POP / 'You won't like me very much': Garth Brooks: just another guy? Mark Cooper saw America's most successful entertainer go among his people in Minneapolis

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Prince's scruffy Glam Slam rock club is separated from Minneapolis's monolithic Target Center by just 15 yards of empty, snowflecked road. This evening, around 300 college types dressed mostly in black are shuffling into Glam Slam to watch Jimmy Dale Gilmore, a 48- year-old country singer from Texas who shares a falsetto yodel with the 'Singing Brakeman' himself, Jimmie Rogers. Gilmore is a student of oriental philosophy and his country is a kind of folk-music with Zen tendencies. He has won Best Country Artist in the Rolling Stone critics' poll for the last three years.

Meanwhile, across the street and for the third successive night, 13,000 fans are cramming noisily into the Target Center to enjoy what might be termed 'The Garth Brooks Experience'. The 32-year-old Brooks isn't exactly a 'folk' artist but he certainly knows how to give the people what they want. While Gilmore recalls country as it used to be, Brooks is at the forefront of a new country culture that has transformed an ageing genre into a contemporary pop music with its own media outlets, its own fashions, its own dances and its own codes.

Brooks' fans in Minneapolis are uniformly white, working-class and out to have a very good time indeed. Many of the men and some of the women sport the Garth uniform: cowboy hat, cowboy boots, sta- pressed jeans and the kind of brightly coloured striped or chequered shirts that he sports on his album sleeves. Most are young adults but there are also lots of middle-aged couples and young children. Unlike rock'n'roll or hip-hop, country doesn't divide the family. There's a song on Brooks' most recent album, In Pieces, entitled 'The Night I Called the Old Man Out' - son loses temper, fights Dad, loses, wonders if he'll ever be 'half the man' that Dad is. That is country's take on teenage rebellion.

Whatever these fans' ages, they're all given to bouts of high-pitched whooping which start to blend into a single note as they get closer to the auditorium itself. Inside, they sound like a vast engine letting off steam with a shriek. Garth Brooks is a country singer but these folks are undoubtedly ready to rock.

Brooks comes from Oklahoma and lives in Nashville. He is the biggest-selling American entertainer of the Nineties, and he is still country. Back-stage, a surprisingly relaxed Brooks explained that his shows are primarily about bonding with the crowd. 'I think the whole thing is about creating a bridge. The shorter you can make that space between you and the people, the better show you're gonna have. These people don't come here to see or hear an artist; they come to be at one with an artist. The more people you can touch, the more people that you can make eye contact with, the better it gets.' Garth Brooks looks his audience in the eye and tells them that it's all right to be themselves, to be ordinary and to be American.

During the last decade, country has reached a new audience of young women via two cable channels, TNN and CNT, which beam into some 25 million US homes. The new generation of country stars is younger and more 'videogenic' than before. Most look like square-jawed models trying on the latest western fashions; Brooks has soul-searching eyes but he isn't exactly slim and his hairline is receding rapidly. The women love his tenderness, the guys love the fact that he kicks ass on stage and sings rowdy anthems like 'American Honky Tonk Bar Association'. Brooks is uncannily ordinary.

Only country doesn't mean what it used to mean. It was once the white man's blues; a regionally based music of resignation and restraint. Garth Brooks has turned it into a hi-tech whoop of affirmation. Country singers used to stand stock- still and sing through half-closed mouths. Brooks and his band have lip mikes and monitor feeds and they roam the empty stage like evangelists. Between songs, Brooks throws back his head, punches the air and drinks in the crowd. They blow him up like a balloon.

Even his breakthrough ballads - 1990's 'The Dance' and 1989's 'If Tomorrow Never Comes' - are invitations to taste life to the full in the face of doubt and death. They are moments of solemn communion in between the high-jinks. Brooks sings the ballads alone with a guitar and the crowd goes hushed and lights candles. Later, he returns for an encore by bouncing up through a trap- door on a trampoline. He climbs a rope-ladder, throws water over his drummer and sometimes even smashes a guitar. Brooks has remodelled the country concert as a rollercoaster ride that borrows liberally from the stadium rock shows he saw as a teenager in the 1970s. He towers above the rival 'Hat Acts' because he is the guy next door, but one with a crazy look in his eyes who claims he would like to play a killer in the movies. (Now he has a multi- million dollar contract with Disney that moment may not be far away.) When he rushes around the stage he is both a little boy on Christmas Day and, unashamedly, a maniac.

Brooks maintains that he's transformed into 'another guy' on stage. He talks of this character in the third person and speaks of 'his' power as a gift from God and 'his' progress as manifest destiny. Yet there is a lot of this other Garth in the way in which Brooks drives his own career. 'If you're hanging around me, you won't like me very much,' he explains, 'because I am always pushing; I'll be pushing you in the back all the time, saying 'Push yourself, cry, get mad at yourself, hit somebody, get emotional, let's get something going here.' That's what I do. I am an extremely intense person: the struggle, the intensity, the pushing - I enjoy that. I enjoy that ill-feeling in my stomach.'

Garth's unholy drive has helped recast country as a combination of lifestyle and attitude. He's sold 39 million albums without taking his singles to pop radio. Brooks isn't interested in crossover: he's brought the mainstream to his own front door. He turned on teenagers with the 1990 frat-house anthem, 'Friends in Low Places', and now all the major cities have country discos packed with young Americans in cowboy hats, line-dancing to songs like 'Ain't Going Down 'til the Sun Comes Up'.

This weekend Brooks comes to Birmingham and London after six sold-out shows in Dublin. He knows that his music has its finger on the pulse of provincial mid-America but he is out to prove that he can be both country and an international star. Europeans may have teething troubles with the pedal steel, the fiddle and even the shirts, but Brooks is ultimately selling something as cornily American as Mickey Mouse. As far as the man himself is concerned, what he represents is an attitude. 'Country's just a label,' he shrugs before heading for the stage. 'I define country music as honesty and sincerity. To me, country is a frame of mind; it's about what's right.'

(Photograph omitted)

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