October 07, 1991 12:00 PM

AS A TRACK-SCHOLARSHIP STUDENT AT Oklahoma State University 10 years ago, Garth Brooks hardly looked like the Man Who Would Be King of Country. A cannon-armed 6’1″, 225 lbs., he hurled javelins 200 feet and bench-pressed the combined body weights of Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam—300-plus lbs. He studied advertising in class and picked tunes around campus. His dreams then were more likely about gold medals and the Olympics than gold records and the Opry.

But those dreams of jock glory ended when Brooks failed to make the Big Eight Conference finals in his senior year. “A coach came by and said, ‘Well, now you can get on with what matters in life,’ ” he recalls. “I wondered, ‘What the hell could that be?’ ”

His wonderin’s over now. Brooks, 29, reigns over the resurgent Nashville of the ’90s as Garth the Gargantuan, country music’s most awesome commercial giant. Last week his newest release, Ropin’ the Wind, made music history by becoming the first album to enter both Billboard’s country and pop charts at No. 1. Since debuting a short 2½ years ago, in fact, Brooks has moved more records with greater velocity than anyone ever in Nashville: The combined sales of Garth Brooks, his second album, No Fences, and Ropin’ should approach a staggering 10 million units by year’s end.

In part, his ascent reflects country’s growing radio reach, which has stretched 33 percent to 2,400 stations nationwide since Urban Cowboy gave country and western a swift kick 11 years ago. With the country format now enjoying as big an audience as Top 40’s, Nashville—with its younger, more cosmopolitan sensibility—is no longer “ghettoized,” as Billboard Editor-in-Chief Timothy White puts it. “Today’s generation buys Garth the way they’d buy Sting or Jesus Jones or Tom Petty, because they like him, not because he’s country,” says White. “And it’s everywhere—in West Coast beach towns, Buffalo and New York City. Country-artists see themselves on a much bigger landscape.”

And Brooks owns more of that turf than anyone. “Rodeo,” his new record’s first single, seems likely to become his eighth consecutive No. 1 hit; he is setting records for concert attendance all over the U.S., and this week he is up for five Country Music Association Awards, including Entertainer of the Year, best single (“Friends in Low Places”) and best video (“The Thunder Rolls”).

With his pensive, pale-blue eyes, sanitized cable-ready cowboy looks and aw-shucks modesty, Brooks seems perfectly cast as the Franchise in the new Nashville. “What bothers me is that all success stories have dues to be paid,” he worries. “I haven’t paid mine. So I’m wonderin’, ‘Am I gonna go through holy hell up ahead?’ ”

To some extent, he already has. First there was a personal low, a marital moment of truth that prompted Garth to clean up his act or lose his wife, Sandy, 26. And this year there was also a professional setback when Brooks found his graphic “The Thunder Rolls” video, dealing with adultery, domestic violence and a woman’s revenge, banned on cable-TV’s country-music channels, TNN and CMT. It was an unexpected slight that left him “crushed, think-in’ to hell with it, I’m gettin’ out, it hurt so bad.”

Even that slap on the wrist was a rarity for Brooks. A master crowd-pleaser, he can weave his way through such tender, poetically spare narratives as “The Dance” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” or snarl through a rousing blue-collar cathartic like “Friends.” Rebelling against the static toe-tapping of most live cowboy acts, he’s an electrifying showman who choreographs his act with a unique, kick-ass abandon. “Garth’s intensity comes from athletics,” says lifelong buddy Mick Weber, who pumped iron with him at OSU and is now his road manager. “Once he hits the stage, it’s Game Day. He’s got a very competitive nature.” Billboard’s White adds, “There’s also a genuine intimacy and unpretentious accessibility to Garth—’This is who I really am.’ People see a lot of themselves in that.”

Right now Brooks is stretched out on the bed in the stateroom of his eight-bunk tour bus outside Cheyenne, Wyoming’s Frontier Days rodeo arena. It is late afternoon. Brooks and band hauled 22 hours from Nashville through a monster lightning storm, playing cards, telling stories, watching video movies and sleeping. Brooks took the wheel, as usual, for three calming, mind-emptying hours past midnight, and he seems clear-eyed and refreshed. Soon he’ll trade his baggy sweats and baseball cap for pressed Wranglers and a molded Stetson to become that “other Garth Brooks.”

The gusher he has tapped still stuns him, and he still fears crashing just as swiftly as he has soared to the top. “How many times have you seen somebody clean up at the Awards and not even get nominated the next year?” he muses softly. “That scares the s—outta me. It’s a freaky moment in time.”

Brooks doesn’t see himself as a true country giant. The idea seems to make him uneasy. “We’re not talkin’ Hank [Williams] Sr., [George] Jones or [Merle] Haggard here,” he says. “Comparin’ me to them is ludicrous, a sacrilege.” Is he comfortable as a sex symbol? “I’d rather be like Schwarzenegger—perfect teeth, perfect body, full head of hair.”

At least he looks like Arnold when he goes to the bank. Brooks says he nearly fainted while renegotiating his most recent record deal. “I had to stop for five minutes so I could go out and breathe because of the ungodly amounts they were talkin’ about,” he says. “My head was spinnin’.”

With so much at stake, Brooks has sensibly put together an inner circle he trusts. His brother Kelly, 30, an accountant, handles tour financing and keeps an eye on his conservative investments. Sister Betsy, 38, is his bassist. Guitarist Ty Englund, an old college roommate, joins Weber as part of Garth’s OSU mafia. “I surrounded myself with people who knew me long before I happened,” says Brooks. “So if I start acting different, man, they’ll square me in a minute.”

Kelly says prosperity has made his brother responsible. “He threw money around when he had none. Now he’s got 20 people on the payroll, 401(k)s, insurance plans, profit sharing. He sees the good that money can do and how fast it goes. He wants to hang on to it.”

He also wants to hang on to his marriage, though he didn’t realize how much until he nearly lost it. The first six months on the road, through mid-1989, he found his path teeming with women. Some pelted him on-stage with bras and panties bearing “messages about what they’d do if they got ahold of ya,” he says.

Brooks admits he likes to flirt—”to make love with my music in front of women. Ninety percent are fabulous-looking [but] the ones that scare me and my wife aren’t the lookers in half T-shirts and nice ringers who come to the bus askin’ where you goin’ later. It’s the ones that know all the lyrics, who tell you how your music changed their life, how they played “The Dance” at their husband’s funeral. You almost fall in love because of how they feel. But, as a married man, you move on.”

Apparently, Brooks wasn’t always movin’ on quite fast enough for Sandy, whom he’d met while both were at OSL. He’d “hide out” for five or six days without calling home, or act distant when he got there. Then, says Sandy, “an informant” on tour confirmed her worst suspicions. “Garth has always been a very sexual person,” she says. “It was his ego: proving he could look out, point and conquer. What made it easier to cope with was that it wasn’t someone special. It didn’t mean anything.”

In those heady first months, Garth admits, “I was a spoiled ass. Responsibility, commitment was not my game.” Sandy, who never toured with Garth back then, recalls it was the night of Nov. 4, 1989, when she nailed him by phone before a show. He was in Sikeston, Mo. It had to be her way or the highway. “I told him my bags were packed, my plane ticket’s bought, and I’m gone,” she says. ” ‘You come home and we’ll talk, on my turf, eye to eye.’ ”

Says Englund: “Garth was crushed. He pretty well lost it and choked up during the chorus of ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes.’ That night changed all our lives. We saw how-much we could hurt somebody. Garth has said to me a million times that was probably the best thing that ever happened to him.”

The mending took a while. “I wanted Garth to feel my pain,” says Sandy. “He had hurt me so bad. I had wasted two years of my life is how I felt. I’d been the perfect little wife who thought everything was hunky-dory. The hardest thing was to keep from beating the holy s—outta Garth at the sight of him. He was ashamed, embarrassed, and it was written all over his face. He broke down like a baby. He was on his knees, more or less beggin’ me, ‘I’ll change, anything. You name it, I’ll do it.’ ”

And so he has. “It took a helluva human being to forgive me,” says Brooks. “I had to promise I’d make this marriage work. It ain’t a bed of roses now, but we bust our asses, and it works unbelievably well. For the first time in my life, I feel good about being a husband and a partner.” As for Sandy, “I love her to death,” he adds solemnly. “When I’ve been down, Sandy has given me strength. That’s definitely given me what I have.”

Brooks started life with very little. He grew up in Yukon, Okla., the youngest of six children in Troyal and Colleen Brooks’s close, blended family. (Troyal had one child from his first marriage; Colleen had three from hers. Garth and Kelly are the two they had together.) The family-was, says Betsy, “downright poor” on Troyal’s $25,000 salary as a Unocal engineer. Most everyone picked guitars and sang at home with Colleen, who had had a modest career as a ’50s country singer.

At Yukon High, Brooks gigged in a band while playing three sports and the field. “I was pretty much of a dick,” is how he sees it now. “Had to be center of attention. Went from one girl to the other. I was pretty shallow.” His musical roots, though, ran deep. Brooks had already absorbed George Jones and Merle Haggard, grooved to ’70s rock (Kansas, Journey, Boston) and worshiped country-tinged sensitives James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg. Then, shortly before starting college in Stillwater, he switched channels. “I heard [George] Strait do “Unwound” on my car radio, and that’s the exact moment it all changed,” says Garth of his fellow neo-traditionalist. “I became a George wannabe and imitator for the next seven years.”

At OSU, Brooks worked up a vast eclectic repertoire of duets with Englund, playing around campus. He also met Sandy Mahr, a 19-year-old freshman from Owasso, Okla., in the ladies’ room of Tumbleweeds, where he was a bouncer. When he rushed in there to break up a howling brawl, he found her with her fist driven through a wall. It turned out Mahr had been cornered at the sink by the jealous ex-girlfriend of a man she had dated. Slightly “toasted” on tequila, Sandy “didn’t want to hurt her, only scare her,” she says. Bouncer Brooks promptly offered to take the feisty combatant home and, before long, was dating her.

After graduating from OSU, Brooks lit out for Nashville in 1985, lasting only 24 gloomy, insecure hours. He had expected stardom, but “he wasn’t ready. His heart was broken,” says Sandy. Back in Stillwater, the pair worked odd jobs as Garth honed his honky-tonk act. They married in May 1986, and a year later they gambled their last $1,500 on Nashville once again. But again Brooks was soon ready to bag it. “I said, ‘Now you’re talkin’ foolish,’ ” recalls Sandy. ” ‘Set a time limit, five years, 10 years. Settle down. Establish your roots.’ ”

Brooks pitched tunes all over town before finally getting his big break: He was added to a nightclub’s newcomer showcase when another act no-showed, and a Capitol talent agent saw the future of country. Brooks soon had a contract and an advance of $10,000—”the most money I’d ever seen in my life. My last check was seven figures, but that didn’t hit me one-tenth as hard.”

Yet the Brookses are hardly extravagant. They have simple tastes and still wait for Wal-Mart sales to buy their basics. They’ve finished renovating the home they bought last winter, a hilltop retreat on eight acres half an hour from Music Row, but with Garth doing nearly 200 shows this year, the house is still sparsely furnished. “We used to dance all the time,” says Sandy. “That’s why we have no dining-room table. We can dance under the chandelier.”

In fact their two-step seems smoother than ever. Sandy, who fits in easily when she joins Garth on the bus (about half the time), has even learned to argue with her more intense husband—a win-win proposition for both. “Garth loves to fight,” she explains. “He once said, ‘There’s an emotion that comes out in you that I never see until I get your blood goin’. I love that. Then I want to forget about it, take you in my arms and make love to you all night long.’ Now I know when Garth gets me riled up, he just wants to lay in the hay for a while. It’s foreplay.”

But because it’s airplay that makes the record world go round, Brooks will stay on the road through mid-December before stopping to catch his breath. (“I’m not stable enough upstairs to handle a kid,” says Garth.) At home, Brooks keeps no statuettes, awards or gilded disks, no traces of the colossus he has created. It’s his way of slamming the door on ego when he comes off the road. “I’m still a bum, I’m no different,” he insists. “I hate to take out the trash and clean my room. Sandy makes me do that stuff. I don’t wake up and say, ‘I cannot believe I am in the middle of all this.’ I just wake up and say, ‘You’re a bum, go do something worthwhile today.’ ”

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