When he was done, he shook Biden’s hand. He shook former vice president Mike Pence’s hand and Vice President Harris’s hand, too. Brooks put his cowboy hat back on and was dutifully walking up the stairs to exit, he said, when Obama suddenly caught his attention with a quick, “How ya doin,’ Garth?”
What would anyone do in that situation?
“I hugged his neck,” Brooks explained. “Hugged Miss Michelle.” Then he noticed the couple’s seatmates. “As I’m hugging Miss Michelle, there’s the Clintons — so I go over and hug them and tell them I love them. Then I hear this voice go, ‘Hell, you love everybody.’ I look over and there are the Bushes. Now, 41 — Jiminy Christmas, I worship that man and I worship his family. So I go hug them.”
Brooks, sitting on a couch in his recording studio in Nashville last month, laughed at the memory. “And now I’m holding things up. It’s like, ‘Oh, crap!’ So you just try and run as fast as you can and get out of there.” His expression turned thoughtful. “It’s gotta be some kind of record. I don’t know who has hugged that many presidents in that short of time.”
Really, you could not script a moment — which of course went viral — to more accurately capture the beloved legend that is Garth Brooks, the unifying megastar who redefined country music in the 1990s, leading its growth from niche format to global phenomenon. His combination of traditional country injected with rock and pop enchanted listeners who previously scoffed at the idea they could relate to anyone in a cowboy hat. He has sold out stadiums and arenas around the world by treating country shows like rock concerts, and has been certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as the top-selling solo artist in history, just ahead of Elvis Presley.
For all these reasons, Brooks, 59, will receive the Kennedy Center Honor in Washington next week, one in a small class of country artists in the ceremony’s 44-year history. As with any award he has won — every one you can think of — he waves off praise: “I just want to represent God and my family and where I’m from — Yukon, Oklahoma — the best I can.”
Washington was where Brooks played his final concert before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down the world. Last March, he dazzled a packed DAR Constitution Hall after being presented with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Brooks has thought about that night a lot. It was a particularly contentious time, yet politicians who were fighting earlier in the week were standing a few feet away from each other, all rocking out during an epic singalong of “Friends in Low Places.”
“I couldn’t tell who was red or blue . . . but everyone singing the same lyric. It was like, how cool was that?” Brooks said. “It stayed with me, and it stayed with me for a reason. For me — and I don’t know if everybody outside of D.C. is this way — there is no red or blue. For me, there’s red, white and blue. It’s us as a community.”
That thought, he said, hit him as he took the stage at inauguration: “The thing that unites people is singing together.”
A wistful view of the world? Sure — but it’s not wrong. When you spend 30 years onstage looking at a sea of ecstatic faces, as fans from all walks of life go hoarse as they sing-scream “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and openly weep during “The Dance,” you start to believe that your purpose is to bring everyone together. Countless strangers tell you that your song was the first dance at their wedding, or played at their father’s funeral, or changed their lives, and you never want to upset any of them. You’re the escape from their burdens, the soundtrack to their most joyful and difficult moments.
Brooks takes this role seriously, so it’s no surprise he doesn’t like talking about politics and with very few exceptions, will not wade into contentious issues. (He agreed to sing at Biden’s inauguration not as a political statement but rather “a statement of unity.”) As a result, everyone wants him on their side. Nearly every president in the past three decades has asked him to perform at a high-profile event.
Still, Brooks is too savvy and too famous to believe that he can please every single person. He vigorously dismissed the idea that he was worried about alienating anyone with an appearance at the inauguration in this very divisive time.
“If I do something that pisses you off that makes you want to burn the CDs, burn them,” he said. “I’m not running for president, so I’m not trying to be everything to everybody. All I can be is myself. And if you dig that, great. If you don’t? World’s big enough. Thank you for the chance to listen.”
At this point in his career, he said, he remains grateful for the fans who stand by him no matter what. “I just gotta be who I am. And if that means zero people show up or a billion people show up, you still are who you are.”
Spending time in person with Garth Brooks is everything and nothing like you would expect. Warm and chatty, he lives up to his longtime image as the nicest guy in Nashville. He will inquire about where your parents live and if you had any side effects from the coronavirus vaccine. He will say "Hello, gorgeous" to his wife, country music star and Food Network host Trisha Yearwood, when she drops by. After you discover a shared love of M&Ms, he will reveal one of his favorite recipes, albeit one that would never appear in one of "Miss Yearwood's" cookbooks: Put plain M&Ms in a bowl and microwave them for 60 seconds. He calls it "mayhem," because of the two M's. (While this plays a bit fast and loose with the word "recipe," we can confirm it is delicious.)
He’s not just that way with reporters: His friend Billy Joel — whose smash “Shameless” is one of Brooks’s most successful covers — recalled meeting Brooks in the 1990s and, as a rough-around-the-edges New Yorker, was taken aback by his Midwestern manners.
“He called me ‘Mr. Joel’ and he kept calling me ‘sir,’ which made me uncomfortable,” Joel said. “I said, ‘Stop calling me “sir,” call me Bill.’ He was very, very polite and I appreciated that, because I wasn’t used to it in any way . . . it’s very charming.”
Brooks is also almost jarringly intense. During an hour-long interview, he teared up no fewer than six times. Brooks cries a lot: when he sings an especially meaningful ballad, when other artists pay tribute to him at award shows, when he talks about his family in his recent documentary, “The Road I’m On.” On this day, he was feeling especially raw. In the middle of telling a story about performing in front of his hero James Taylor at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors, he choked up and had to stop.
“I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Whenever a song comes to you to write, it knocks on your door. I’ve had this idea for 14, 15 months and today, it picks the day to go, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ It’s a real emotional song, so forgive me.”
Brooks did not reveal the lyrics, but there’s little doubt that it could make anyone cry. His enormous catalogue spans the universal human experience: the rollicking thrill of young love in “Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up),” chasing dreams in “The River,” living without regret in “Unanswered Prayers,” drinking with abandon in “Two Pina Coladas.” His most iconic anthem taps into the ultimate relatable feeling: Who among us doesn’t have the secret desire to blame it all on your roots, show up in boots and ruin a black-tie affair?
Growing up in central Oklahoma, the youngest of six children in a blended family, Brooks absorbed all kinds of sounds: the Eagles, Bob Seeger, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Taylor.
“Father was U.S. Marine, Mom was tougher than he was. So it was a tough house,” Brooks said. “But if you came home and heard James Taylor playing . . . you knew that things were going to be great.”
As the story goes, Brooks — who decided he wanted to be a country singer in college after hearing George Strait on the radio — lasted 23 hours on his first trip to Nashville when he learned he was making more money playing with his band at dance halls in rural Oklahoma than many professional songwriters in Music City. He returned home, sulked for a while, then hit the local venues with a vengeance.
Two years later, newly married to his first wife Sandy Mahl and with fresh ambition, he tried again and became a classic Nashville tale: Music executive Bob Doyle, still his manager today, heard him play at the Bluebird Cafe and offered him a publishing deal. In June 1988, Brooks signed a recording contract with Capitol Records, and nine months later released his first single, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” He was 27.
The midtempo track about life on the road shot up the country charts, and his next single, the swooning “If Tomorrow Never Comes” went No. 1. Thus the start of the Garth Brooks explosion: His first three albums from 1989 through 1991 (“Garth Brooks,” “No Fences,” “Ropin’ the Wind”) sold tens of millions of copies. Then he started selling out stadiums.
“There were arena acts in country music at that point, by the late ’80s and early ’90s, but Garth eclipsed that by the power of 10 in terms of going to stadiums,” said country star Dwight Yoakam, whom Brooks credits as one of his onstage inspirations, along with Reba McEntire, Chris LeDoux and the Judds. “He was the first act in country to really take it to that level, and to sustain it with the sales he had. He transcended the previous boundaries.”
A country star’s dizzyingly quick ascent shocked the music world, so naturally, there were naysayers. One narrative was that Brooks was scandalizing the idea of “real” country music because he incorporated rock music into tracks like “Papa Loved Mama” and covered Aerosmith. In 1991, the New York Times sniffed that Brooks wasn’t “truly a country singer” and instead was “an old-fashioned and sensitive singer-songwriter.” Looking back, and considering the blend of genres that wound end up dominating country radio, such comments did not age well.
“That stuff’s stone country now,” Brooks laughed.
He also inspired future Nashville singers. “I remember some people then that were way older than me, and they were talking about how ‘this kid’ was just going to ruin country music,” said breakout country star Ashley McBryde, who recently joined Brooks for a songwriting session. “Are you kidding? To me, that was the golden era of country music.”
“It was hilarious that people were thinking ‘This is too rock’ or ‘This is too pop’ or ‘This is going to ruin country music,’ ” she added, “when he wound up shaping a generation of us in the best way.”
When a celebrity becomes so popular so quickly, everyone searches for the reason. What's the magic formula?
Brooks’s unprecedented rise occurred as country music was enjoying a cultural resurgence, with acts such as Strait, Yearwood, McEntire and Randy Travis selling millions of records and concert tickets. His popularity coincided with the launch of Nielsen SoundScan in 1991, a new measurement system that tracked record sales and was proof of his jaw-dropping numbers. And then there’s what we call the live Garth experience.
“I think people were taken aback by the performance element of it all,” Brooks said. “I don’t know why, but somewhere there must have been a rule that people onstage couldn’t have as much fun as the people in the audience.”
He decided to break that rule. Brooks concerts meant pyrotechnics and laser lights and fog machines and sometimes stunts involving swinging on cables and ropes over the crowd. He would run to every point of the stage, trying to get as close to fans as possible, and his exuberance was infectious. His headset — the kind that pop stars like Janet Jackson and Britney Spears popularized — has been a long-running joke: “As a cowboy, I don’t know what I’d do without my wireless headset microphone,” he said during a “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Will Ferrell in 1998 that poked fun at his elaborate concert setups.
“He works that stage and he doesn’t let up for a second,” Joel said. “You gotta knock yourself out on that stage, and that’s what he does every time he plays.”
Even with his years of concerts that have broken attendance records, Brooks has vivid memories from his days as an opening act. At one festival, his bass player accidentally knocked out the power to everything except Brooks’s guitar and microphone. He froze, not sure how to kill enough time for someone to fix the problem. So he started playing the longest song he knew: “A long, long time ago, I can still remember, how that music used to make me smile . . .”
The crowd roared. Brooks teared up at the memory. “We only had 15 minutes . . . but what worked well in our favor was we couldn’t come back. So they wanted more than they got,” he said. “So then when we booked there again, there they came. People showed up.”
Brooks may have a reputation as the superstar with a heart of gold ("He's so sweet that you'll get a cavity just talking to him," McBryde said), but he won't back down when he believes in something.
The lyrics of the 1992 hit “We Shall Be Free” called for equality and imagined a day “when we’re free to love anyone we choose.” Support for LGBTQ rights was considered so progressive in country music at the time that Brooks won a GLAAD Media Award for best song. Brooks co-wrote the track in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that broke out after four police officers were acquitted for beating Black motorist Rodney King. Brooks said he’s “stunned” by how timely the song still is today.
“What I’ve seen is the song become more like it was written yesterday than it was 25 years ago,” he said. “It’s like come on, people, how can we be going backward? Really? Loving one another shouldn’t be this hard.”
Throughout his career, Brooks has tried to offer support to others in ways that made a statement. He started his own streaming service, GhostTunes, to compensate songwriters fairly for their work; it was absorbed by Amazon Music, the only place that streams his discography. He took himself out of consideration for the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year title last year because he won so many times before. In 1996, he refused to accept the American Music Awards favorite artist of the year trophy, leaving it onstage because he felt it should have gone to Hootie and the Blowfish.
“We were really still just these kids from South Carolina that had hit this wave,” said Darius Rucker, Hootie frontman and contemporary country music star. “When he left [the trophy] there and then he said what he said, it really validated what we were doing out there and how hard we were working. It made it even cooler that somebody like Garth Brooks noticed.”
Brooks also still steadfastly believes in Chris Gaines, his rocker alter-ego from 1999, whom he positioned as a fictional character that would be the star of an eventual movie. A Gaines album “flopped” — it sold only around 2 million copies, a real disappointment back then — and the movie never happened. Gaines became a laughingstock.
Naturally, Gaines has since become a cult phenomenon, and Brooks recently teased in a Facebook live stream there are some lost tracks that could be on the way soon. Brooks confirms that if anything, that announcement was an understatement.
“What I love about the Gaines stuff is, no matter how badly it got the s--- kicked out of it when it came out, the music is the thing that has stayed over time,” he said. “If people are excited about it, that’s why . . . I don’t know how to take this, but [Miss Yearwood] says that’s her favorite Garth Brooks record.”
After Brooks and his first wife filed for divorce in 2000, he shocked the world by taking 14 years off to help raise his three daughters, saying he needed to spend time with them after years on the road. In 2005, he married Yearwood, and their careers are frequently intertwined. Since his “comeback” in 2014, Brooks has steadily toured stadiums and released music; his current single is a duet with Yearwood, a cover of the Oscar-winning “Shallow” from the latest iteration of “A Star Is Born.”
Right now, like everyone else, he’s patiently waiting until life can return to “normal” post-pandemic. He will resume his stadium tour in July. But he’s excited for the smaller moments to return.
“I’d probably break down if I got to stare at my wife across the table at a restaurant,” he said, becoming emotional again. “Just see the candlelight on her face and just stare at her and just order dinner and never eat. And look at her and talk to her. How cool would that be? A waiter coming by and ask if you need anything? I can’t help but feel I was taking things for granted. Because those things seem very special now.”
And later this month, he will be in Washington to accept his Kennedy Center Honor for a career that still seems surreal — but may be the exact one he was meant to have.
“People go, ‘That’s not possible’ or ‘That’s too much work.’ I’ve been told that my whole life,” he said. “And you know what? Once you start doing the work, a lot of impossible things start to be possible.”
The Kennedy Center Honors will air at 8 p.m. June 6 on CBS.