Away from the adoring throng, Garth Brooks, country music's rising star, was lounging in his trailer, exhausted but grateful.
He had just finished singing and playing his heart out for an audience of thousands at FanFair, country music's annual summer lovefest for musicians and their followers. He had passed among them, shaking and kissing proffered hands. Now, before a much smaller audience, he took a moment to reflect.
"You don't want to pinch yourself because you're afraid you'll wake up," Brooks said. "So you say, " 'Garth, you got to live every day, man, to the fullest, because it could be over tomorrow.' "
Tomorrow has indeed come for Garth Brooks, but for him it's far from over. Monday night, he was honored with the coveted Horizon award from the Country Music Association, beating out Alan Jackson, Lorrie Morgan, Travis Tritt and the Kentucky Headhunters.
Brooks, a native Oklahoman whose debut album went gold in May, also won an award for his music video, "The Dance." He had been nominated as well for best male vocalist and for best single and best song, "If Tomorrow Never Comes."
Billed as a "neo-traditionalist" along the lines of Randy Travis, George Strait and Clint Black, Brooks represents something of a changing of the guard in male country singers.
Brooks bristles at the notion.
"No, it's not [a changing of the guard]," he says. "It's just going from the greats, like George Jones and Merle Haggard. They're just handing the baton down to the new people, and it's up to us to represent what they have built their whole lives for.
"It's the same way with my mother and me. She had her thing on Capitol Records, and she passed the baton down to me. And now I'm trying to finish what she started."
His mother is Colleen Carroll, who recorded for Capitol in the mid-1950s and was a regular guest on Red Foley's "Ozark Jubilee." Brooks says he never expressed a great interest in music until he got to college, and "then I just got swallowed up in it."
Country music, he says, is "about real life. It's about real people. And that's why I'm in it, so I can sing about everyday life."
In Brooks' hit song "The Dance," written by Tony Arata, Brooks, in his soulful, earthy and honky-tonk way, sings of "the dance we shared 'neath the stars above," when "all the world was right." But the dance ends, the romance fades, and Brooks sings, "I'm glad I didn't know, the way it all would end, the way it all would go. Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain, but I'd of had to miss the dance."
Pain, the flip side of success, is a dance Brooks hasn't missed. At 27, he is a five-year overnight success. He played in a lot of dimly lit clubs long before he made it under the spotlights.
He arrived in Nashville in 1985, aspiring to become a big somebody. Within 24 hours, he found he was a big nobody, a hopeful with talent who needed to pay his dues. So back he went to Oklahoma.
"Have you ever heard voices?" Brooks asks. "I think I did, and they were telling me Nashville was the place to be, it just wasn't the right time. I thank God every day that it only took me one day to figure that out, that I didn't stay and try to bang my head against the wall."
Back in Oklahoma, he says, "probably the greatest thing that happened to me was finding my music and marrying my wife, Sandy.
On Monday night, when Brooks heard his name announced as the Horizon winner, he looked over at Sandy, kissed her, stood up and took her hand. He wanted her to join him on stage for their triumphant moment, but she demurred. Brooks insisted, Sandy protested some more, but Brooks won out. They took the stage together.
At the microphone, Brooks thanked his "two kings of country," George Jones and George Strait (who later won Entertainer of the Year honors) and he thanked "the good Lord, 'cause he's done a hell of a lot for me."
And so it was that four months ago, Brooks ended his performance with a thanks to the man upstairs. Later, he talked about the "high" he never wants to come down from.
"To an entertainer, someone who loves it as I do, death is a far more welcome sight than interest lost in the fans," he said. "At this time in your life, you're so happy. . . . So you sit, and you do, you look in the mirror, and then you look to the ceiling, and you say, 'Thanks. It's cool.' "