Arts & Culture

Going gaga over Garth

Garth Brooks
Garth Brooks

This week, Garth Brooks rolls into North Texas after almost two decades away.

A great deal has changed in the years since he retired — when he finally hung it up in 2001, Napster was in its death throes, and YouTube was still a few years away from further upending the music business — but Brooks has remained firmly lodged in his position as one of the all-time greats.

Just consider the raw data.

Brooks has sold more than 150 million records worldwide, and, since 1991, is the best-selling artist ever in the SoundScan era, besting the Beatles.

Brooks is also the best-selling solo artist second only to Elvis Presley, and six of his 10 studio albums have achieved the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)’s diamond certification (selling in excess of 10 million copies each).

He’s pulled millions of fans into stadiums around the world — Brooks performed for a crowd of almost one million people in Central Park in 1997, and sold out the now-demolished Texas Stadium for three straight nights in 1993.

His comeback tour, which began last fall, has created enough demand for Brooks to set up a Sept. 17-Sept. 22 seven-show residency at American Airlines Center.

In short, Garth Brooks was — and is — a big deal.

So, in honor of his seven shows in Dallas, we’ve assembled a look at seven stand-out moments from his iconic career.

For clips of Brooks in action, visit DFW.com/music.

1. ‘This Is Garth Brooks’

Watching the 1992 NBC special This Is Garth Brooks in 2015 is fascinating.

To begin with, no one really does this sort of promotion anymore — it’s tough to imagine Carrie Underwood or Luke Bryan donning a college football jersey and giving shout-outs to their family on primetime TV — and yet Brooks is so disarming, it’s easy to see why he became so famous so fast. (His work ethic is also on display: Brooks is filmed dangling from the lighting rigging at one point, fine-tuning the spotlights.)

“Oh, the country music thing, huh?,” Brooks says to the camera, a small smirk on his face. “I know what you’re thinking. Dull. Boring. Old hat. Kind of like watching paint dry. Well, all I’ve got to say to that is welcome to the ’90s.”

For the next hour, Brooks flips country music on its head — a wireless microphone affixed to his head, and racing around a stage flinging water, mugging for the camera and generally acting as if this is the last concert he’ll ever perform.

The special was culled from Brooks’ two-night stand at Dallas’ Reunion Arena on Sept. 20-21, 1991. It’s a live-wire tour de force, a viscerally staged piece of entertainment, and for much of the country, it was the first taste of an artist who would go on to dominate the decade.

“He knows how to whip up excitement with all that broken-field running on ramps around the stage, shadow-boxing the air, and flirting with the crowd, all the while brandishing that big Okie grin that eclipses the headset microphone,” wrote former Star-Telegram critic Shirley Jinkins of a 1992 Reunion Arena performance.

He was just getting warmed up.

2. ‘Ropin’ the Wind’

As with any artist of Brooks’ stature, there may be some nitpicking about what constitutes his actual breakout moment, but for our money, it’s his third studio album, Ropin’ the Wind, released in September 1991, just days before the aforementioned Reunion Arena shows used for his 1992 NBC special.

Wind is notable for being Brooks’ first album to debut at No. 1 atop a pair of Billboard charts (the Top 200 and Country Albums) — and, according to Allmusic.com, is the first country album to ever debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200.

The 11-track, Allen Reynolds-produced record is loaded with signature Brooks songs: Rodeo; Papa Loved Mama; his rendition of Billy Joel’s Shameless and The River.

Most striking about the record is how Brooks, just three albums into his career, was already reaching across the aisle, from his new traditionalist country to arena rock and pop — his inclusion of a Billy Joel tune, to name just one example.

It’s the genesis of cross-over appeal: Shania Twain would also enjoy success in the pop world throughout the ’90s and early ’00s, as would LeAnn Rimes and, further down the road, a budding singer-songwriter named Taylor Swift. (She, perhaps more than anyone else at the moment, owes Brooks a big thanks for paving the way.)

3. ‘Live From Central Park’

This 1997 concert — dubbed “Garthstock” by some — is to witness Brooks near the apex of his popularity. (Decisively beloved, sure, but no less uncertain: “I’m naturally scared to death right now,” Brooks says early on.)

Filmed in August 1997, Brooks was on the cusp of releasing Sevens that fall, but in full command of his craft through this 80-minute showcase.

Gone are the aw-shucks sequences from his first TV special — all that remains are dazzling sequences of Brooks captivating nearly a million people in the heart of New York City.

As in all of his specials, Brooks reminds viewers just how difficult it is, perhaps now more than ever, to entertain with nothing more than personality and a fistful of songs.

The stage doesn’t take flight, there’s no eye-popping pyro and Brooks does nothing more than lean into his catalog, with the help of a few high-profile cameos — Billy Joel makes an extended appearance (his turn on Ain’t Going Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up) is electrifying), and Don McLean turns up to help sing his hit American Pie — and his clean-burning charisma.

4. Chris Gaines

This still-bizarre detour does rank as a stand-out moment from Brooks’ career, but not in a positive way.

Arguably the lone blemish on an otherwise unparalleled run atop the music industry — the cynical might lump Brooks’ brief flirtation with playing professional baseball in there as well — Brooks, for some mystifying reason, chose to embrace a rock-star alter ego in 1999, releasing Chris Gaines’ Greatest Hits, which was produced by Don Was.

Intended as a long lead-in to a feature film titled The Lamb, which for a variety of reasons was ultimately never made, the project instead came across as a misfire (albeit one that still managed to sell 2 million copies and spawn a top five hit single, Lost in You), and may or may not have hastened Brooks’ decision to step away from music just two years later.

All these years later, however, Brooks remains unrepentant about the creative decision, telling reporters in Buffalo, N.Y. earlier this year, that, apart from “getting the [expletive] kicked out of me,” he’d be open to revisiting the Gaines persona.

5. Las Vegas residency

As superstars of the ’80s and ’90s find themselves aging but still willing to perform, Las Vegas beckons.

In 2009, Brooks began to edge his way out of retirement, taking up a weekend gig at Encore Las Vegas, which he would keep until 2013. (CBS broadcast a live special featuring the final acoustic performance in 2013.)

It was, as are most of Brooks’ career moves, deceptively savvy. He was able to work up his performing chops after a long layoff, hone his set lists for a return to touring he first teased in 2011, and also reintroduce himself to a generation of music fans who only knew him by reputation.

He was also able, for the first time in his career, to lay out a creative road map, illustrating how he evolved from an Oklahoma kid soaking up songs by James Taylor and KISS to a global phenomenon that still exerts a powerful hold 25 years after making his debut.

6. World tour comeback

In September 2014, Brooks began what, by all appearances, seems as though it will be a “never-ending” tour along the lines of what Bob Dylan has undertaken. Rather than announcing a brace of dates in one shot, as most major acts do, Brooks has been slowly releasing a few cities at a time, stoking interest incrementally, rather than all at once.

In conjunction with his comeback tour, Brooks also launched GhostTunes, his own digital music platform, last November, making it the first place to officially purchase all of Brooks’ albums online, including his latest, Man Against Machine (talk about a not-so-subtle commentary on the state of the music business).

The reviews of Brooks’ return to the stage have been, almost to a writer, uniformly ecstatic.

“What Brooks exhibited … was not narcissism but uninhibited joy,” wrote the Sacramento Bee’s Carla Meyer of a March performance. “It is a joy often seen in young children but rarely in adults.”

“With all that desperate Garth Brooks desire bottled up for so long, the arena practically burst with energy when he finally took the stage with a ‘watch this’ grin and the strum of an acoustic guitar,” wrote the Omaha World-Herald’s Kevin Coffey of a May concert.

Expect no less during Brooks’ seven-show run in Dallas.

7. His history in Texas

The ascent of Garth Brooks is inextricably tied to North Texas, where he not only cut his teeth at venues like Billy Bob’s Texas (where he last played on Nov. 21, 1990), but also staged some of his biggest moments at sites like Reunion Arena and Texas Stadium.

Over those two nights in 1991, Brooks taped what became This Is Garth Brooks, and just two years later, sold out Texas Stadium three times over for a total of 190,000 tickets, sending the secondary market into a frenzy (some seats were selling for more than a thousand dollars, according to a Star-Telegram report).

“In fact, if you’ve always liked Garth’s shows and his interaction and intimacy with a crowd, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that he doesn’t lose any of that at mammoth Texas Stadium,” wrote Jinkins at the time.

Prior to this year, Brooks’ last North Texas appearance was a three-night run at the now-demolished Reunion Arena in 1998. (Brooks was in town for the Academy of Country Music Awards festivities at AT&T Stadium this spring, but that was apart from his ongoing world tour.)

For his 2015 stand at American Airlines Center, Brooks blew through 100,000 tickets in a matter of hours when they went on sale. He’s also setting a record as the first artist to perform seven consecutive shows at the Dallas venue.

Now, as then, Garth Brooks remains a very, very big deal.

Preston Jones: 817-390-7713, @prestonjones

Garth Brooks

7:30 p.m. Thursday ; 7 p.m. & 10:30 p.m. Friday; 7 p.m. & 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

American Airlines Center, Dallas

$68.21

800-745-3000; ticketmaster.com

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