Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review by the Examiner's Jonathon Pinkerton

Nashville biographer Patsi Bale Cox's The Garth Factor much more than a Brooks memoir
June 4, 11:22 AM ·
The Garth Factor/Center Street/Hachette Book Group

When Benita Hill suggested I read Patsi Bale Cox's latest book, The Garth Factor: The Career Behind Country's Big Boom, I have to admit I wasn't too keen on the idea. While Benita, along with Shawn Camp and Sandy Mason, did write Two Pina Coladas, one of Garth Brooks' big hits, surely she knows my taste runs more along the lines of female singers. Not sure why, but I have always been drawn to girl singers in all genres. That said, I have to also admit that I have never been a big Garth fan, again, not sure why, just never was a fan. Well, I got a copy of the book and within a few pages, I was intrigued.

Cox, who has co-written bios on some of country music's biggest stars, including, Tanya Tucker, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Emry and Wynonna, steps it up with this latest offering. Being a Nashville native myself--there are a few of us around--I thoroughly loved that the book is more than a Garth bio, but also a rich history of country music, and Music City itself. The references to so many places, Third Coast, Maude's Courtyard, Windows on The Cumberland, and institutions like TNN, The Opry, Opryland, are a country fans dream! Of the difference between this and the usual bio, Patsi said, "Autobiographies and memoirs reflect what the artist deems important to them. This book concentrated on what a journalist deemed important about a career. I loved doing both kinds of writing." When asked how long it took to write the book, Patsi joked, "Nineteen years...since I first started writing about his music in 1990." She then confessed, "But in the final analysis, about a year."

The book opens, as a young Brooks makes his first trek to Nashville from his home in Oklahoma to pursue his dream of being a country music star. I was immediately taken by the details of the narrative, the history of his family; his mother, Colleen had herself been signed to Capitol records. Patsi had many opportunities to speak with the Superstar's mother during his rise to fame since the author wrote press-releases, bios and such for Cathy Gurley's Gurley & Company, the firm Capitol turned to for most of their marketing needs. In addition to her record deal, Garth's mother had appeared on The Arthur Godfrey Show in the 1950s. Side note: Having just seen my sweet friend Mandy Barnett starring in Always...Patsy Cline at The Ryman, the reference to The Arthur Godfrey Show popped out at me. In addition to The Arthur Gofrey Show, Patsi said Colleen appeared on many shows and was actually a regular for a while on Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee." Another side note: Ozark Jubilee's executive producer was Si Siman. Back in 2001, I had the pleasure of working with Siman's son, Scott Siman, the head of rpm management. Until recently, rpm was the powerhouse management team behind the success of Tim McGraw.

Garth Brooks & Patsi Bale Cox/photo by Dan Chandwick But enough about my ties to Music Row, back to the book...As Cox points out in the book, "Colleen's career had sometimes been overlooked, mentioned as a mere footnote to that of her son. But at one time she was traveling throughout the United States, building a following and a professional name. Given the right set of circumstances, there is a very real chance that Colleen Carroll could have been a national star."

That passage sets the tone of the entire book. Yes, it's a simple message and perhaps not the specific one Cox intended, but the book is full of choices and opportunities. And Brooks is a master at making the right ones and taking full advantage. The frank nature of Cox's narrative reveals a softer side of Brooks, a fear you'd never expect from an artist who would go on to sell more than 100 million records. An example of this comes early-on when he has made his first trip to Nashville, and after an unexpected event in a Music Row office, he basically high-tails it back home, only to fully prepare himself for the real move to Music City.

I asked Patsi how involved Garth was in the writing of this book, and if he resisted. "No, but I didn't ask his permission," admitted Cox. "I specifically did not want this to be authorized or unauthorized because I felt it would taint what I had to say. He is very supportive of what I set out to do. But he made no attempt to influence it in any way."

The author's unique insight and freedom to tell the story is what is so compelling. Her sources include, "the songwriters, Allen Reynolds, Joe Mansfield, Capitol employees….many, many people over the years and some of them again at the end…not to mention Garth for all those years." Patsi also revealed that Garth's management provided a great resource. "Most of it came from Garth’s management’s archives," she explained.

Patsi Bale Cox/photo by Alan Mayor There are pages upon pages of narrative spring-boards that draw the reader in. Cox is an amazing chronicler, but with focus, so much focus. When most biographers would recall Garth and his father listening to George Strait's Unwound on the car radio, as being a life, and career changing moment, that's usually where it would end. Not with Cox. She then goes on in elaborate detail to reveal Strait's early influences and brings it all back around to Garth.

Another example of her expert storytelling comes about midway through the book, in what I consider the juiciest part of Brooks' career. The controversy with Capitol record executive, Jimmy Bowen, as relayed by Cox paints a fair and balanced look at two very strong, opinionated and successful men. But again, Cox weaves more than a tale of two struggling powerhouses. She goes into great detail about other artists who were signed to the label at the time and the paths their careers took. I particularly enjoyed the quick mention of Reba's Does He Love You duet partner, Linda Davis. As Cox put it in the book, "Linda's legacy for Capitol may end up being her daughter, Hillary Scott, who could often be found in the label's offices, quietly coloring in a corner while her mother held an interview." Readers will recognize Davis' daughter's name, as she is now part of Capitol's mega-popular trio, Lady Antebelum. Of her inside access to not only Garth's career, but country music history itself, Cox explained, " I don’t think at the time things are happening you really “get” how extraordinary it is, how lucky you are. For example, when I marched for Civil Rights at age 18, and published a feminist magazine at age 29–I saw myself as a worker, not a trailblazer. Now I realize what a privilege it was to be a part of history. (Too bad you have to get old to figure so many things out!) I think in country music the thing that has been the most important to me was becoming friends with so many people I admired so much--Johnny Cash, Tammy, Loretta, Wynonna, Tanya, Donna Fargo…Benita Hill!"

While I had the opportunity, I asked Patsi about one media firestorm I remembered concerning Garth demolishing a guitar during his NBC concert, This Is Garth Brooks. I had watched it with my parents, and they seemed stunned that Garth would end a song by smashing a guitar to smithereens. I asked Patsi if the following media upheaval was the desired effect. "Not at all. Rock stars did it all the time. As someone who had worked in the business a long time I was shocked at the sudden outrage at something that had been done so many times." She offered the following scoop with a smile, "Actually, Garth had tried to get seconds to bust and they didn’t arrive. He has always regretted not having them ordered earlier."

It's that kind of humor and honesty that keeps the reader's interest. "I set out to set straight some of the complete BS I had read about him and his career – much of it written by pop critics who would be well advised to spend their time decontructing “Whiter Shade of Pale,” concluded Patsi.

Again, tonight, Patsi will be appearing at Nashville's Davis Kidd Booksellers in Green Hills where she will be reading excerpts from the book, and signing copies for those in attendance. Tomorrow at noon, she and my buddy Benita Hill will be at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Next Saturday, June 13, Patsi will be at a Tulsa Barnes & Noble in Garth's home state of Oklahoma at 2pm. The author is already at work on her next project. She is working with six-time Grammy winning singer-turned-Las Vegas-headliner-turned-Dancing With The Stars-fan-favorite, Toni Braxton. While she might be best-known for her country bios, this won't be Patsi's first non-country subject. In addition to her books with Tanya, Loretta, Ralph and Wy, she has also penned bios on singer Tony Orlando and talk show host, Jenny Jones.

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