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Humble in the Saddle : Country's Hottest New Star, Garth Brooks, Is Just a Cowboy at Heart

December 06, 1990|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Garth Brooks isn't immune to bad luck, after all.

Riding a tour bus from Nashville to California last week, Brooks had to spend the two-day trek sleeping off a virus.

"I think I was just plain tired and worn out," Brooks, the country singer whose career has gone from a brisk simmer to a furious boil over the past few months, said in a phone interview after disembarking for a concert date in Sacramento. "There's been a lot of stuff to do. I'm not complainin'."

Given his run of good fortune over the past two years, the husky, cowboy-hatted, 28-year-old Oklahoman doesn't have much to complain about.

His 1989 debut album, "Garth Brooks," was a big success, yielding four hit singles on the country charts. Then, with the release of the follow-up, "No Fences," last August, Brooks became a phenomenon. The album went where few country albums have gone--into the upper reaches of the pop charts. Brooks has achieved a coveted "crossover" breakthrough, in which a performer from a specialized genre like country becomes a mass commodity.

"No Fences" recently peaked at Number 11 on the Billboard pop charts, a position exceeded in the '80s only by two of country's biggest commercial juggernauts, Kenny Rogers and Alabama. As of this week, Brooks was still number one on the country albums chart, and his new single, "Unanswered Prayers," was moving upward in a bid to become his fifth consecutive Number 1 country single.

Consequently, Brooks has been in demand and on the run. The past few weeks have brought a round of national TV appearances and a flight to England to meet the press and lay the groundwork for an upcoming British concert tour. Brooks and his wife, Sandy, got back from England just in time to spend their Thanksgiving morning riding a float down Broadway in the annual Macy's parade.

"We rode the turkey that day, with the moving wings and the flashing eyes," said Brooks. "It's the same one I'd seen all my life. I always used to get up real early and watch the parade."

With all that activity, it's not surprising that Brooks got a little worn down. He is looking forward to the Christmas season, which will bring his first extended vacation--a month off the road--since the middle of last year. First he will play a series of West Coast concerts, including two sold-out nights at the Crazy Horse Steak House that figure to be his last club dates for a while to come (Brooks is playing the shows as makeup dates for performances he had to cancel at the Crazy Horse about a year ago).

At this point, even Brooks sounds a little amazed by his good-luck streak. The way things are going, he mused, if a truck hit him and knocked him through a hole in the ground, he'd probably come to and find himself sprawled on a cask of buried and forgotten treasure.

Brooks is effusively thankful for all this good luck, and unswervingly humble about his rise.

When he rubbed elbows earlier this year with the likes of Muhammad Ali at a charity event billed as "Night of 100 Stars," Brooks recalled, it was really "99 stars . . . and me."

"It's a lot easier to cash my checks at the grocery store now," he said. "But as far as being a star, that's pretty much a four-letter word in my book. I'm just a guy who plays country music and happens to love what he does."

Ask Brooks to account for his rising fortunes, and he just rolls the credits. "The people around me have worked very hard," he begins, then starts listing his managers, his record company, his band, his record producer, his wife, and don't forget the good Lord. "I ain't worth a flip in upholdin' (religious observance), but I do know without him, I'm nothing."'

Told that fans had lined up for hours last month to buy tickets for his four Crazy Horse shows, Brooks was characteristically appreciative. "It just makes your heart (swell) up," he said. "You don't know why it's happening, but you're sure glad it is."

Brooks was only a contender, not a phenomenon, when he first played Orange County last April in a show at the Celebrity Theatre. Only about half a house turned up for the double-bill in which Brooks opened for the better-established Holly Dunn.

But by the time Brooks had finished his set, it wasn't hard to tell, as Stephen Stills once put it, that there was something happenin' here. Something about him truly got through to the audience, which awarded him repeated, rapturous ovations--the sort of endorsement usually reserved for established stars, and then maybe only on an unusually good night.

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