The year was 1987. Neither were the music superstars we know them to be today. In fact, neither had even been signed to a record label when they met while working on a demo in songwriter Kent Blazy's Nashville studio.
"Kent Blazy introduced me and Ms. Yearwood, and he goes, 'I knew you were gonna like her,'" Brooks recalled during a 2013 interview with Ellen DeGeneres. "When she left, he goes, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Well, it's strange because I felt that feeling like when you just met your wife.'"
The only problem?
"I'd been married for 13 months," he continued. In fact, both parties in question were legally wed to others, as Brooks had married college sweetheart Sandy Mahl in May 1986 and Yearwood was only months into a union with musician Chris Latham.
And yet, there was something undeniable about their connection. "When you meet someone, you know," Brooks told Parade in 2016 when asked how each knew the other person was the one . Yearwood added, "It was probably the minute I met him, even though I didn't know it at the time. I just think we're meant to be."
With a romance out of the cards, the two developed a professional friendship instead, with Brooks promising to help Yearwood get a record contract if his career took off.
In 1990, Brooks enlisted her to sing background on his second album, Fences, and, after a label showcase landed her a contract with MCA Records, he took her on the road as the opening act for his 1991 nationwide tour.
Throughout the '90s, as Brooks dedicated himself to keeping his marriage alive—"You being married, it's gotta be right. This is who you went to college with," he told DeGeneres. "And you were married in front of God and your family and everything. And you keep hacking, and you work and you work"—and Yearwood saw her marriage to Latham end in divorce in 1991, followed by a five-year marriage to bassist Bobby Reynolds that ended in 1999.
After she provided backing vocals on his debut, third, fourth, and fifth albums, he returned the favor by co-writing a track on her debut and providing backing vocals on her second, 1992's Hearts in Armor. And in 1997, they finally came together for a proper duet on "In Another's Eyes," off of (Songbook) A Collection of Hits, her first greatest hits album. A second duet, 'Where Your Road Leads," followed a year later.
By the end of 2000, Brooks not only announced his retirement from recording and performing—so he could spend more time with his and Mahl's three daughters, Taylor Mayne Pearl, August Anna, and Allie Colleen—but also his separation from Mahl. The split didn't come as much of a surprise, with Brooks admitting on Good Morning America that January that the relationship was "not in a good place."
"The big word in a relationship for me is respect, and do we have that for each other? If you don't, then you must try and find it," he said. "If you can't find it, then is your position better as friends, finding that someone for Sandy that makes her feel like she really likes herself, and for me to find somebody that makes me feel like I really like myself."
That somebody, of course, wound up being Yearwood. "This was somebody that I always enjoyed being around, and we had a lot more in common that I ever dreamed we did," Brooks told DeGeneres. "And so we started seeing each other after the divorce. We came off tour, so we'd known each other music-wise, but we got to see each other as people. And I'll tell ya, if you like her and don't know her, you'll love her. If you love her and don't know her, you're gonna worship her. She's the real deal and I'm very lucky."
They went public in 2002, when they were spotted holding hands at a memorial service for Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard. As he told Parade, "It was pretty cool to start dating and get to know who I thought she was. I found everything I would want her to be, she was. And then the things I didn't know about her were even better than what I had hoped. That was very sweet."
In May 2005, Brooks proposed to her in front of a crowd of 7,000 at Hee Haw star Buck Owen's Crystal Palace, a country music venue in Bakersfield, Calif. The pair were there for the unveiling of bronze statues of Garth, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley, among other country music legends. As he surprised Yearwood by getting down on one knee, she asked "You're not going [to do this] in front of these people?"
But he sure did, and when she accepted, he shouted, "This is one of the greatest days of my life. Thank God!" They were married on December 13, 2005 at their home in Owasso, Okla.
From then on, both made a commitment to do it right, to put their marriage first, to make sure it lasts. "We were both married before and didn't always do that," Yearwood told E! News at the 2019 CMT Awards. "We want to be together, so our commitment is to not be apart."
"We made a conscious effort when we got married not to be apart. Garth was retired, but I wasn't. So when I moved to Oklahoma I cut my tour dates way down. Then I eventually didn't tour. That's how my cookbook began," the Emmy-winning host of Food Network's Trisha's Southern Kitchen told Parade in 2016. "It was something to do creatively that I could do at home, never dreaming it would turn into all this other stuff. 99 percent of the time we're together. We don't spend very many nights apart."
In fact, she estimated to Us Weekly , you just might be able to count their annual nights spent alone on one hand. "We do date nights, but, honestly, we are apart maybe five days a year," Yearwood told the publication. "We really have made a conscious effort since getting married to not be apart, so we've toured together. If I'm doing something, he'll be with me, even if you don't see him, he'll be in the hotel or around."
As Yearwood told Us Weekly in September 2018, she and Brooks have done the hard work to make their marriage a lasting union. "People thought well, two celebrities who are in the same business, they won't last," she said before adding, "I'm invested in this family, this is what I want for myself and no offense to anything else in my past, but I get it, I get it now and this is what I want. So we just earn it. Day by day."
As for what makes it work, aside from rarely being apart, she told E! News, "I think it's about friendship. We have a real strong friendship and, even at the end of the day, if you're mad at him for something, he's still your friend. We laugh a lot. There's mutual respect." It certainly doesn't hurt that, all these years later, she's still gushing about him. When asked what she loves about Brooks the most, Yearwood told us, "He's kind. And he's funny. And he's gorgeous. That's more than one thing."
The feeling is more than mutual. "I just want to be wherever she's at," Brooks told Parade. "I love breathing the same air she's breathing."
(This story was originally published on August 29, 2019 at 10:39 a.m. PT.)