No musicians are more respectful of their musical elders than young country singers. Instead of bragging about their new album, as pop stars routinely do, they humbly thank great country predecessors like George Jones or Hank Williams. So Garth Brooks, country's newest young beacon, was thrilled last year when a New York radio deejay said that Brooks reminded him of a certain balding luminary. ''Wow!'' Brooks replied. ''James Taylor's a huge idol of mine.''
It's not that Brooks doesn't also love George Jones. But in the past two years, the beefy 28-year-old Oklahoman has sold a lot of records to folks who couldn't name even one of Jones' four wives. Brooks' second album, No Fences, rose to the top 20 on the pop charts soon after its September release, higher than any country singer since Kenny Rogers' Eyes That See in the Dark hit No. 6 in 1983.
''My mother must be buying a hell of a lot of albums,'' he says. ''I can't explain it; I wish I could.'' All he knows is what he calls ''the plan we had from the start.'' He's sitting next to his wife, Sandy, a former rodeo champion whom he frequently credits as inspiration. They're in a kitschy country-themed bar in New York City's Greenwich Village, seated on a low leatherette sofa that reminds Brooks of his grandparents' decor back in Tahlequah, Okla. One critic wrote that he has ''a face like a thumb with a hat on it,'' and in jeans and a sweatshirt, without his hat, he couldn't look less like the elaborately dressed country forefathers featured in the bar's framed photos. ''We decided we could play what we call 'heart music.' That's music that bypassed the mouth and ears and just drew a straight line from one heart to another. Not everybody is country, but everybody has a heart.''
Brooks' affinity for country comes naturally; his mother, Colleen Carroll, recorded several country songs in the '50s before retiring to raise a family. (''I've got them collected,'' says Brooks. ''I'm gonna put them on digital audiotape, then frame the singles for her.'') But he grew up in the '70s, considered a bad time for country music too many mild-mannered singers like John Denver and Linda Ronstadt, not enough fiddle and steel guitar and his tastes included some of the era's most maligned noncountry music: ''I'm a huge fan of the commercial late-'70s rockers,'' he says. ''Boston, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller.'' His enthusiasm hasn't faded: Before shows, he and his band blast Queen's ''Tie Your Mother Down'' for inspiration.