We are a modest country singer

Garth Brooks might look like a 'thumb in a hat' but his finger is on the pulse of mid-America. By Jasper Rees
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The Independent Online
Garth Brooks's socks are making a rare public appearance. So unforgiving is their owner's promotional schedule that he hasn't found time to put his state-of-the-art trainers on. White with a blue trim and just a suggestion of grubbiness, the socks are the only thing he's wearing that were paid for out of his own pocket. Every other garment on his person is prominently logoed - Brooks is such hot property that he has turned into a hoarding, and only the socks have not been sold as advertising space.

Today, he's in a leisure outfit that sings the praises of a sports team from his native state, the Oklahoma Something-or-Others. British indifference to American sport belongs to the same cultural pigeon-hole as our national intolerance of country music. So Brooks would appear to be wasting his time on two counts - a clothes horse flogging a dead horse.

Actually, Brooks is flogging Fresh Horses, a rough-hewnnew album which comes out the same day as the Beatles' Anthology. It would be a close call to judge which release EMI worked harder to embargo. Brooks wasn't even able to share his rowdy version of Aerosmith's "The Fever" with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. He says he'll probably seek them out "at an award ceremony or something". Brooks goes to a lot of award ceremonies. "I'll go up to them and I hope they tell me what they think about it, even if it hurts.''

Ten years ago, no Nashville act would have found itself at the same gong- fest as a hard rock group. It's a good measure of the distance country music has travelled that Fresh Horses should be a contender in an American shopping week during which albums by Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Queen have been released. As part of the ritual of attention- seeking, Brooks's people have commissioned a crop artist to inscribe the album title in 300ft letters in a wheatfield on the Dallas flight path. "It's one of those things,'' says Brooks, who, like most modern Nashville acts, knows his way around a business meeting. "Your best kinda advertisement is hard news, so what this is doing is generating an event around the album.''

The ballistic career of Garth Brooks - with album sales of more than 50 million - is the revenge of middle America on the loud and mostly combative music of the coasts. When the pop genres polarised - roughly the same time as Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson all lost the plot - the nation discovered a taste for the simple tunes with nagging melodies and naturalistic narratives that Nashville, with the odd tweak, found it could deliver. Despite his bulky, farmhand looks, Brooks was the one who found himself filling the vacuum. Or make that because of his looks - his very blandness, the lack of threat posed by an appearance once memorably summed up as that of "a thumb in a hat'', kind of matched the appeal of the songs.

Five albums down the line, he's still singing about the three Rs - rodeo, radio and the road. It was on the road that he pulled out and overtook the other Nashville runners attempting to cross over in the same period. For his first visit to these shores, one Sunday night at the start of the Gulf war, he brought an acoustic hootenanny to the Cambridge Theatre. When he returned three years later, only the name on the top of the bill was the same - this time he shipped in a light rig the size of a space ship, packed out the arenas and demonstrated the sort of crowd manipulation technique that used to go down so well at Nuremberg.

For this shameless deviation from country practice, Brooks blames, among others, our very own Freddie Mercury: "I got the idea when I was a kid andwent to see groups like Kansas, Queen and Styx. It was something that kinda struck me as funny. I went to my first country concert, which was George Strait, expecting it to be the same big light rig but with George Strait music, and it wasn't. I enjoyed myself immensely but I kept looking and trying to find, hey, why isn't somebody doing this?''

So successful has the ploy proved that Brooks nowadays uses the royal "we". Our interview segued straight into a press conference for British country music journalists, one of whom asked about his Hollywood career. "For two years, we couldn't find anything that we wanted to be an actor in," replied Brooks. "Fox hired us as producers, probably the greatest compliment we could have at the time.'' He has two movie ideas going into script form, but "we're not acting in these. We're producing them.''

Brooks is actually a modest man, and disarmingly sincere. When "a young lady by the name of Miss Yates'' gave him a hard time on his first television appearance here, he was unfailingly polite, but remembers it as "probably the worst time ever in my life... She treated me very ignorant.'' But his more credible knockers would say he's got a lot to be modest about; that the live show's Sturm und Drang masks some decidedly watery songs.

Brooks's current line is that he doesn't like his own songs much either: "I'm just not a fan of stuff that I write. Maybe because it's so me, it's so close to me and I know it, so it's not so special.'' But eight out of 10 songs on Fresh Horses are co-written by Brooks, who bows to the opinion of Allen Reynolds, his producer. "There's a lot of things I didn't want to cut that he's wanted to cut.'' Also, there wasn't much out there that they liked better. Between them, Brooks and Reynolds listened to about 10,000 songs for Fresh Horses. Just the one got onto the album.

There were two years between this album and its predecessor - an unprecedented gap in a music town that believes in pressing home your advantage. Hence the title. "Fresh horses is a cowboy term meaning rested, meaning you're coming out fast and hard. It also means you're on your toes, not your heels. For the first time in my career during the last five years, I'm not on my heels."

By the time the next album appears, Brooks will be in need of a new mount. A world tour, starting next spring, has been squeezed in specifically to finish by the time Brooks's daughter August goes to school, when "the roots just rip into the ground and kinda hold you there''. She's three now, and will be six when it's all over. As his pre-eminence is based overwhelmingly on US sales, he has every excuse to ignore the old continent. But we are due for a visit in the autumn of 1997, giving us ample time to decide whether we are amused.