U.S. Markets closed

Garth Brooks planned on being an athlete, but hearing George Strait changed his life

Cindy Watts, Nashville Tennessean

Editor’s note: Welcome to Garth Week. The USA TODAY Network sat down with Garth Brooks ahead of his unprecedented seventh Entertainer of The Year win at last week's CMA Awards in Nashville. Over the course of several hours, Brooks, in his own words, chronicled his rise from a young man in Oklahoma to one of the biggest stars in country music history. His seven vinyl album and seven CD “LEGACY” package will be in stores for Black Friday, and his two-part A&E biography “Garth Brooks: The Road I’m On” premiere's at 9 p.m. ET Dec. 2 - 3. This is chapter one in a five-part series. 

The day was like any other. Garth Brooks, a college freshman, and his father Troyal were driving down Yukon Avenue in Yukon, Okla., on the way to the grocery store. The car windows were down because his dad liked cigarettes. 

An announcer came on the radio and said, “Here’s a new kid from Texas, and I think you’re going to like the sound.”

The kid was George Strait. Brooks not only liked the sound, it changed his life.

“I was going to be a professional athlete even though my athletic abilities were telling me way early that I was not going to be a professional athlete,” Brooks recalls to the Nashville Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network. “When I heard Strait, a bell went off and it said, ‘That’s who you want to be.”

While the realization may have struck him as a young adult, Brooks had been on the path since the day he was born.

His mother Colleen McElroy Carroll had the voice of a country angel and was signed to Capitol Records in the 1950s. Brooks is the youngest of six children, and she was his best friend. His dad taught them all a few chords on the guitar, and the brothers and sister were athletes. The siblings shared two bedrooms — Brooks and his four brothers bunking in one room and his sister Betsy in the other. Brooks and his brother Kelly shared a roll-away bed. 

A young Garth Brooks and his band, including Ty England, left, perform in a bar in the early days of his career.

“There was no separating us whatsoever,” he said. “We were a close family, a very physical family, a very short-tempered family. The two gifts your parents give you are the people you want to be and the people you don’t want to be. That was our family growing up — very passionate. You can see that in me. It was loud. A lot of times it was good. A lot of times it wasn’t good.”

Brooks calls James Taylor “the savior” because if Taylor’s music was playing when he got home from school, he knew everything was going to be fine. Other music filled their home, too. Merle Haggard, George Jones, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Paul Revere and the Raiders were courtesy of Brooks’ parents. His older brothers introduced him to The Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elton John, Billy Joel, Queen and KISS – influences that can be heard in his music today.

At 14 years old, Brooks got a job on the street crew in Yukon. He spent the summer paving, doing construction and cleaning the sewer. He saw men who had been in the job for 20 years and knew he didn’t want the same future. The next year he got a job as a server in a restaurant, and he learned humility when he found himself serving classmates who didn't need jobs. 

His parents’ priority was to instill their children with the skills needed to support a family. 

“It’s the same thing I’ve told my kids since they were this high … manners and work ethic,” he said. “It’s two things that will get you 95 percent of where you want to go.”

CMA Awards 2019: Women shine, Garth Brooks makes history on country music's biggest night

Armed with that work ethic, Brooks won a track-and-field scholarship to Oklahoma State. In 1984, he walked the stage for commencement, only to find out later that he was a credit shy of his degree. He had to re-enroll – this time with no place to live and no scholarship money. He moved into a “Three’s Company” situation with two female friends and got his first job playing in a bar to pay tuition and bills. One night a week eventually grew to gigs in multiple bars most nights of the week.

“I learned everything George Strait ever did because I could imitate him,” Brooks said. 

A year later, Brooks was resolved to follow his country music dream. A bar where he played raised money for him and gave him a going away party. It rained the entire way from Oklahoma to Tennessee. He got a flat tire somewhere between Memphis and Nashville and had to unpack his belongings in the rain so he could change it. 

By the time he arrived for his appointment at ASCAP, a performing rights agency, to meet with music executive Merlin Littlefield, Brooks felt defeated. Littlefield had found a stray dog and seemed more interested in the dog than the young bar singer in his office. Just then, a successful songwriter arrived unannounced and asked for a cash advance. Littlefield balked, and Brooks grew confused.

“I go, ‘The guy needed $800,’” Brooks recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, it’s lot of money.’ I said, ‘I make $800 a week where I’m at just playing music.’ And he said, ‘I suggest you go back to where you’re making $800.’”

Shell-shocked, Brooks was soon back out on the road, headed to his parents' Oklahoma home.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Garth Brooks on how listening to George Strait changed his life