KANSAS CITY, Mo. — I first met Garth Brooks in October 2006. His wife, Trisha Yearwood, was performing that night at a benefit in the VooDoo Lounge at Harrah's casino in Kansas City, Mo., and he accompanied her.
A couple of hours before her show, Brooks met with several members of the local media, giving each of us five minutes or so of his time. He was friendly, polite, sincere and charming, the kind of guy who looks you in the eyes as he shakes your hand — all the traits he is known for.
I met Brooks again a year later, this time at a bigger event. In October 2007, he cut the ceremonial ribbon at the official opening of the Sprint Center. Lots of media and local dignitaries were there for the ceremony and a tour of the arena. Inside, Brooks held court again with the local media, this time meeting us in small clusters of four or five people.
When he got to my group, he shook hands and introduced himself to each of us. As I reached to shake his hand, he looked me in the eyes, again, and said: "I met you last year, at the VooDoo Lounge. You're from The Kansas City Star, right?"
Just days before that ceremony, in a matter of two hours, Brooks had sold out nine Sprint Center shows scheduled Nov. 5-14. Those shows were his first performances since his 1996-98 world tour.
His siege of the Sprint Center was an international event, drawing people and media from all over the country and the world. (At one of the weekend shows, I met a couple who'd flown in from Ireland.)
The Star covered all nine shows, and the reviews drew online interest from fans everywhere — those who attended the shows and others who had to do it vicariously.
Brooks returned to Sprint Center this weekend, performing five shows May 5-7 with two more shows this upcoming weekend. These Kansas City shows are part of a tour Brooks and Yearwood launched in 2014. By the time it leaves Kansas City, the tour will have performed more than 300 shows in 64 North American cities, an average of five shows per city.
If you're wondering how a guy in his mid-50s who lived outside the music world for nearly a decade can still fill arenas four and five nights in a row, you need only to understand the myth and legend Brooks has cultivated and preserved throughout his career.
Behind the gargantuan numbers — the best-selling solo artist of all time (135 million-plus in the U.S. alone) — stands an artist who barged onto the music scene in 1989, releasing a self-titled album that has since sold more than 10 million copies.
He was competing then in a music world that was more interested in flamboyant pop and R&B acts like Milli Vanilli, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Bobby Brown and New Kids on the Block, and big-hair rock acts like Motley Crue, Guns N' Roses and Bon Jovi.
Brooks, on the other hand, was just a humble guy from Oklahoma who liked Kiss, James Taylor and Billy Joel as much as he did George Strait and Merle Haggard. And it showed in his music and his concerts, which quaked with rock-show theatrics: flash pots and pyrotechnics and high-flying gymnastic feats.
Brooks was never a matinee idol or pretty boy. He never strutted the male-stripper body of later country stars like Tim McGraw or brandished the tough-guy personae of artists like Trace Adkins or Toby Keith.
But he exuded a handsome appeal, endearing himself to both genders: to the ladies who appreciated his advocacy in songs like "The Thunder Rolls," in which a wife discerns the aroma of a "strange new perfume" for the last time and takes matters into her own hands; and to the guys, who tapped deep into Brooks' palatable version of bro' country in his biggest hit ever, "Friends in Low Places," in which the protagonist crashes his ex's posh wedding and peacocks his blue-collar roots.
If he wasn't the first, Brooks was one of the earliest country stars to acknowledge the diverse music world flourishing outside of country and had the savvy to make that music part of his personae. During one of those nine Sprint Center shows in 2007, he played a medley of songs that showcased his many favorites and influences: "She Thinks I Still Care" (George Jones); "Mama Tried" (Merle Haggard); "Mrs. Robinson" (Simon & Garfunkel); "Wild World" (Cat Stevens); "Piano Man" (Billy Joel); "Turn the Page" (Bob Seger); "Amarillo By Morning" (George Strait); "1982" (Randy Travis); "Ten Feet Away" (Keith Whitley); and "American Pie" (Don McLean).
Brooks also has managed to elude the traps of novelty and the attachments to the fashions and trappings of any era that can turn a guy into a heritage act. Unlike the other bands and stars who emerged in the early 1990s, his act has accommodated his passage to middle-agedom. Brooks on stage at 55 looks as comfortable in his own skin as Brooks in his late-20s. And his music has aged well, too, especially his greatest hits but even his most cornball ballads.
In 2000, Brooks divorced his first wife and high-school sweetheart, Sandy Brooks, after 14 years of a marriage that produced three daughters. He has been married to Yearwood since 2005.
For the most part, his odd dodge into his alter ego Chris Gaines notwithstanding, Brooks has eluded scandal and tabloid scurrility. He has long portrayed himself as a genuine family guy — the desire to enjoy his children's childhoods prompted his retirement in the late 1990s — and established himself as a devout philanthropist and a staunch supporter of gay rights.
Brooks' legend and the demand for his music and live shows have survived because he has lived the life he portrays on stage, and because he has a knack of impressing those in his presence with his decency, sincerity and humility — whether it's 16,000 people in an arena or a guy in a news conference he remembered meeting a year before.