The power of the Garth Brooks phenomenon

Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 1:00am
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No solo artist in any musical genre has equaled the incredible feats of Garth Brooks, who has sold more than 128 million albums since his 1990 debut and been certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) as the all-time single act top seller.

Author and longtime journalist Patsi Bale Cox was a Capitol Records executive during Brooks’ rise to fame on the label, and her new book The Garth Factor: The Career Behind Country’s Big Boom (Center Street) examines what remains a phenomenal event in country music history.

Cox, who will discuss and sign copies of her book at events Thursday night at Davis-Kidd Booksellers and Friday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, says that the single biggest misconception many still have about Brooks is the notion his triumphs come solely from his marketing savvy.

“This whole thing about Garth being this marketing genius is a myth that got spun way out of control many years ago,” Cox said. “First there’s this frequently reported falsehood that he was a marketing major in college [it was advertising], when he wasn’t. Second, Garth in the beginning didn’t really know that much about marketing or business. Sure, he learned and became very savvy about it, but the person who was the real marketing guru at Capitol was Joe Mansfield.”

According to Cox, Mansfield was the person who convinced Garth to forget the widely held notion in the music business that when you have a new album to promote, you disregard the albums and hits that came before it.

“Instead, he showed him the advantages of really working the catalog, of getting everything you could out of not only what was brand new, but everything that came before,” Cox said. “Garth embraced that idea and because of Joe Mansfield, it enabled him to get big sales on all his albums. Mansfield’s role in Garth’s success hasn’t received anywhere near the credit it deserves.”

Cox’s book traces Brooks’ life and times from his Oklahoma beginnings right up to his emergence as a superstar. In addition to noting his overall love for music, Cox cites Brooks’ empathy with women writers and artists and says that’s one of the things she’ll emphasize during her Friday presentation.

“Every female artist and writer that I’ve ever met and spoken with says Garth Brooks doesn’t have a sexist bone in his body,” Cox continued. “He’s never come across with that ‘I’m a star’ attitude or ‘I’m the boss’ during writing sessions. He truly treats women as equals. That’s one big thing that separates him from a lot of others.”

Cox says another key quality Brooks possesses is his ear for talent.

“I remember having conversations with him about some obscure performer and he would light up and say how much he loved that person’s music,” she said. “It would turn out that he heard them in some tiny club or had gotten hold of a cassette from somewhere.”

She also highlights Brooks’ willingness to take controversial stands and champion such causes as gay and civil rights without fear or regret. “Some people are just reckless and do those things without any worries or knowledge of the potential ramifications,” Cox said. “Garth knows the potential pitfalls and does it because he’s always been a champion of the underdog, going back to his childhood days, when he would befriend kids who had been bullied or ignored. He’s always been fearless in that regard and willing to express himself on any number of issues.”

Cox’s volume offers the inside story on many things in Brooks’ life, including the real scoop on the “Garth Brooks is Chris Gaines” flap, his sometimes stormy relationship with label figures like legendary producer Jimmy Bowen, and the evolution of his current marriage to Trisha Yearwood and demise of his previous union.

A well-connected writer who’s previously done acclaimed biographies on such stars as Loretta Lynn and The Judds, Cox avoids dubious speculation and unproven gossip, instead offering documented accounts, detailed coverage of specific events and multiple interviews with key persons and sources.

When asked what figure in country music history she would link with Brooks, Cox cites longtime friend and mentor, honky-tonk giant Floyd Tillman.

“Floyd believed just like Garth that country is a big tent, and both were and are open to new ideas. Floyd was always a honky-tonk guy first and foremost, but he didn’t mind working in some jazz licks sometimes or trying some fresh things. Garth has that same attitude, a lover of country music first, but still willing to include some different things in the music as well.”

Cox, whose next project will be on R&B and urban music sensation Toni Braxton, says she anticipates Brooks will someday return to the Nashville scene, though in a different role.

“I see him as eventually spending a lot of time working with new artists and using Jack’s Tracks [the recording studio owned by Brooks] as a place where some fresh voices get developed and some excellent recordings made,” Cox concluded. “Who knows, he may find another talent of the magnitude of Trisha or Martina (McBride). If anyone could do it, Garth Brooks would be that person.”

What: Author Patsi Bale Cox discusses and signs copies of her new book The Garth Factor: The Career Behind Country’s Big Boom
When: 7 p.m. Thursday and noon Friday
Where: Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 2121 Green Hills Village (Thursday); The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 222 Fifth Ave. S. (Friday)
Cost: Free and open to the public
Info: 385-2645, daviskidd.com (Thursday); 416-2001, countrymusichalloffame.com (Friday)