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In Garth, singer has a friend in high places

She wore a simple red shirt, black plants and a matching blazer. A gold necklace dangled at her neckline. Her blond locks brushed her shoulders.

She could have been going to a business meeting, a job interview. Church, maybe.

But instead, Karyn Rochelle stepped into one of the most intimidating places in the world. Her world, anyway: center stage at a Garth Brooks concert.

This scene took place Thursday evening in Buffalo, and has repeated itself at most of the shows on country star Brooks’ comeback tour. Rochelle, a North Carolina native who has built a successful career in Nashville as a songwriter, opens on single-show nights (and some double shows as well) for Brooks and his wife, country star Trisha Yearwood.

And though her purpose is to play 20 minutes worth of original music, most of which comes from the self-titled album she released in September, it may as well be a job interview for Rochelle. She has to win over a crowd – and one that didn’t show up for her.

“If I was in her shoes walking out in front of a Garth Brooks show,” Brooks said, “with no introduction and just going out there, I’d be scared to death. …

“She’s not scared of anything.”

Check that, Garth. Turns out Rochelle – who is a regular at Nashville’s storied writers room, the Bluebird Cafe, and has been a Brooks backup singer for several years – gets a bit jittery.

“Terrified,” she said with a laugh during an interview Saturday afternoon. She was sitting in a seat inside an empty First Niagara Center, looking at the cavernous building that a few hours later would be jammed with country fans.

“There’s been no in-between,” she said. “It’s been the Bluebird with a hundred people to an arena with 18,000. That’s quite a shock.”

Rochelle, who has written songs for Yearwood (“Georgia Rain,” “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” “Let the Wind Chase You,” among them) and several other artists, is fast absorbing how her music affects fans. She prefaces one of her songs, “Better Off,” with a story about leaving a bad relationship and then meeting her husband, the singer-songwriter Cory Batten, whom she married in April.

“If you’re in a bad relationship and you think you’re better off without him, you probably are,” Rochelle told the Buffalo crowd, before launching into the song with her band, the Mumblers.

As Rochelle strummed her acoustic guitar, she drew out the lyrics: “If he’s gonna go, let him go. If he wants to leave, let him leave. … He’ll only leave you better off.”

After most shows, Rochelle has a meet-and-greet, where she consistently hears from fans who were struck by “Better Off.”

“Women in tears come up to me telling me they needed to hear that song,” she said. “Those are the moments that really make me appreciate more what I’m doing. It’s so outside my comfort zone to be, I don’t know, the center of attention.”

She laughed.

“Although I have a great big personality, but I tend to hold my cards close to the vest,” added Rochelle, who is in her 30s but likes to keep her actual age a “mystery.”

What’s not a mystery is what Brooks thinks about his opener and backup vocalist. The 53-year-old superstar gives her the highest praise imaginable – the type that people who move to Nashville dream of hearing a legend bestow upon them.

“I’m going to stick her in the top five most talented people I’ve met in my life,” Brooks said. “I got to do shows with Michael Jackson, I got to do shows with everybody. This girl is amazing.”

Told of Brooks’ compliment, Rochelle seems surprised, touched, maybe even teary-eyed.

“Thank you for sharing that with me,” she said. “That actually …”

Rochelle takes a breath.

“That means the world to me,” she continued. “Coming from him, that’s a very high compliment. I’m very thankful.”


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