world grew and developed in that dorm as he jammed with his fellow students, playing whatever songs captured his musical imagination. All of that singing and playing paid off when Garth was elected to represent Iba Hall in a talent show at the Student Union's Little Theatre in April of his sophomore year. For playing a few songs by Dan Fogelberg, Garth walked away with the $50 first prize.
Garth became a regular player at the OSU Student Union on Friday nights during the "Aunt Molly's Rent-Free Music Emporium." With his friend Dale Pierce, who loved bluegrass and folk music, and another pal, Jim Kelley, a graduate-assistant hurdler coach at OSU, Garth would perform in the children's ward at Stillwater Medical Center.
With Dale and Jim, Garth formed a group called Dakota Blue. The three musicians were great together--writing songs and playing constantly in Iba Hall and anywhere else they could--and it seemed they might have a shot at something big. Then something happened that nearly crushed Garth: Jim Kelley was killed when a small plane in which he was a passenger crashed near Stillwater Airport.
Another person Garth met and played music with at OSU was Ty England, a guitar player. Ty and Garth played really well together--and promised each other that whoever got a break first would bring the other one along for the ride.
Garth was working on his guitar playing--with great results--and writing songs as well. His performances at and around OSU had the same effect on girls as Garth had in high school: they loved him! The fact that Garth didn't have a steady girlfriend at the time only made the college girls more enamored of his charms onstage.
Most performers will tell you that at a certain point the response of listeners to their music becomes as vital to the experience as the playing itself--perhaps more so. As fans, we know the rush we get while watching and hearing music, feeling it move our bodies and touch our hearts. The energy that gets stirred up in us reflects back onto the performer, who becomes enveloped in the love and joy of whatever number of people he's reaching with his song. If it's a thrilling experience for fans, imagine what it must feel like for the performer up on the stage.
There at Aunt Molly's or at the many campus parties where he was often asked to play, Garth Brooks got a taste of the power of his music to move people, to bring out their emotions. The more of that feedback he experienced, the more he strived to make his music stronger, more direct, a deeper call to the hearts of his listeners.
A call came into Garth's own heart in the summer of 1981. As he was driving to the store with his father, the radio was playing a song called "Unwound" by a singer Garth--and most everyone else, for that matter--had never heard of. His name was George Strait.
Throughout the late 1970s, while Garth Brooks was in high school discovering rock and pop and heavy-metal music, George Strait was struggling to get Nashville--the center of country music--to give him a record deal. Strait had grown up in Pearsall, Texas, south of San Antonio in the brush country where the land is flat and dry and the sky is vast and blue. The longhorn cattle that were brought up the Chisholm Trail through Oklahoma had been brought to Strait's South Texas ranch country a century earlier.
George Strait was a genuine cowboy. As he put it, "About the time most young men were playing Little League baseball, I was learning to rope and ride." Strait discovered his love for playing and singing genuine American country music--notably the songs of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys--while in the army, stationed in Hawaii in the early 1970s. He returned home to attend Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and with some fellow college musicians formed the Ace in the Hole Band. These guys tore up every country music bar in the area.
Guys loved George Strait because he was a tall, cool cowboy. Girls loved George because he was so good-looking and charming. Music fans loved what he was playing. But Nashville didn't love him at all when he first came to town seeking a record deal. Here was a great singer with a great band playing real country music--and Music City in the late 1970s dismissed him as being "too country." It wasn't that people didn't think he was good, it was just that Nashville was going through a time when pop music's influence on country was strong.
Finally, in 1979, when Strait was about ready to quit music and take a job with a cattle pen outfit in Uvalde, Texas, MCA Records gave him the kind of deal cautious record companies were trying in those days--a deal for a single. If the single became a hit, MCA would agree to release a George Strait album.
That single was "Unwound." The song became a hit for George Strait, which is something all country music fans are grateful for. One fan is even more grateful. Garth turned up the radio in his daddy's car and listened intently to the song.
"All of a sudden, it hit me," Garth says. "It was like, ÔMy God, I love this sound. That's it! That's what I'm gonna do!'"
By this time, music was center stage in the life of Garth Brooks. He continued to run track, but with his heart and his interests elsewhere, he didn't particularly distinguish himself there. He became a javelin thrower, hurling the light metal spear distances that never much exceeded two hundred feet. In later interviews, Garth would refer to himself as more of a javelin catcher than a thrower. He did win a medal at the Kansas Relays.
"Athletics was a way to keep my interest in school," he says. It became clear to those who knew him that Garth's music was the passion that drove him. Sports fans might wish their favorite teams had someone with Garth Brooks's drive and passion, but it wasn't to be. Music fans, needless to say, are thrilled Garth turned his attention from sports to his other passion.
From Aunt Molly's and campus parties, Garth moved to his first real paying gig as a musician: Shotgun Sam's Pizza Parlor in Oklahoma City near an air force base. He played there four nights a week for five or six hours a night in 1982, earning $175 a week--and still had to pay for his own pizza. Still, doing that solo gig with his guitar and banjo gave him experience playing to a live audience that we all appreciate today.
Willie's Saloon, with its redbrick and wood-plank exterior, is on the section of Washington Street known in Stillwater as "The Strip." All the usual college-town businesses are there--restaurants, clothing stores, and bookstores. Bars with names like Coney Island and the Turning Point--and even one called Nuevo Wavo--were quieter now that the state of Oklahoma had raised the drinking age to twenty-one, but they were still busy enough to have live music. Dollye and Bill Bloodworth ran Willie's and paid the young singer $100 for a four-hour set. The folks sitting at the bar had a bird's-eye view of the small stage around the corner from the entrance and just past the two pool tables.
With a mustache, a full beard, and shoulder-length hair, Garth Brooks played a set that couldn't be characterized as any one type of music. He went from a Willie Nelson tune to a Neil Young song. He paid homage to his musical heroes, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg, and Billy Joel. Someone requested a song he'd heard only a few times, so he improvised it. Someone else called out the name of a song he'd never heard, and he tried to play it anyway. As the evening wore on and the beer kept flowing, people came up onstage and sang with him. Like every musician trying to please a crowd while still furthering his own musical dreams, between cover songs he snuck in a few he'd written himself. Willie's wasn't exactly a major musical venue, but it was a good place to start. And from the start, Garth Brooks took the stage seriously.
He was going to lots of concerts, seeing everyone from Kansas, Queen, and Styx to his country idol, George Strait, and observing what made each concert memorable. Elaborate stage settings, sound, and lights appealed to him. But so did the way George Strait simply stood at a microphone, making his own voice the star, backed by the great Ace in the Hole Band.
Garth ended his show with one of the songs he loved best. The audience sang "American Pie" along with him.
It was nice to be paid a hundred bucks to play music. In addition to Willie's, Garth played at any Stillwater nightspots that would have him. "Every club was a different type of music," he says. "I had a repertoire of three hundred and fifty songs--everything from Slim Whitman to Elton John."
But the gigs weren't regular, and even when he played a few nights a week it still was tough to make ends meet. So in addition to trying to keep up with his college courses, Garth needed a job.
DuPree's Sports Equipment store, across the street from Willie's, was owned by Eddie Watkins. Watkins and his wife, Ann, had taken a liking to Garth's music and loved his shows. Eddie Watkins realized Garth was struggling, so he offered him a job in the store.
Garth was majoring in advertising in college (he thought he'd learn about writing jingles as a way to make money with music). He had a great way with people, remembered their names, gave customers extra service, and was an asset to Watkins's business. Working at DuPree's gave Garth a chance to hone his people skills--skills that would become considerably greater as the years wore on. As for recalling people's names, maybe learning the lyrics to all the songs he sang onstage had something to do with Garth's superior memorization skills.
He wasn't afraid to work hard, and his energy seemed to have no limits. That's why Garth Brooks took yet another job during his senior year at OSU--as a bouncer at the Tumbleweed Ballroom, about seven miles west of town on Country Club Road.
It was here that Garth, who had never been a drinker to begin with, developed his disgust for alcohol. There's nothing like the smell of a bar where patrons have been drinking--and you-know-what-elsing--all night. Working as a bouncer in clubs--and cleaning up when the night was through--Garth came to hate that smell.
But the job was cool--he got to hang out with his friends and listen to a lot of music. Most of the customers wanted to pick on the bigger guys (Garth is six feet one, but in Oklahoma there are plenty of guys bigger than that), so he didn't get into too many fights. He danced a lot, played pool, and had fun.
When passing through Oklahoma, many national acts stopped in to play for the folks at the Tumbleweed. The locals who loved to get out and hear some good music filled the large metal building on Friday and Saturday nights. Plenty of OSU students also made their way to the Tumbleweed, including Sandy Mahl.
Sandy Gail Mahl was born in 1965 in the same hospital where Garth Brooks had been born almost three years earlier. She grew up in Owasso, Oklahoma, a city half the size of Yukon just north of Tulsa. Sandy's parents, John and Pat Mahl, had raised her and her older sister, Debbie, to do their chores--which included taking care of all the family's animals--and to go to church each Sunday. Growing up, Sandy loved the outdoors. In high school she ran track, was a cheerleader, and played basketball, activities that took a lot of discipline and commitment. Sandy promised her mother she would go to college and made good on that promise, arriving at OSU in the fall of 1983. Like so many other young girls experiencing their first real freedom away from home, she spent her freshman year of college partying.
Sandy Mahl had noticed the new bouncer at the Tumbleweed. She'd seen him surrounded by all the girls who loved to flirt with him. The young musician was a charmer, but he didn't have a steady girl--he was pretty single-minded about his music.
As a bouncer, there was no telling what scuffles Garth might have to deal with on any given night. Still, he had to be surprised one evening in 1984 when he was asked to straighten out a situation going on in, of all places, the ladies' room.
Sandy Mahl and another girl had gotten into a pretty heated argument concerning--what else?--a guy. The argument escalated and Sandy warned the other girl she might have to hurt her, but the girl would not back off. So Sandy hauled off, prepared to throw a punch, and instead stuck her fist through the wood-paneled wall of the rest room in the Tumbleweed Ballroom.
As if that weren't bad enough, she couldn't pull her hand back out.
And that is the way Sandy Mahl looked the first time Garth Brooks laid eyes on her. In her tight black jeans, black shirt, and a black cowboy hat, with her blond hair tousled from all the excitement, she looked good to Garth. So good, in fact, that after he delicately removed her arm from the wall, he told her the club's policy was that they couldn't let her leave by herself, since she'd had a few drinks. He convinced her to wait for him until he finished his night's work. He said he would see her home.
"I don't believe in love at first sight," Garth said, "but there was something there."
Garth drove Sandy back to campus. When he discovered they lived in neighboring dorms, Garth told Sandy his roommate was away and asked her to come up to his room. She told him to drop dead after calling him a few choice words. Garth took Sandy to the elevator at her own dormitory, and the two said good night. Garth thought she was pretty cool.
He called her the next morning, and they spent the day together. At first their dates consisted of walking around the beautiful OSU campus holding hands. Some time later, they started going to the movies together. The first movie they saw was Starman.
When Garth failed to qualify for the Big Eight track and field finals that year, he realized he hadn't been putting his all into sports. He was lying in the pole vault pit when a coach walked by and said the words that changed his life: "Now you can get to doing what you're supposed to do." Garth knew he was supposed to do music. And he knew with music he could say, "Maybe I'm not a loser." It was at that moment that Garth knew what he'd be putting his all into.
Garth decided to create a demo tape of some of his songs. The demo tape is the ticket inside any doors in the music business--if you're lucky enough to get any of those doors to open. Music business executives--and anyone remotely connected to them or working in any part of the business--are always handed new demos to listen to, songs by aspiring singers or songwriters who dream of the big break that will turn them into stars. For managers, agents, and A & R (artist and repertoire) people, all the nice talk, sold-out local club dates, appealing head shots, and giant plans don't amount to a hill of beans next to what really counts--the music. Garth knew that short of getting a powerful music business executive to come hear him live, a great demo tape was the only way he could prove he had talent.
To create his first demo, Garth managed to get himself into a real recording studio in Stillwater. He assembled several musicians from a country band in Claremore, Oklahoma, and a few female backup vocalists. They spent an entire weekend creating a tape with some of his original songs, the ones Garth considered his best.
In the summer of 1984, representatives from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville held open auditions in Oklahoma to find musicians to sing in the various theaters and attractions in their amusement park just east of downtown Nashville. After the folks from Music City heard Garth sing, they offered him a job singing popular country standards at Opryland. Garth had only one semester of college left. He told his parents he wanted to move to Nashville and pursue his dream of making it as a country singer. Colleen begged him not to go. She said she wanted her son to get a "real job." Raymond insisted that Garth finish college. Garth turned down the job and finished school. Nashville would have to wait a little longer.
By December of 1984, Garth Brooks and Sandy Mahl were a couple and Garth had finished up all of the credits he needed to get his bachelor of science degree in advertising from the Oklahoma State University School of Journalism. He gave his mother his graduation tassel, as his older brothers had done, and asked for her blessing to pursue a career in music. She withheld it but promised to pray for him, remembering how hard the entertainment business had been on her.
Garth wasn't thinking of how hard it would be to become a big country music star. Maybe he should have been: after all, when he graduated from college the number-one song in America was "Like a Virgin" by Madonna.
In the summer of 1985, Garth Brooks packed all of his stuff into his Honda Accord and took his dream east on Interstate 40. It was a twelve-hour drive straight to the heart of the country music business: Nashville, Tennessee.
His local audiences thought he had a chance. Folks at the shows in Stillwater had passed the hat to give Garth a few extra bucks for his journey. He told everyone he was going to Nashville to become a star in the country music business. He gave up his apartment in Stillwater and quit his job at DuPree's.
Garth would admit later he was even ready to walk away from his relationship with Sandy. He figured he'd go to Nashville and become a swinging bachelor with tons of bucks. Nothing mattered except making it in Nashville. He drove nonstop to Music City, listening to tapes of James Taylor and Chris LeDoux, listening to the beating of his own excited heart.
"I came to Nashville thinking that opportunity just hung on trees," Garth said, "and that all I had to do was take out my guitar and strum and sing."
He wasn't the first guy to arrive in Music City with a heart full of dreams and a head full of illusions. The highways into Nashville are jammed with talented singers, songwriters, and players hoping their moment has come. It hadn't occurred to Garth that music was a business. After all, he hadn't exactly been making a fortune--or even a living, for that matter--playing music.
Garth did have an advantage when he came to town--an appointment with Merlin Littlefield, who was the director of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Littlefield listened to Garth's demo tape. You know how lucky he was to get someone of Littlefield's stature to even listen to his tape?
Garth was waiting to hear the words every artist spent hours dreaming about, the words he'd no doubt prayed for on the whole ride from Stillwater to Nashville.
Instead he heard Littlefield say, "You've got a choice. You either starve as a songwriter or get five people and starve as a band." Garth sat there and listened to Littlefield talk about the realities of the country music business. The words "you've got a deal" were nowhere to be heard.
While Garth was in Littlefield's office, Littlefield received a call. He hung up the phone and said, "You're going to see one of the greatest writers in Nashville." Then the guy--a songwriter Garth had actually heard of--came into the office and said he was having trouble paying off a $500 loan.
Now Garth was really stunned. "I make more than that in a week back home."
"Go back home," Littlefield replied.
Garth went back to the Holiday Inn near Music Row. He left Nashville within twenty-three hours of his arrival, feeling, he said later, like a whipped pup. He stopped in Arkansas and called Sandy and told her, "I'm coming home." She was as confused as Garth by what had happened, but glad he was coming back. But Garth didn't go straight to Stillwater, where all his friends and well-wishers would no doubt have been as disappointed as he was. Instead he went home to Yukon, where Colleen did her best to comfort him. "It wasn't failure," she said about Garth's disappointing experience in Nashville. "He just didn't know the ins and outs." What a great mom--and one who knew better than most moms how tough the music business was.
"I pulled into Nashville expecting to see my name on every water tower around the place," Garth said. "I thought the world was waiting for me, but there's nothing colder than reality."
In June of 1985, the world was rumbling. There were hostilities between Iran and Iraq, unrest in Nicaragua and San Salvador, tensions between the United States and Israel over how to deal with the hijacking of a TWA flight from Athens by Lebanese terrorists, and controversy in Washington over military spending for such items as a $432 hammer. Tornadoes and earthquakes were shaking the country--hitting in such unlikely places as New York and Pennsylvania, and causing significant damage.
Madonna and Bruce Springsteen, along with the artist then called Prince, were at the top of the musical charts. But another event taking place in 1985 would play a major role in Garth Brooks's future.
Sam Walton decided to change the cash registers in his Wal-Mart stores from old-fashioned ones to computerized ones. When he did that, he discovered that his previous estimates of how well country music was selling in his stores had been way off. To make a long story short, the formula retailers use to calculate the profitability of merchandise showed country music was doing three times as well as Walton had previously believed. Rock music, on the other hand, was less profitable than he'd thought it was. With that discovery, Walton upped the amount of country music offered in the stores and lowered the amount of rock.
Garth was miserable. But his mood didn't stay that way for too long. He returned to Stillwater after a few weeks of licking his wounds in Yukon and found out his old place was still available for rent. He got his job back at DuPree's Sports. The crowd at Willie's Saloon was thrilled to have Garth's great music back for themselves. His friends were just as happy to see him as if he had made it big in Nashville. That helped ease the pain. And though it took a little coaxing, he even won back the heart of the woman he loved, Sandy Mahl.
It was okay. He played lots of music and had a good time. But the dream of bigger stardom wouldn't die. Ed and Ann Watkins over at DuPree's even had T-shirts made up that said "Garth Brooks World Tour." Garth was taking orders and selling the shirts, learning early on about merchandise and music.
"I've always felt that success is how you deal with failure," he said later. His energy, optimism, and determination were bigger than his disappointment.
Garth's home was a typical college apartment in a house just a few blocks away from the OSU campus. The floor was crooked, the ceiling was cracked, and the kitchen faucet leaked. Garth hung a picture of John Wayne on the wall. Songbooks from everyone from George Strait to Bob Seger were all over the living room.
But it was from this old house at the young age of twenty-four that Garth Brooks launched his plan to get the experience he needed to conquer the music business and achieve his dream.
That dream was of more than a career in music. He wanted to connect with people in a special way. He'd seen firsthand from the small stage at Willie's what effect his music could have--not just on a crowd but on each person in that crowd. The feeling he gave was tremendous. What he got back was just plain addictive.
To play a lot of music, Garth needed a good band. Tom Skinner, who had grown up in Bristow, Oklahoma, was a bass player who had formed a group with his brothers. The Skinner Brothers Band had recorded nine original songs in Tulsa but hadn't landed a record deal. By August of 1983, Tom was married and he and his wife Jeri had a child. Tom and his brother, Mike, both got jobs in the Stillwater post office and continued performing on the Strip in Stillwater, where Garth often sat in with them.
When Garth decided to form his own band he convinced Tom to join him, promising him they wouldn't go on the road so Tom could be home with his family.
Then he recruited Jed Lindsay, who hailed from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to join the band as lead guitarist. Jed had formed a rock group called Bliss and taken the band to Tulsa, opening for the big acts that came through to play at Cain's Ballroom. Later, Jed played with Rocking Horse, featuring Ronnie Dunn, who would later become half of country's greatest duo, Brooks & Dunn. He also performed at the Cornucopia Club in West Tulsa, where Betsy Smittle, Garth's sister, was a singer and bass player.
Couldn't have a band without a drummer. Matt O'Meilia lived just a few doors down from Garth. He was surprised when Garth knocked on his door one day and invited him to join the band. O'Meilia considered himself a rock and roll purist. Playing in a country music band--which was what he thought Garth was asking him to do--was not in his plans. But when Garth explained that the band would be playing all kinds of music, covering artists from James Taylor to Bob Seger to George Strait, Matt decided he'd give it a try.
On a Friday night in April 1986, Bink's was hopping. Mac Overholt had opened Bink's after running two other successful clubs in Stillwater. Bandalero's--where a bathtub full of salty peanuts kept the crowd thirsty--was followed by Cattle Country, where Garth sometimes played solo gigs. When Mac decided, along with Edmund "Bink" Simank, to open a bigger club closer to downtown and away from the Strip, he needed some entertainment to draw the college crowd. So he told Garth he could have the gig as house band. By that Friday night in April the band--which Garth called Santa Fe for no reason that anyone could figure out--was ready to make its world premiere.
The stage was about ten times as big as the one at Willie's. And the dance floor, surrounded by a wooden fence, was huge. As soon as Santa Fe started playing, the floor filled up with two-steppin' couples who, like those in most dance bars, were more interested in each other than in the music. Like the music coming from the stage, the audience was of a mixture of ages and backgrounds--sorority and fraternity members, cowboys, older couples. Garth's pals from DuPree's Sports were there, as was his new fiance, Sandy Mahl.
Garth played his round-backed Ovation guitar while harmonizing with Tom. Jed played lead in his uniquely exciting style. Matt on drums was a little tentative at first but got into it as the night wore on. To give some variety to the show, Tom Skinner took the microphone with a couple of songs by popular singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell, while Garth stood behind playing the bass. It wasn't a bad first gig. It was a great display of Garth's range. Rock, pop, and even "The Tennessee Waltz" rang through the big new club.
Tom Skinner remembers that Garth "wanted to be an entertainer and a hero to people and music was the way to get there."
Matt O'Meilia later wrote a book about his experiences playing with Garth's first band, called The Road Out of Santa Fe. It's a wonderful story of all the ups and downs and often hilarious adventures of young musicians playing their hearts out and actually making enough of a living to survive in a college town in the mid-1980s. O'Meilia describes seeing Garth perform onstage close up from his seat behind the drums and being amazed by the intensity and wonder that Garth seemed to feel.
"His face and his entire body were in perpetual motion," O'Meilia writes. "He walked, he jogged, he strutted with mock heavy-metal bravado . . . his every emotion naked."
That evening was the beginning of more shows just like it. Bluegrass, gospel, Gene Autry classics--whatever the crowd wanted to hear, Santa Fe would play. In the process, Garth Brooks was developing that amazing voice, a voice that could sound like anyone else, a voice that always sounded distinctive as well.
It was at Bink's that Garth and Santa Fe played the only original song they ever played in their sets full of covers--one that Garth had written with a friend, rodeo rider Randy Taylor. The song was called "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)."
The lyrics refer to "a worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux." On his twelve-hour ride from Stillwater to Nashville for his one-day lesson in the harsh realities of the music business, Garth had almost worn out his own Chris LeDoux tape. It's easy to see why Garth was so enamored of LeDoux--a great musician whose first big accomplishment was winning the horseback-riding championship (and being runner-up in the bull-riding competition) at the national finals of the Little Britches Rodeo when he was just fourteen. That set him on the path to becoming famous on the rodeo circuit. As a junior in college, he joined the Professional Rodeo Championship Association.
Being born in Biloxi, Mississippi, and raised in Austin, Texas, gave LeDoux his love of music. He wrote rodeo songs in college, making his first records in a basement studio, then went on to record twenty-two albums over twenty years as an independent artist. These albums included every old cowboy song he could find as well as more than a hundred songs he wrote himself. His concerts were incredibly popular. His stage performance was wild and free.
Soon after that first gig at Bink's, Garth convinced Tom Skinner's brother Mike to join the group. Mike was a great fiddle player who had honed his chops down in Lake Charles, Louisiana, not with a group but playing alone in his apartment after working all day as a pipe fitter. Mike's great voice harmonized with Garth's, and his fiddle playing lent a distinctive country accent to whatever the band was playing.
The band was playing a lot. But on May 24, 1986, Santa Fe's founder and lead singer was busy, so they took the weekend off. In a small ceremony in Owasso, Oklahoma, Sandy Mahl and Garth Brooks were married as their happy families looked on. If the newlyweds took a honeymoon it was a short one, because Santa Fe was back on the Bink's stage the following Saturday night.
Sandy and Garth's house on South Duck Street--the same house Matt O'Meilia had been living in when Garth invited him to be his drummer--was painted bright yellow with white trim and had a small but inviting front porch. O'Meilia reports that in the winter the house's old heating system made the upstairs sweltering hot and the downstairs freezing cold. But the young couple was happy there, finding among the many things they had in common a love for breakfast cereal and sweets, especially Coca-Cola.
The band hadn't been together a month when Garth got them booked on a local morning show, A.M. Oklahoma. Few are the musicians who appreciate having to be up at the crack of dawn for any reason, but this TV appearance could only help Santa Fe, as the already savvy Garth Brooks well knew. In addition to the show's regular audience, all of the band's friends and family tuned in to watch.
They couldn't help but be delighted by what they saw. First of all, the folks from DuPree's Sports saw Garth wearing a ball cap with their logo on it. Nice touch, Garth! Santa Fe began their morning set with Charlie Daniels's "Drinking My Baby Goodbye." After some chitchat with the host--in which Garth managed to sneak in another plug for DuPree's--Santa Fe played a great rendition of George Strait's "Nobody in His Right Mind."
The appearance on A.M. Oklahoma only made Santa Fe more popular. Even better, Bink's was booking some of the biggest acts in country music during the summer of 1986, people like Steve Earle, Johnny Paycheck, and the New Grass Revival, among others. Santa Fe got to open for all of them. Like many new bands, they hoped to outplay the headliners. Whether they did or not, the idea made them stretch their talents and strive even harder to be great.
One of the big acts that Santa Fe opened for was Dwight Yoakam. Yoakam was a dozen years older than Garth and was headlining around the country in small clubs and medium-size venues after the release of his first album, A Town South of Bakersfield, and his highly acclaimed 1986 Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. Born in the coal-mining area of Kentucky, Yoakam had started to write music at the age of eight.
Yoakam spent a few years in Nashville in the mid-seventies, but it wasn't until he went to California in 1977 that he found the inspiration that would make him stand out from the pack. The Bakersfield sound, made famous by Buck Owens, got a new interpretation from the young Yoakam and the emerging audience for the fusion of country and rock.
After seeing the excitement Yoakam could generate with his show, Garth looked at Santa Fe and said, "There it is. There's our show." From that moment, he knew he could combine the best of a rockin' show with a country music feel.
Santa Fe also played at the Tumbleweed Ballroom--where Garth had once been a bouncer and was now the headliner--and the Cimarron Country Ballroom. At the Cimarron, seven miles south of Stillwater, an older crowd of ranchers and businessmen was getting hooked on the sounds of Garth Brooks and Santa Fe. Garth tailored the song selections to the age and apparent interests of the crowd, creating the show as he went along, pulling from the seemingly endless list of songs whose lyrics he knew by heart.
Even with all of this work, Garth still played at Willie's at least one night a week, as a solo act.
Local bands play local clubs and honky-tonks all the time throughout America. Maybe some of them are just happy to be there, playing their music, making a small living, having a good time, being part of a constant party. Maybe some of the guys in Santa Fe felt the same way. But not all of them. Garth Brooks was having a ball, to be sure, but he still was looking east with reverence all the time, planning his return to the promised land of Nashville. Between sets he went out and mingled with the audience. While the other guys in the band were out in the parking lot taking a break, Garth would be in the middle of the crowd, shaking hands and talking to people. Between gigs all he wanted to do was play some more.
And all the while in those little clubs, he dreamed about playing in the big arenas like his rock and roll heroes.
Tulsa City Limits! If it isn't the best country music and dance club in America, it's sure up there with the best. And it was definitely the hot place to play in Tulsa. For its first year, it was a rock club--until country music became cooler than rock and the club became a boot-scootin' funfest. Gary Bentley and his wife, Delaney, run it with sass and class.
Santa Fe was booked at the club on the perfect weekend in mid-September of 1986: OSU's football team was playing the University of Tulsa. For two nights, the band showed Tulsa--and all the Yukon and Oklahoma City and Stillwater folks who'd come to the show--a great time. Garth's sister Betsy, who was then playing in a hot local band with Gus Hardin, joined Santa Fe onstage, as did Ty England, Garth's friend from the OSU dorms.
In October, Santa Fe competed in the Marlboro Talent Roundup semifinals in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Inaugurated in 1983, the Marlboro Talent Roundup rounded up local bands in cities across America in a contest for a cash prize and the opportunity to be the opening act for the company's concert tour. Garth and Santa Fe--like all the bands doing their best that day--were eager to open for Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, and The Judds when they came to Oklahoma City's Myriad Convention Center later in the month. The grand prize was the real attraction: a trip to Nashville and a recording session in a major studio with a top producer and recording engineer. Everyone wanted to win that!
The judges had lots of bands to listen to, so each band was really careful not to risk breaking the many rules--including being disqualified on the spot if their set went over ten minutes.
With their local fans cheering them on, Santa Fe performed "Unwound," the George Strait hit that had knocked Garth's socks off when he first heard it, followed by a Randy Travis tune, "Diggin' Up Bones," and finished with Tom Skinner singing and doing lead guitar on "Guitar Town" while Garth played bass. They didn't win the contest, but they came in third. Not bad. It got Garth thinking that the band should test whether they were really any good--or whether it was hometown spirit that gave them so many fans in Oklahoma.
So in late October, Santa Fe headed south to--where else?--New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, to play a show at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Before they left, Colleen and Raymond made them a feast at their house in Yukon. With Jed, Tom, and Matt in Jed's SuperCab and Garth and Mike Skinner in Garth's GMC Jimmy, Santa Fe was going on the road.
The first show the band played in front of the Student Union didn't enchant anyone. But the following evening in the main Student Union auditorium, at a show for the alumni, Santa Fe blew the roof off. The crowd was dancing, the music was flowing, and Garth got the answer to his question: he and Santa Fe were able to make believers out of strangers as well as friends.
Toward the end of 1986, Garth was ready to make his move--or at least to start planning it. He'd formed Santa Fe for the purpose of having a band, playing constantly and getting ready for his next assault on Music City. That goal had been achieved.
He talked to the band members. Tom Skinner and his wife were ready to pack up their family and go. Mike Skinner agreed he'd like to see what Nashville was all about. Jed Lindsay was thrilled to say yes. But Matt O'Meilia decided to stay behind. He had just gotten his teaching certificate, and though he was ready to leave Stillwater, he didn't want to go to Nashville. He agreed to stay with Santa Fe until they found a new drummer who was willing to travel along the road Garth had mapped out.
Randy Taylor and Garth wrote another song together, called "Oklahoma Christmas." They recorded it on a very low budget and added some live crowd sounds. Garth sent it to several Oklahoma radio stations and got a story about the song in the Stillwater NewsPress. Guess what? Stations in Tulsa, Enid, and Oklahoma City put it on the air--and it went to number eleven on the Oklahoma country charts.
On New Year's Eve, Santa Fe played at the Bamboo Ballroom in Enid, Oklahoma, an airplane hangar that had been converted after World War II into a dance club. According to Matt O'Meilia, the band was paid a thousand dollars for the show--a fortune compared to what they usually pulled in for a gig.
The International Finals Rodeo, held at the Tulsa Fairgrounds, attracts rodeo enthusiasts from all over the world. Following Santa Fe's knockout performance at Tulsa City Limits back in September, they were booked to play again in January for four nights to coincide with the event.
The audience was primed for the great Santa Fe sound and the astonishing voice--not to mention stage antics--of its lead singer, Garth Brooks. The band played a couple of songs with Garth in the lead, then he turned over the lead singing duties to Tom Skinner. This didn't seem unusual to the audience members or the band. Garth often took turns with Tom.
Everyone cheered when Garth started singing George Strait's hit "Amarillo by Morning" but grew quieter when it became hard to hear his voice. They got quieter still when Garth began speaking, barely able to say that he was losing his voice and the band couldn't continue playing. He hoped the folks would come back and see them the next night.
Many of them did. And on the first song, Garth's voice was fine. But during the second song, he told the band to stop. To the astonishment of many in the audience, he said, "I can't do this to country music." He told them he was sorry, his voice was gone. He hoped they'd forgive him and his band.
It was sad for Santa Fe's many fans in the audience to watch Garth and the guys take down their equipment. Soon the audience began dancing to the club's stereo system. The musicians were really bummed--especially Matt O'Meilia. The Tulsa City Limits engagement would be his last with Santa Fe and he'd wanted to go out with a great gig, not one that had to be canceled from the stage. Later that month, a drummer named Troy Jones, who had played with a bunch of other Oklahoma bands, took O'Meilia's place.
With Nashville on his mind, Garth wanted the band to get really tuned up for the big move. He booked them into every club, hall, ballroom, party, and school function he could find. They started saving money for the trip to Nashville and to have a little cushion while they got started there.
In April, Santa Fe played its last show at Willie's, basking in the good wishes of the crowd and the good-luck banners that filled the bar. More farewell shows followed at the Cimarron Ballroom and Bink's. The band returned to Tulsa City Limits, and this time Garth's voice filled the huge club.
The last show in Oklahoma, in May of 1987, was at Norm's Country Ballroom in Ponca City, where Norm told the crowd that Garth Brooks and Santa Fe were going to become the "biggest damn thing" country music had ever seen. He called them "the next monsters of country music."
Jo Sgammato is the New York Times bestselling author of Dream Come True: The LeAnn Rimes Story, Keepin' It Country: The George Strait Story, Country's Greatest Duo: The Brooks & Dunn Story, and For the Music: The Vince Gill Story. She divides her time between New York and Nashville.
by Jo Sgammato
A Ballantine Hardcover, 7/99