The history of country music really could be chronicled as B.G. (Before Garth) and A.G. (After Garth).
That’s about the best way to note the difference in the genre before Garth Brooks arrived on the scene. He’s made millions by bringing a rock ’n’ roll sensibility to the sound and a high-energy brand of showmanship to the stage.
For many years, country music was a niche format on the radio. Artists like Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Jr. and later performers like Clint Black, Ricky Skaggs, and Randy Travis all had a following. But they didn’t have the crossover, ‘every man, every women’ appeal that Brooks has.
“Garth made people realize that everybody could like country music or find something that they liked in country music,” said Stoney Richards, host of the popular morning show “Y’d Awake” on the Pittsburgh-area country station Y108. “Still to this day, I talk to people on the internet who say, ‘I’m not that big a fan of country music, but man I love Garth Brooks. He’s good.’ So, he changed that and showed Nashville and the rest of the country, and really the world, that country music is very marketable.”
Anyone who needs to be convinced of that need not leave city limits on Saturday when Brooks shows up at Heinz Field to play the biggest-selling stadium event in Pittsburgh history. According to Heinz Field’s corporate communications manager Nick Sero, 72,887 tickets have been sold for the 7 p.m. concert. That number could end up topping 75,000 when suites and potential additional seating is added.
Brooks’ anticipated crowd easily beats out Heinz Field’s current attendance record holder: 69,983 at the 2016 Pitt-Penn State football game. As for Heinz Field’s highest selling concert: Taylor Swift attracted 56,445 last summer. The Rolling Stones drew 55,970 in 2015.
But what is it about Brooks that appeals to so many people?
“First and foremost is energy,” said country singer and musician Chris Higbee of Dawson, who cites Brooks as a big influence on his career. “He is so electrifying on stage. He’s having fun on stage and never holds back. When he walks off stage, he’s put everything he had into it, and that’s something that I like to do. I physically have nothing left when I walk off the stage.”
Emma Ferdinandi, 19, a junior at the Univesity of Notre Dame, was barely a year old when Brooks announced his retirement from recording and performing in 2000. But she was one of the 84,000 in the crowd when Brooks played the first concert in the 88-year history of Notre Dame Stadium last October.
“The weather was a rainy, snowy disaster, but it was amazing. It felt somehow more alive than a football game,” said Ferdinandi, who felt that Brooks overcame the weather and gave a memorable performance that was nationally televised on CBS two months later.
“He was really trying to say to people, ‘Hey, I see you even if you’re sitting in the last row of the stadium and this experience that we’re going through, we’re going through it together.’ I think that’s really clear in the energy that’s in his music, the humor and also the sincerity. When you’re singing ‘Friends in Low Places’ with everybody in that stadium, you just feel that connection, that spark of energy,” Ferdinandi said.
Higbee said Brooks introduced quite a bit of rock ‘n’ roll production into the country scene.
“When Garth came in, it was lights and smoke and flash,” Higbee said.
The words Brooks sings are as important as his stage presence is in contributing to his appeal and resonating with his fans. While the songs on his albums are mainly written by other people, he’s at least a co-writer on many of his more popular songs including “The Thunder Rolls,” “Much Too Young (To Be This Damn Old),” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes.”
“There were a lot of ‘cheatin’ songs when he came along,” Richards says. “He took that and kind of modernized it to problems that we all have, you know, with our partners or in our lives. Or making money with ‘Two of a Kind Workin’ On a Full House,’ made it about raising your kids, falling in love, falling out of love, and trying to get back in love. He’s got those songs and comes at it from so many angles. ‘Friends in Low Places’ just sings to everybody, whether you are in a bar or in a car just trying to sing along with it.”
Richards specifically points to the song that Brooks came out of retirement with “More Than a Memory,” about a woman he wakes up thinking about in the middle of the night and realizing he can’t get out of his head.
“It’s one of the more emotional songs he ever did,” Richards said. “He did in front of like a hundred radio people live and said ‘What do you think?’ I mean that takes guts.”
“His lyrics are timeless. His music is universal,” said Ferdinandi, who interviewed Brooks for the Scholastic, Notre Dame’s student magazine.
“He was very humble, very kind,” she said. “It wasn’t intimidating at all. When he came in, he was dressed in an orange T-shirt with dirty jeans because he was just working on the Carter project building houses for Habitat for Humanity. From that moment, you just knew he wasn’t acting like some big celebrity even though he is a big celebrity.”
Richards said he’s never heard anyone say a bad word about Brooks.
“I’ve never heard of him throwing a temper tantrum,” Richards said. “I was in Los Angeles, and he would come to the radio station and just hang out. He would go into the offices and his rep would be saying, ‘Garth we gotta go’ and he would say, ‘Yeah, but I haven’t talked to the people downstairs.’ He wanted to meet absolutely everyone.”
On Saturday night, Brooks will meet a lot of Pittsburghers. And by all indications, Pittsburgh is excited to see him.
“As soon as he hits one note from ‘Friends in Low Places’ you will think the Steelers just brought all their Super Bowls back into the stadium,” Richards said.
And what about his place in music history? Years from now, what will people look back and say about him?
“He’s one of those names that will be remembered long after he’s gone,” Ferdinandi says. “There’s proof of that already.”