By Jane Sanderson
September 03, 1990 12:00 PM

On his first trip to Nashville, singer-songwriter Garth Brooks says he “pulled in expecting to see my name on every water tower in the place.” It wasn’t. Then 24, Brooks may have been the pride of Stillwater, Okla., but he soon learned he was nothing in Nashville, where wannabe country stars tend to outnumber the parking meters. “I had thought the world was waiting for me,” he says, “but there’s nothing colder than reality.”

And there’s nothing hotter than Brooks is now, four years later. After a couple more seasons of seasoning, Brooks returned to Nashville in 1988 and within 10 months had signed with Capitol Records for his first LP. That debut album, Garth Brooks, launched four No. 1 country singles, will sell its millionth copy this month and has raised Brooks from honky-tonker to concert headliner almost overnight. This month, when the Country Music Association announced nominations for its annual awards show (CBS, Oct. 8), Brooks landed five, including male vocalist of the year, song of the year and the Horizon Award for the most promising newcomer.

Even in an industry that seems to hand out trophies faster than a big-city bowling league, Brooks’s showing is impressive. “There are lots of artists who can sing but who can’t impart the emotion and personality that make an entertainer shine,” says singer Reba McEntire, who brought her fellow Oklahoman on tour this summer as her opening act. “Garth pulls it off.”

Onstage, Brooks’s show mixes soft laments and raucous cowboy rock, but on record it was that heart-tug quality that infused his first No. 1 single. “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” co-written with Nashville veteran Kent Blazy, is a reflective ballad advising folks to show their feeling for loved ones while there’s still time. “That song means a lot to me because of friends I’ve lost,” says Brooks, who dedicated the tune to a former track coach who died in a 1982 plane crash and a college roommate who was killed in a car accident five years ago. “There’s a million things you can say that need to be said,” he explains about his songwriting,” messages that are of common sense, of values, things people have to be reminded of.”

For Brooks, those values first took shape in Yukon, Okla., where he grew up the youngest of six children fathered by an oil company engineer. His mother, Colleen, was a 1950s country singer who recorded briefly and performed on TV with Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee. “We kids felt that she had cut her career short because of us, and we wanted to carry on the tradition for her,” says Brooks.

After high school Brooks headed for Oklahoma State University on a track scholarship, and while he studied for a degree in advertising by day, he supported himself with pickup playing gigs and odd jobs. Among the latter was a stint as a bouncer in a Stillwater nightclub. One night, Brooks recalls, he was called to help a young woman who had stuck her fist through the pressed-plywood wall of a women’s room toilet stall.

“All she said was, I missed,’ ” says Brooks, who helped free her hand while the girl who had been her target stood trembling nearby. “I thought, ‘Man, this is nuts.’ Then I told her she had to leave, but as I was takin’ her outside, I kept thinkin’ about how good-lookin’ she was.”

Sandy Mahr turned out to be a fellow university student, and soon she and Brooks began dating. Their romance, interrupted only briefly by his first ill-fated trip to Nashville, resumed soon after, and in 1987 they married. “Sandy’s a great woman who’s every bit a lady,” says Brooks. “But she don’t take nothin’ off nobody—especially me. I owe everything to God and her.”

The following year, this time with Sandy at his side, Brooks ventured east once again for his second try in Nashville. (“If you’re gonna play in the big league, you’ve gotta be where they’re swingin’ the bats.”) For 10 months they worked together in a local boot store, while Brooks struggled to make contacts and get his songs heard. Spotted one night performing at a charity benefit, he was signed by Capitol and quickly switched from footwear to footlights.

Now Nashville’s twang du jour, he performs 160 concerts a year, does most of his songwriting on a tour bus and marvels that “I’m getting to do what I love and getting paid damn good for it.” Off the concert tour, he heads for the simple rented home on Nashville’s outskirts that he shares with Sandy and their Siberian husky—and where he keeps his collection of John Wayne movie videos. “I’d like to carry the same messages in song that he did in his movies,” says Brooks. “He stood for honesty.”

Despite the current hype and hoopla, Brooks still seems to view his rocket rise with country-boy modesty. “It was quite a thrill to see myself on the same T-shirt as the great Jackson Browne,” he proclaimed after this year’s Farm Aid IV concert in Indianapolis. Teamed in a duet with Loretta Lynn at the “Night of 100 Stars” benefit last May, he aw-shucksed that the event was “more like 99 stars and me.”

Maybe there’s only one thing that will convince Brooks he has arrived. Quick—somebody put that man’s name on a water tower.

—Jane Sanderson in Nashville