As the 1990s drew to a close, a conversation stirred among some music-loving pals in my living room, prompted by a simple but seemingly unanswerable question: Why was Garth Brooks such a big deal?
The discussion sprang up as the singer's first full decade as one of top-selling artists of any genre had come to a close. A year earlier, in fact, he sold out three consecutive nights at Rupp Arena as quickly as ticket sales could be processed.
The question wasn't presented for discussion out of spite. It was an honest query into the hysterical popularity of a true pop-culture phenomenon. Now, here we are, nearly 15 years later, with another extended Rupp engagement about to commence and the same question looming. That's because the appeal of a singer who has sold in excess of 134 million albums, but has spent the better part of the years since his last Lexington visit out of the spotlight, seems inexhaustible.
To explain Brooks' still-staggering level of stardom, one must first review the primary commercial practice that apparently hasn't played into his popularity: glamour. Brooks has never been pin-up material, and unlike the stars who have come in his wake, from Billy Ray Cyrus in 1992 to Luke Bryan in 2013, he has never been some buffed-up, hip-swiveling pseudo star infatuated with self-image.
But Brooks is no stoic country traditionalist either. He long ago asserted a love of the band Kiss and scored a major hit (Shameless) penned by Billy Joel as far back as 1991.
What Brooks did manage, upon the release of his self-titled debut album in 1989, was to tap into just enough of the pop mainstream to reach an eager young fan base. And it wasn't an audience reared on George Jones and Merle Haggard, either. These were people who came of age listening to Bob Seger, The Doobie Brothers and especially The Eagles, acts with softened rock profiles and varying degrees of country consciousness embedded in their music.
Sure, the career-defining Brooks single Friends in Low Places might have been pitched to a more Nashville-savvy audience. But Shameless, which topped charts a year later, certainly wasn't. The thing was, though, audiences well outside of Nashville liked what they heard out of the singer. In short order, Brooks was often referred to as a country artist for people who didn't normally care for or even know about country music. But country fans seemed equally enthusiastic. Once Brooks knew he had the ultimate crossover audience feeding from his hand, there was no turning back. He had found his fan base, and it was huge.
"The emotion Brooks puts into his singing, an emotion that compounds Hank Williams and George Jones not just with Dan Fogelberg and Gregg Allman but with Julio Iglesias and Michael Bolton, is rooted in something more than his own not inconsiderable accomplishments as a performer," famed music critic Lester Bangs wrote in a 1994 commentary for L.A. Weekly. "It's rooted in his faith that five million purchasers of his album are singing along."
Today, the enduring nature of that fan base is something to marvel at. Having "retired" from the music industry in fall 2000, Brooks has now returned full force to an industry overrun with chart-topping crossover artists.
This year alone, Rupp Arena has hosted two sellout country concerts, one by Bryan in February, the other by Jason Alden in September. But Brooks again defuses anyone who even resembles a competitor. Sales for his four Rupp shows this weekend have sailed past 67,000, breaking his own record set by the 1998 performances.
That means the question of the hour is no longer, 'Why is Garth Brook such a big deal?' but 'Why is Garth Brooks still such a big deal?'
Maybe it's that the singer emerged from retirement without any detectable sign of change. He remains the seemingly humble country crossover act on the outside and a veteran marketing wizard in the music industry. The only real difference is that after moving 134 million albums, Brooks can now plot, promote and execute his career any way he chooses while appearing every bit the everyman to his faithful public.
"Garth Brooks is the luckiest man on the face of the earth," Michael Corcoran wrote in The Dallas Morning News in 1992. "He's a very good singer with great taste, but if he was just some guy at a party, sitting on a couch singing his songs, you wouldn't think, "One day this guy's gonna knock Michael Jackson out of No. 1.
"Instead, you'd think, "I wonder if he knows Fire and Rain?"