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The Magician in the Checkered Shirt

There’s no entertainer quite like Garth Brooks (and, technically, Chris Gaines). It’s time we lay flowers at his boots.

Jarett Sitter

On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut the latest installment of its HBO Music Box series, Listening to Kenny G. Before that film reexamines the impact of the renowned saxophonist, The Ringer will spend this week revisiting other cultural figures and concepts that are likewise in need of a reevaluation.


I. GARTH IN SHIRTS

There will be pictures. Many pictures. Too many, probably. At certain points, this reevaluation of Garth Brooks might start to just resemble a photo essay. But Garth would swagger around in country couture bangers, adorn himself in the finest picnic blankets the world has ever known—and that needs to be seen. I’m a big fan of language, but it has its limitations.

It was a gradual progression to scorching. Brooks had an understated if layer-heavy vibe on the cover of his 1989 self-titled debut album. Nothing too loud. The white turtleneck, striped button-up, and gray trucker jacket did nothing to suggest where things were headed. His next album, No Fences, is where the bread crumbs really begin. Whoever made the shirt he wore for that cover couldn’t decide if they were a maximalist or a minimalist, so they just split the difference. Then, in ’91, things got real: Ropin’ the Wind dropped and took over the world. The aesthetic gloves were off. The cover: full-color Garth, hands framing his belt buckle, wearing a shirt with black and blue stripes thicker than rulers. This doesn’t sound like much of a swing, until you see it:

Capitol Records

Why is the “O” in Ropin’ white? I’ve thought about it for literal decades and even now, nothing. I truly don’t even have a guess and I sincerely doubt any explanation of artistic intent could possibly make sense unless the answer was “We thought it looked cooler,” in which case, yeah, I could see that. I guess it does make it more interesting. I apologize and withdraw the question. Garth knows best.

After Ropin’, all hell broke loose, in terms of both fame and fashion. The numbers we’ll get to, but the clothes make the man. The snowball had started down the mountain.

Capitol Records

Exquisite. No notes. I like that the right sleeve disappears into the black; fun to have a hand pop up out of nowhere like that. This is a shirt fit for a magician, a real alakazam. Like all magicians, Garth Brooks understood spectacle. Keep the eyes busy. Keep the eyes guessing. The snowball grew larger by the hour, destroyed everything in its path and led here, to the drunk checkers board of 1993.

Capitol Records

Perhaps, if you didn’t already know, you see now—this man dresses without fear. But these are just the early album covers. Garth cranked things up even more in person.

In some ways, young Brooks’s whole in-concert vibe was rather homogenous. He was consistent with his repertoire: jeans (usually black), button-ups (usually not), boots, the wireless head mic, and a cowboy hat. Within those strictures, though, he uncorked a phantasmagoria of sartorial heat checks. Shirts of many colors. Garish, lush dreamlands. Technicolor flexes of gargantuan proportions. The clothes screamed. There were swirls and circles and squares and triangles and diamonds and shapes with no names. Kaleidoscopic plumage for the young man from Yukon, Oklahoma. Beautiful, ornate nonsense. Young Garth was wearing Dan Flashes before it was cool.

Getty Images

A psychedelic potluck for the eyes, made of Corinthian leather and melted Skittles. Cost: $5.8 million, cause the pattern’s so complicated.

Look at that tropical bird of paradise. This item features several severed black cat heads with mismatched devil eyes and it looks like bathroom wallpaper you’d see at a haunted beach condo somewhere along Florida’s Highway 30A.

NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via

Like someone just chucked a bowlful of nacho cheese at him. Do the chest pockets even open or are they just decorative? Either answer’s fine, it just feels like something we should know.

NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via

This one is probably my favorite. The audacity of this man, the courage. The cowboy hat might as well be a crown. Jay Leno’s really feeling it. Has Leno cried to “The Dance”? Has he screamed along to “Friends in Low Places”? Does he know the third verse? Has he made his friends listen to “Ireland”?

Ron Galella Collection via Getty

Pure sex. Garth woke up feeling a little sassy, a little dangerous. The man could not get enough of the banded collar.

It’s hard to tell what’s even going on here? There’s just a bunch of, like, dabs of color gathered into squares?


He was once everywhere. These days, you have to look harder to find him. It’s not that he’s obscure now—he’s still selling out arenas—but the world’s estimation of Garth Brooks has dwindled as the years have passed. Some of this is his fault. For as much as he’s a man of the people with regard to ticket prices, he makes his work strangely unavailable. He’s in the streaming wilderness on Amazon Music and doesn’t allow his stuff on YouTube. He’s not on the charts as much, not on the radio as much, not in your face as much. This is an outrage. A full-blown travesty. He’s one of the greatest live performers who ever lived. Show up and he’d fly for you.

It’s time we lay flowers at his boots.

II. CHRIS GAINES

Recently, it was announced that Jonah Hill will play Jerry Garcia in an upcoming biopic directed by Martin Scorsese. Hill should play Brooks, too, if and when the time comes for the Surely Unlicensed Garth Brooks Biopic. Although, while I’m fairly positive Brooks loved Superbad—“I talked to a man who claimed he had climbed five mountains” sounds like some faux reverent outrageousness Brooks would spout off before launching into “The River”—if history’s any indication, he’d probably go another route. Because when time came to cast the role of young Garth in The Lamb, a movie Brooks was making and starring in about a fictional rock god named Chris Gaines, he picked the same kid who played young Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet. No, seriously—that is real. “I casted him myself, of course,” Brooks said. “Cause the kid’s just gorgeous, right? I’m looking at him like, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’”

Certain topics are almost always mentioned when Brooks’s name gets brought up. Chris Gaines is one of them. And the reason people bring the project up is because it was hilarious.

The movie never happened. It was not finished. It was not released. The album that was supposed to accompany the movie—Garth Brooks in … the Life of Chris Gaines—was released, though. It was supposed to be a greatest hits record for Gaines. He even added two new tracks, gifts for the fans who had supported him through all his trials and tribulations. These hot-off-the-fire songs were a thank you for their years of loyalty.

The album was … I’m trying to find the words … not well-received? A colossal failure? A stupendous disaster? Death masquerading as music? Entertainment Weekly went with Wimp Bizkit, which is obviously a very solid burn.

It’s hard to wear a soul patch well. Maybe one in 10,000,000 men can do it. The rest of the look better be on point. You better have a face that could power cities. You better look like a mixture of Adam Lambert, Mystery from The Pickup Artist, mid-2000s youth group worship leaders, and a lean Dave Navarro:

PostMedia

When Brooks first conceived of Gaines, he didn’t plan on playing him. “I wanted somebody that was thin, beautiful, and lots of hair,” he told Conan O’Brien in 1999. “So, the first call I made was Steven Tyler.” Tyler, who is notably also not an actor, said no. And so, with his options having been completely exhausted, Brooks took the role. Jeb Stuart, who also cowrote The Fugitive and Die Hard (!!), wrote the script. Babyface was an executive producer. Brooks went to great lengths to establish Gaines as a real-life music icon, basically doing a Spinal Tap thing, only 100 percent serious. There was an entire episode of VH1’s Behind the Music on Gaines; Billy Joel was in it. There was the aforementioned Saturday Night Live performance. Gaines was the musical guest. Brooks was the host. Brooks played “Devil Can’t Write No Love Song.” The Devil played “Fred’s Got Slacks.”

Gaines’s backstory reads like a bit: Born on August 10, 1967 in Brisbane, Australia, he was a former Olympic swimming hopeful and a severe sex addict. He moved to Los Angeles when he was 5. His father, Gene, was the swim coach for (the fictional) Long Beach State University and was the reason for Chris’s sex addiction. Outside of sports, his dad didn’t know how to show him love. They had difficulty connecting. Chris hated sports. He didn’t care how much his parents wanted him to swim. He loved music. He wanted to sing. He believed in himself so much he quit high school senior year to pursue music professionally, though he would later go back and receive his GED, an accomplishment for which he was quite proud. Before he got big as a solo act, he was in an all-male pop trio called Crush. In 1986, they released their self-titled debut album. His best friend Tommy Levitz was the glue guy in the band, held everything together, made Chris feel safe. Their songs were on the radio. Their music connected with the people. Their dreams had caught up with reality. They had their whole careers ahead of them. Then disaster struck.

In late 1986, Tommy died in a plane crash, and Crush died with him. Gaines was distraught. Flooded by grief, he retreated into himself. After three years of intense soul searching, Gaines released his first solo album, Straight Jacket. It was hailed as a masterpiece. He was on top of the world. Then death called again. On November 15, 1990, following a three-year war with cancer, Gene died. Chris, again, was devastated.

NBC

A little over two years later, on February 16, 1992, Gaines drove his car off a cliff. He broke his pelvis and both arms and spent six brutal weeks in the hospital. When he was discharged, he was disfigured so badly he disappeared from public view. Gaines hid out for a few years, recovered, grew his hair long to cover his mangled face. That whole experience led to the recording of his hit record, Apostle, an album for which Gaines made not one press appearance. You know, because of the scars. At some point, plastic surgery was done. And when he finally did allow himself to be seen again, after the release of his smash album Triangle, the media called him “the new Prince.”

There were multiple other albums Gaines released on Capitol Records. The cover of Fornucopia looks like if Clockwork Orange took place in Myrtle Beach. Triangle looks like hope.

The elaborately concocted mythology of Chris Gaines became such an immediate punch line that the movie died on the vine. But Garth Brooks—a man who, to that point, was merely a country megastar who loved geometric shapes—had built himself an entire world. There was an NBC special and fake flyers for chrisgaines.com. His mother swam for Australia’s Olympic team. She was a Commonwealth Games medalist. Her maiden name was Johns. Garth was in kamikaze auteur mode, letting it rip. Bad ideas? Never heard of them. Restraint? What’s that? Is that a black diamond? No. It’s a little patch of soul under his lips.

Garth Brooks’s guns usually blaze. This was the first time they backfired. But how can you not admire the attempt? If Daniel Day-Lewis knew about Gaines—he doesn’t, there’s no way—I have to believe he’d respect it.

III. GARTH ON GARTH

Garth loves to talk. He loves to talk music. He loves to talk people. He loves to talk Garth. He’s a performer even in conversation. A carnival barker with delicious cheese. Garth’s a giver. You’ll always get your sound bite.

Talking to Sudzin Country (1990)

“Well, we feel that we play heart music. And as long as we do music from the heart then things like boundaries, nationalities, stuff like that, aren’t an enemy to us because not everybody’s country, not everybody’s Western, but everybody has a heart. So that’s what we’re shooting for.”

Talking to American Songwriter (2020)

“I was lucky enough to see Freddie Mercury when I was 17. Crazy night. I just wanted for three seconds for him to look me in the eye. I was in, like, row 13. I had great seats. And I just wanted him to look me in the eye and I could tell him in that three seconds, ‘Thank you.’ Thank you for giving me the courage to tackle things I didn’t like. Thank you for getting me fired up to play football on Friday nights. Thanks for being yourself and being proud of it. And I look for that in anything I do.”

Talking to Playboy (1994)

“I wanted to be an artist that the American people could relate to. I wanted to be America’s guy.”

Talking to Denzel Washington (2017)

Garth: There’s so much of him (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) in all of us. No, it’s perfect. And I want to thank you. The conversation my wife and I had after, I hope everyone has that same conversation.

[The in-studio audience at Good Morning America begins to applaud. Denzel, as he always does, asks the appropriate question.]

Denzel: About?

Garth: Just us believing that we understand each other when the truth is we don’t have a clue. I don’t have a clue what goes on in your life. You don’t have a clue what goes on in mine. But we make all of our arguments based on the fact that we do. And that tolerance that it speaks of. That forgiveness. That second to think about that before you strike back is everything for me in the movie.”

[Even more clapping. Denzel seems pleased with Garth’s takeaway. Brooks isn’t done.]

Garth: The thing we’re gonna use in the house forever now, “drowning in the shallow end.” God, what a beautiful line. I’d watch this movie five times a day. We all need to. It makes us better people.”

[Still more clapping.]

Garth: I’m just a true fan. Love everything you’ve done, man.

Talking to Bobby Bones (2020)

Bones: Can you recline your seat on an airplane?

Garth: Oh yes. It’s my plane.

Then he made this face:

‘The Bobby Bones Show’

Talking to Gayle King (2021)

Garth: [About his wife, country superstar and bestselling cookbook author Trisha Yearwood]: So, you kind of become friends, buddies. Every time she comes in to sing on every record, you know, you start getting kind of sweaty. And I just loved the way she smelled.

King: How does she smell? That’s a loving thing to say.

Garth: She smells like nothing’s impossible.

King: Aww.

Garth: She really does.

Talking to Barbara Walters (1993)

Garth: I gotta pull every trick I know out of a hat because I want these people to crawl out of this place. I want them to be exhausted and I want them to feel what I’m feeling.

Walters: What’re you feeling?

Garth: I haven’t found a better word for it so please excuse me for what I’m about to say—sex. It’s just 1,000 miles an hour. It’s the wildest thing and then in the flip of a heart it goes to this nice tender soft thing. And you find everybody leaning in. Now all of a sudden it’s just “BAM BAM BAM.” I wish there was some way you could step inside and see what it is you see. There are times actually when I swear to God to you that you could just fly. It’s so cool. It’s all the things that you’ve always wanted—to cut loose and let loose and just fly—that you never thought you could do but it actually happens.

Walters: I can see why you describe it as sex.

Garth: Oh, it’s, it is wwwonderful. It’s very addictive, too.

IV. THE NUMBERS

Let’s do the first five records because those are the best. Just the highlights.

Garth Brooks — Certified diamond. Two no. 1 hits on the Hot Country Songs chart (“If Tomorrow Never Comes” and “The Dance”). “The Dance” won the 1990 ACM Song of the Year. The album peaked at no. 2 on Billboard’s country chart.

No Fences — Certified diamond. The album that kept Garth Brooks from going no. 1. Eighteen million units sold. Four consecutive no. 1 hits (“Unanswered Prayers,” “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House,” “Friends in Low Places,” “The Thunder Rolls”). Six ACMs.

Ropin’ the Wind — Certified diamond. Won him his first Grammy. For 11 weeks in 1992, Ropin’, No Fences, and Garth Brooks were at 1, 2, and 3, respectively, on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart—the first and only time that’s been done. Fourteen million units sold. And it wasn’t just killing the country charts: Ropin’ also debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. Also the first time that’d been done.

The Chase — Certified diamond. Followed in Ropin’s footsteps by debuting at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Top Country charts. “We Shall Be Free” won an NAACP Humanitarian Award and a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Recording.

In Pieces — Certified diamond. Two Billboard no. 1 country singles (“American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” and “Ain’t Going Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up).” “Callin’ Baton Rouge”?! You want a song that wastes no time? CBR, baby. Zero to 60 in under one. The rocket is on the ground, you blink, and suddenly it’s on Neptune. The song starts and Garth is so pumped to sing. He spent last night in the arms of a girl from Louisiana. Sounds good, man. Tell me more. Somehow, CBR didn’t hit no. 1. Everybody listening to music then was stupid.

Garth Brooks is the second-bestselling musical act of all time in the United States, behind only the Beatles. He’s the only guy ever with nine diamond albums. And people come out to see him over and over and over. If you love Garth, you love Garth. He keeps his tickets cheap and his fans loyal; sells out arenas in minutes. He is the All-Time Big Kahuna of Country Concert Performers. He throws smoke.

Brooks got to be the no. 1 selling solo act of all time not through just the power of his songs, but the ways he sang them. Sincerity coats everything the man does, for better and for worse. Whatever he’s selling, he’s dripping in it. Sometimes sincerity comes with cringe, though you get the sense it’d be pretty hard to embarrass him. But sometimes sincerity comes with fearlessness. Garth Brooks has never had the best voice. He has always been one of the first to admit that. But he gets after it. Garth is a dramatist; he would’ve been an amazing televangelist. He is spectacle and ego and he wants to perform for you. He wants to make your dreams come true. And he will sing in silly ways that he might not realize are silly, but it’s okay because if he did the song would be worse. And he will commit hard to the story he’s telling. And if the song needs him to whine a little, he can do that. If the song needs him to stunt a little, he can do that. He can be mad. He can be happy. He can growl or hoot or sing the word “radio” in the weirdest way you can possibly imagine. He just goes for it.

V. Brother Garth

There can sometimes be a lack of self-awareness. Brooks is operatic and emotional and exaggerated and melodramatic. Put him in an interview setting and things can get breathless very fast. If it’s a one-on-one type thing he will often make his voice just below a stage whisper. Some answers feel like shows, little preprogrammed monologues he has hardwired into his brain. He is looking for openings when he can impart some wisdom, some Garthism. He often comes off like an evangelical youth minister who is heavily into pizza parties and Ultimate Frisbee, and before the ice cream comes out he gets in front of everyone and gives a five-minute speech about how to date. Garth likes to venture into the abstract talking about “the music” or “the song” or “the album.” And not always in reference to something he’s done—sometimes it’s “the music,” “the song,” or “the album” in a grander sense. Brooks loves to get existential with it.

When people go, ‘What’s the future of music or the music business?’ We have no future if it’s not for the song.”

In order for there to be music there has to be music? If you listen to enough Garth Brooks interviews, you’ll often come to a point when everything suddenly goes left and you find yourself asking, “Wait, Garth, what?”

“To a lot of people, I guess ‘The Dance’ is a love-gone-bad song,” Brooks told Wide Open Country this year. “Which, you know, that it is. But to me it’s always been a song about life. Or maybe the loss of those people that have given the ultimate sacrifice for a dream that they believed in, like the John F. Kennedys or the Martin Luther Kings … and if they could come back, I think they would say to us what the lyrics of ‘The Dance’ say.”

He was doing fine until he got to “if Martin Luther King came back to life he would say what my song says.” Garth Brooks is always trying to move you one way or another and he’s been so famous for so long, he can come off rehearsed. He’s always down to break into a little third person. His eyes go wet in an instant. John Travolta is a friend. So is Wayne Gretzky. Brooks’s main logo is a Times New Roman lowercase letter “g” with a circle around it. Literally, that’s it. One letter of the most famous font in the world, circled. The man’s long on confidence. You watch him talk and get the sense that if you asked him to perform open-heart surgery on you he’d say, “Brother, you are the bomb. That would be sweet. I would love to. Can I listen to music while I dice you up? I love music. Do you like music? Maybe some Seger? Seegz? You like Seegz? An icon. For my money, I’m not sure you can beat ‘Sunspot Baby.’ That song changed my life.”

On the one hand, he can seem just totally out of it, trying to muster up relatability any way he can, talking like your dad’s friend who’s always a little much. Nobody ever knows what his deal is. There are moments of lucidity and clarity and he has good jokes every now and then, but there are moments when you watch his mouth moving and wonder if he’s even on this planet.

When you’ve sold more records than anyone not named the Beatles, you tend to think you are right. History has proved that you often are. When Garth speaks, he wants to blow minds—not just yours, everyone’s. Sometimes he sounds plastic. Sometimes he sounds like the double rainbow guy. Sometimes he sounds like a liar. Sometimes he sounds like a genius. Sometimes he sounds like he’s trying to sound like a mystic or a prophet. Sometimes he sounds like he doesn’t live in this world.

He can just be super intense at moments. Almost to the point you start to wince a little. You want to tell him to go grab a nap, take the next couple of plays off. Here, for example, is his video announcing he got a Facebook account:

I’m glad it exists. I put it up there with any piece of comedy to come out in the past decade. But give yourself a break, man. You’re at a hotel. Just go double fist piña coladas, scroll through your bank account, and relax. Take a nice bath in liquid gold or whatever and vibe out with Trish. Please try to not breathe so hard when you talk.

But then there are stories of him being so gracious with people and staying countless hours to sign autographs for those who had been waiting in line for 23 hours. “The Dance” was the closer on his debut album, and might still be the song he’s remembered for the most. Brooks has called it his favorite Garth Brooks song. It’s a ballad, soaring and cheesy and moving. The song’s flexible, good for funerals, breakups, life changes of any kind. In that way it’s able to feel personal to so many.

On November 7, 2014, a woman named Teresa Shaw went with her daughter to a Garth Brooks concert in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They had made a sign. When, at the end of the night, Brooks played “The Dance,” Shaw held it up. The camera operator for the Jumbotron put her on the big screen. The sign said:

Chemo this morning
Garth tonight
Enjoying the dance

A security guard saw her and directed her to the front. After another appearance on the Jumbotron, Brooks clocked the sign. He walked over and sat in front of her at the edge of the stage. He sang to her, took the sign, and gave her his guitar. Then he got behind the pulpit. He talked about God reaching his hand down out of the clouds as the crowd lost their collective mind. He held the sign high, then pointed at Shaw and screamed, “You have all of my strength, you have everybody’s strength in here, and you will kick cancer’s ass!”

Four nights later Garth was on Entertainment Tonight promoting his album Man Against Machine. (Look, sometimes he’s not good at naming albums, okay? It could be worse. He’s got one named Scarecrow.) ET flew Shaw out to surprise Brooks and she appeared holding the guitar Brooks gave her. They sat together and talked for a few minutes. Brooks said he kept her sign in his tour locker. And Shaw said how thankful she was. And he said something about “the music.” And Shaw said, “If I’m having a bad day, I just know I can go to that guitar and I’ll get through it.” Then Brooks started playing the guitar. He started playing “The Dance.” He sang half the chorus with the acoustic, sang the back half a capella, and the last few seconds while staring right into Shaw’s eyes. It was kind and strange and just the slightest bit uncomfortable to watch. Shaw loved it. Brooks did, too.

In the spring of 2016, Garth was doing a show in Des Moines. He didn’t notice Shaw until after he’d already played “The Dance.” She was holding another sign. This one said: I kicked cancer’s ass.

Garth stopped the show and told the Iowa crowd an abbreviated version of what happened. He looked at Shaw and told her she had people around the world praying for her. Then he walked over to her, and played “The Dance” again.

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.