With Garth at the 1990 CMA Awards
On January 17, 2000 Garth Brooks was presented with the 1990’s Artist of the Decade Award at the 27th Annual American Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Previous recipients had been Elvis Presley, 1950’s; the Beatles, 1960’s; Stevie Wonder, 1970’s; Michael Jackson, 1980’s.
It was a stunning honor. For a country artist to dominate all forms of music through one decade was something no one could have imagined in 1990. Moreover, it was a country artist who steadfastly refused to allow his singles to be promoted to pop or rock radio, even when those stations started playing them. Clearly, in the public eye, a country artist had conquered not just his own genre, but pop and rock as well.
For Garth, 2000 was an incredible year in an extraordinary decade.
Radio & Records named Garth and Patsy Cline the Greatest Artists of the Century in its special issue: A Century of Country. Laudatory agreement was coming from every corner of the press corps. Entertainment Weekly named him one of the greatest entertainers of the second half of the 20th century. The Detroit Free Press listed Garth and No Fences as one of the “…definitive recorded moments of the decade.” The Baltimore Sun’s J.D. Considine named him first in the line-up of most significant artists and moments in the past ten years of music. When The Dallas Morning News spoke to moments that shaped the ‘90s, the paper included Garth’s third album, Ropin’ the Wind, which had debuted at #1 on Billboard’s pop album chart on September 28, 1991. When critic Jon Bream named the artists who defined the decade in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he wrote: “The prolific Garth Brooks sold more albums and probably more concert tickets than anyone. He revolutionized country, bringing ‘70s pop/rock sensibilities to the music and arena rock values to the stage, expanding the audience more than anyone in Nashville imagined.”
When Garth’s record sales passed the 100 million mark, Capitol Records planned a black-tie extravaganza at the Nashville Arena – One Artist, One Decade, One Hundred Million (albums sold) – a feat unmatched by any other solo artist in history.
In late August of 2000 I received a call from Karen Byrd, Capitol’s Vice President of Public Relations. At that time, I was just wrapping up a book with Ralph Emery, Fifty Years Down a Country Road. So when Karen asked if I could spend September and October helping prepare for Garth’s big night, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. In the end, it felt like coming home.
Karen and I had worked with Garth through the 1990s. Both of us had worked for Cathy Gurley at Gurley & Company, the PR arm of Capitol during Jimmy Bowen’s reign. Karen eventually went to Doyle/Lewis Management to work with Scott Stem on media. Capitol hired both Karen and Scott Stem after Pat Quigley was named president in 1997, and continued into Mike Dungan’s administration. Her knowledge of Garth’s career was encyclopedic.
While at Capitol I wrote press releases, bios, and marketing overviews, in addition to dealing with a list of national television and newspaper contacts. I wrote all label-generated material regarding Garth until 1995 when I left to write Tanya Tucker’s memoir, Nickel Dreams. After 1995, per Garth’s request, I continued to write the album bios dealing with his music. One of the more interesting aspects of my job at Capitol, was the fact that I wrote releases for both artists including Garth Brooks and Tanya Tucker, and for corporate, President Jimmy Bowen. That meant an inside seat at one of the most legendary artist/label head showdowns ever witnessed in Nashville.
I had moved to Nashville in 1983, after spending ten years as a magazine editor in Denver. It came as no surprise that to support my two children, I needed to do more than free lance writing for country music magazines. As I recall, Country Song Roundup paid about a hundred bucks an article. I worked closely with the CBS marketing department for several years, then became a staff writer for Steve Popovich at PolyGram before finally going to work for Cathy Gurley in 1990. In the years prior to Capitol I had written about and worked with artists ranging from Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, David Allan Coe, Tanya Tucker, Donna Fargo, and Tammy Wynette. But those artists were all well established by the time that I met them. In 1990 Garth Brooks was just getting started, a decade-long phenomenon was unfolding.
During the summer and early fall of 2000 I revisited those years as we planned Garth’s celebration. The press requests and needed written material dealt primarily with sales statistics, awards, and other data involving the 1990s. But I found myself reflecting more on other aspects – the people who’d surrounded Garth, his songs and songwriting, touring, as well as his development as a performer, a star, and a businessman. I was also reminded on almost a daily basis of the way his career and persona had been applauded, but also analyzed, criticized, sliced, diced, and misconstrued. For one thing, Garth Brooks was no marketing mastermind when I first met him. For another, he had to figure out this celebrity thing as he went. It’s not an easy thing to do.
I always remembered something that happened during the years I worked with Johnny Cash. Johnny and I were working on some plans for his PolyGram album, Water From The Wells of Home. Lunch rolled around and very apologetically, Johnny asked me if I’d mind picking us up a couple of cheeseburgers from Brown’s Diner.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m just not up to being Johnny Cash today,” Big John sighed.
I understood completely. For while Nashville is no stranger to celebrity, a Johnny Cash-sighting was an event that involved hand shaking, back slapping and autographing. We’d almost never been able to finish a lunch, and Johnny was required to act as though letting his food get cold was just what he’d hoped to do. Johnny was also the reason I understood why Garth would eventually refer to himself in the third person. There’s a difference between the star and the human being. Any celebrity who doesn’t figure that out, does so at their peril.
During the weeks of preparation for Garth’s 100 Million gala, he often stopped by the label. But in my conversations with him, the talk seldom turned to the event or the sales. It was a bittersweet time for Garth. He still deeply mourned the death of his mother, Colleen Brooks, and constantly worried about his friend Chris LeDoux’s health scare. But he was happy to talk about his three daughters and thrilled to be a part of their day-to-day life. And all it took was for me to yet again nag him about his need to make a honky tonk album to get him started reminiscing about fans, touring, and songs like “Papa Loved Mama” and “Longneck Bottle.”
And so, on the night of October 26th, 2000, while Capitol and EMI executives touted the numbers to several thousand attendants at Garth’s gala, I was thinking about the music that was behind those sales, and how the kid I met in 1990 had turned into an international icon.
(The photo of Garth and me on this page was taken by Dan Chadwick)