Garth Brooks says the one thing his live shows have in common with those he used to play at Willies Saloon in Stillwater, Okla., is that his guitar playing ”still sucks.” Give him time and he’ll tell you how lousy his voice is, how far his stomach is moving forward, and how much his hairline is edging | back. Wait long enough and he’ll aw-shucks you into believing the 7.5 million records he has sold in the past couple of months, the 28 million viewers for last January’s NBC special This Is Garth Brooks, and his position as the most popular man in American music today are just a plain ol’ mystery.
Believing him, however, would be like buying swampland in Amarillo. Brooks, 30, is more than an aging jock who can carry a tune. He’s a consummate showman and an astute salesman who managed to spend January through June at home helping his wife, Sandy, through a difficult pregnancy (their daughter, Taylor, was born July 8) and still generate two chart-stomping albums. His Christmas collection, Beyond the Season, was released in August and has sold close to 2.5 million copies. A month later his fifth work, The Chase, arrived, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart — a feat that has occurred only once before for a country artist. That was last year, and — guess what? — it was the Garth Man then, too (for his 8 million-seller Ropin’ the Wind). And if that weren’t enough to enlarge a guy’s Stetson, this year Brooks kept Madonna and R.E.M. out of the No. 1 position altogether.
What anyone who hadn’t already seen Brooks discovered during the NBC special was 225 pounds of hootin’, hollerin’, stage-struttin’ songman who was just as comfortable caressing a single rose while romantically singing Billy Joel’s ”Shameless” as he was raising hillbilly hell with his I’m-proud-to-be-a-lowlife hit, ”Friends in Low Places.” Brooks aims for higher ground on The Chase. He leads off with ”We Shall Be Free,” a gospel-style plea for a better world, where ”the last thing we notice is the color of skin” and ”we’re free to love anyone we choose.” Singing about such politically charged subjects as racism and gay rights may be unusual for a country star, but it’s not unusual for Brooks. In 1990, on No Fences, he tackled the subject of wife beating with the song ”The Thunder Rolls.” But Brooks is also savvy enough to understand that if he wants people to hear his messages, he’s also got to give them the things they expect and love from him — which he does on The Chase with his versions of ”Walking After Midnight” and ”Dixie Chicken.”
The biggest feather in Brooks’ hat act, however, and what keeps his records selling, is his live gig. He puts on a family-friendly, ’70s-style rock show. He’s got Springsteen-like energy, but he never screams; a Madonna-style mouthpiece, but he never grabs his crotch; fist pumps à la Arsenio, but he never barks. All the while, he collects roses from reverent fans. ”To me, a great performer is someone who, when it’s over, you’d walk through hell with them. You feel like ‘Yeah, I believe!”’ Brooks says. And sure enough, at the end of his shows he uncaps bottles of Evian and baptizes the adoring crowd, true believers all.