Garth Brooks is still having to explain his lip-syncing on the CMA Awards, most recently on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. But it’s safe to say, if Brooks had his druthers, the focus would be on something else that happened on the awards stage that night: the fact that he was sharing the microphone — and the spotlight — with the young artist-songwriter who wrote the single he performed, “Ask Me How I Know.”
For the past three years, Brooks, 55, has championed Mitch Rossell’s career, encouraging his songwriting, giving him his first cut, taking him on tour as his regular opener, and now putting him on country music’s most important stage.
In fact, before the awards show, Brooks — a tireless advocate for the Nashville songwriting community — told PEOPLE he was even more excited about Rossell than the single. It’s a statement that speaks volumes, considering “Ask Me How I Know” has rocketed up the charts to be Brooks’ first No. 1 hit in a decade.
“He’s just a guy who moved here [to Nashville] on a dream,” Brooks said of Rossell. “He is every songwriter’s dream. You come here with nothing and hope that this will happen. And good for him. He deserves it.”
Obviously, much of Rossell’s good fortune is the result of Brooks’ passion for his work — a fact not lost on the grateful young artist.
“He has given me a platform that I would venture to say no other artist in history has given another artist,” Rossell, 30, tells PEOPLE. “Even coming out of my mouth, it doesn’t seem like it could be real. … Whether or not this whole thing takes off and I have a chance to have an artist or songwriter career, I will still call Garth Brooks my friend and one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, if not the greatest. That’s the bigger picture for me.”
Rossell grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and moved to Nashville immediately after college, in 2009, to join the masses of musical dreamers who flock to the city. He was making ends meet performing four-hour sets at a downtown bar when he answered Brooks’ industry-wide call for songs for his 2014 album Man Against Machine.
“I just sent him four songs, and said, ‘Hey, man, I don’t expect anything out of this,’” Rossell recalls. “’I’m just so honored to send this email.’ It’s my favorite artist of all time, and I’m getting to send him an email. How crazy is that? That was cool enough for me.”
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Two weeks later, it got even cooler: Brooks wrote back. No, Brooks said, Rossell’s songs hadn’t made the cut, but the superstar went out of his way to praise the work. Brooks continued to reach out to Rossell, and a friendship soon formed.
When Brooks began working on a new album, 2016’s Gunslinger, Rossell also was assembling his songs for an EP, and he asked Brooks to help him narrow the list. But as Brooks discussed Rossell’s songs, he began to hint at his own agenda.
Rossell pressed back. “Is there one of these songs that you want to cut?” he finally asked.
“Yeah,” Brooks replied. “I think there is.”
As much as Rossell says he tries to “play it cool” around his idol, “I felt like I was gonna explode inside,” Rossell recalls. “I was floored. I couldn’t believe it.”
Since “Ask Me How I Know” was released as a single in March, fans have embraced it, and Brooks can now rely on his concert-goers to sing back the words. Once CMA Awards show producer Robert Deaton settled on the song for the broadcast, Brooks invited Rossell to join him on stage.
At first, Brooks led Rossell to believe he’d just be playing his acoustic guitar; then Brooks asked Rossell to join him on his mic to sing harmony. But during rehearsal the afternoon before the show, Rossell learned that Brooks, ailing and hoarse, was making the decision to turn off the mic and rely instead on a track they’d previously recorded.
Still, Rossell is quick to say, that didn’t mean the two weren’t singing their hearts out. “You can’t help but sing it,” he says. “You’re in the moment. You’re singing it. But he just didn’t have a voice.”
On The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Brooks explained he was protecting his voice for seven upcoming shows in Spokane, Washington, noting that concerts – not awards shows – are at the heart of country music. “What it’s about is those people who put their butts in the seat,” he told host Ellen DeGeneres, “… so that’s who you want to save your voice for.”
Rossell understands Brooks’ decision to lip sync, and he strongly defends it.
“I feel like I know Garth, and Garth is a man of his word,” he says. “He had a lot of people counting on him for that, and I don’t say this arrogantly. I say this as a credit to him and how selfless he is.”
Among the people Brooks didn’t want to disappoint was Rossell himself, the songwriter learned at an afterparty celebrating Brooks’ Entertainer of the Year award.
One of Brooks’ staff revealed to the young artist how adamant Brooks was about having only one microphone on the stage. The staffer asked why, and Brooks offered a simple explanation: The single mic meant TV cameras couldn’t ignore Rossell.
When Rossell heard that, “I just started crying. I lost it. Who does that?”
How far can Rossell ride Brooks’ belief in him? At this point, Rossell is thrilled with the distance it’s already taken him.
Performing and collaborating with country’s king were “never my goals,” he says, “because they were just too big to ever be my goals.”