The youngest of six children, Garth Brooks was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on February 7, 1962. Oklahoma would be not only the location of his birth but a touchstone in the country music superstar’s life he continues to revisit both physically and emotionally.
“Just to be in Oklahoma puts you on the board in the game of life,” Brooks, the top-selling solo artist in U.S. history with more than 148 million album sales, said of his childhood home and the place he chose to raise his three daughters. “If you were raised in Oklahoma, you were raised with all you need. There’s a rightness and a good-heartedness there that’s not anywhere else.”
Brooks says his parents were 'pretty real people'
Brooks’ father, Troyal Raymond Brooks Jr., worked for an oil company and his mother, Colleen Carroll, was a singer who recorded on the Capitol Records label and appeared on the 1950s variety show Ozark Jubilee. It was the second marriage for both parents, and Brooks and his older brother Kelly joined siblings Jim, Jerry, Mike and Betsy with the family, eventually settling in Yukon, Oklahoma.
“They were pretty real people,” Brooks said to Nash Country Daily of his parents. “Mom believed you could fly. Dad would pull you over and go, ‘Ok, if you’re going to fly, it’s going to take a helluva lot of work.’ So he was the realist … she was the dreamer … and they worked really, really good together. Dad would tell you things, man. My dad, he was sweet, full of love … but he’s going to be a realist.”
His family bonded over music
The dreamy, creative side of Brooks was also encouraged through a childhood filled with music. Not only via his mother’s singing, but also thanks to a father who played guitar and taught Brooks his first chords. As the youngest of the family, Brooks was exposed to a wide variety of musical influences from the time he was an infant. His parents were fans of country artists such as Merle Haggard and George Jones, while his siblings' tastes encompassed artists diverse as Janis Joplin, Three Dog Night, Journey and Steppenwolf.
The family entertained each other with regular talent nights at home, where all the children participated or performed. Brooks would sing and had learned to play guitar and banjo. He once said of his sister Betsy that she could “play anything with strings or keys.”
Brooks wanted to be a professional athlete but never forgot about music
Though homelife provided a fertile ground upon which to learn and develop musically, by the time Brooks was in high school his major interest was sports. He played football, baseball and earned a track and field scholarship to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. It was there he competed in javelin.
“I wanted to be a professional athlete. That was my dream when I was a kid,” Brooks told Stephen Colbert in 2018. “The only thing that stopped me was my professional athlete ability.” Of his decision to throw javelin, he joked to Colbert that “people call it ‘track and field.’ Not me. I’m [just] field.”
While sports may have been his passion, he was also a serious student, studying advertising. Music remained a constant though, with Brooks taking time to jam with fellow students in their dorm.
In 1985, Brooks took his guitar to a local saloon called Willie’s and asked if he could play to make some money. “One night turned into two nights, three nights, and pretty soon I was playing Monday through Friday all over town,” he recalled to Colbert, admitting it was then he realized music could be a career. “The great thing was, it wasn’t working … I could feed myself and somebody I loved doing something that isn’t a job!”
He headed to Nashville for his big break only to immediately return to Oklahoma
So Brooks packed his bags and headed to Nashville. But after realizing the harsh reality of being a small fish in a big pond, he turned around after 24 hours in Music City.
Back home in Stillwater, he continued to be a local sensation, albeit discouraged and embarrassed from his attempt at trying to make it big. Still, Brooks knew there was something bigger out there for him and made his way to Nashville for a second time.
A stroke of luck landed Brooks his first record deal
The singer spent years performing when and where he could, working odd jobs to make ends meet, all while making contacts in the music industry. After being turned down by labels all over Nashville – including Capitol Records – a disheartened Brooks agreed to perform as part of a writer’s showcase at the Bluebird Cafe in 1988. In the audience was one of the Capitol execs who had initially passed on Brooks.
“Lynn Shults of Capitol Records was there to see the guy who never showed up,” Brooks recalled to Billboard. “He saw Garth Brooks instead. When my performance was over, Lynn was waiting offstage. What he said … would change my life forever. He said, 'Maybe we missed something here. Come to the label tomorrow. Let’s talk.’”
Capitol signed Brooks, releasing his eponymous debut album in April 1989, which featured the hits “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “The Dance” and “Much Too Young (Too Feel This Damn Old).” The album showcased Brooks’ mix of country, honky-tonk and southern rock, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart.
His athletic, give-it-all-you-got live performances also began to generate buzz. On tour to support his first album, Brooks played country music nightclub Tulsa City Limits. Taking in the show was John Wooley, then music critic at The Tulsa World newspaper. “After seeing what he can do in concert,” Wooley wrote, “I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Brooks, showman and talent that he is, is country music’s next big thing.” He was right.