Will You Marry Me?
But the actual ring-offering clincher was the sort of experience you'd have to be a country legend to experience—or cook up. Brooks popped the question before a crowd of 7,000 screaming fans at the unveiling of a bronze statue of himself at Buck Owens's Crystal Palace, a country-music complex run by the former Hee Haw star in Bakersfield, Calif. Brooks, who has stayed mainly out of the spotlight since announcing his retirement in 2000, strolled onstage with Yearwood's hand in his for the unveiling of the work, which stands nearly 8 ft. tall and weighs 1,000 lbs. (The event showcased nine other bronzed legends as well, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley.) After yanking off a gold cloth to reveal the statue, Brooks pointed out a curious detail on the sculpture's left hand: a wedding band he had asked artist Bill Rains to include. Realizing what was up, Yearwood pouted playfully and said, "You're not going [to do this] in front of these people?"
He was. Brooks whipped off his hat, got down on his right knee and asked, "Will you marry me?" Yearwood instantly said yes and dabbed away a tear.
Despite living with Brooks in recent years, the bride-to-be was completely taken by surprise, according to people who watched her backstage afterward. "Her knees were like Jell-O," says Jerry Hufford, talent coordinator for the Palace. "She was totally stunned. Minutes after the proposal, we asked if she'd like to perform onstage with Garth, and she replied, 'I don't think I can make it up the stairs.' It took her a while to regain composure. You could tell she'd been crying." She decided not to sing after all, while Brooks—in one of his very rare performances—belted out his own "Friends in Low Places" and the George Strait hit "Amarillo by Morning."
Still, the event couldn't have come as a complete shock: At a May 18 Las Vegas press conference for the Academy of Country Music Awards, Brooks hinted at an upcoming event that he said would rank emotionally with the births of his daughters with ex-wife Sandy Brooks, 40: Taylor, 12, August, 11, and Allie, 8. "Some of us guessed he was going to announce he was coming out of retirement," says Jim Shaw, who produced the Palace show. "Some guessed the proposal. We knew it wasn't that he was getting a new Hummer." Even so, Shaw says he didn't learn Brooks was definitely planning to propose until moments before the singer got down on his knee, and the reaction of the crowd was so wild, he adds, "the hair on the back of my neck raised up."
Garth said it was that sculpture that made him decide to cement the relationship. "When the sculptor told me that these bronzes will last for 2-3,000 years, it got me thinking about another thing in my life that will last that long—my love for Trisha." Later he told one interviewer, "I'm just glad she said yes."
And how did the statue come to wear a ring? Late last year sculptor Bill Rains sent a photographer to shoot stills of the singer, 43, for the Crystal Palace project. In February Brooks phoned Rains saying he wanted a change in the sculpture but declined to spell out exactly what it was. Instead he flew to Rains's Billings, Mont., studio and pulled out a ring—a gold-and-platinum band with ornate etchings, says Rains. "He said, 'Hey, pal, I want you to put this on the statue. By the time this is in bronze, we'll be married. It's our secret.' " Brooks later called to tell him a twist on the still secret plan: "When Trish sees the ring on the statue, I'll fall on my knees and propose."
And that's the plan that stuck. As for the ring presented onstage to the bride-to-be, Yearwood, 40, hasn't divulged any details. No wedding date is set yet either. According to a friend, when he asked, Yearwood answered, "Oh God, it's so early."
The relationship, though, is already time-tested. Says Brooks's friend singer Dan Roberts: "They're obviously madly in love." Good friends since they were both struggling talents new to Nashville and recording demos in the early 1980s, Brooks and Yearwood made a pact that whoever succeeded first would help the other person out. That turned out to be Brooks, who took Yearwood on the road as the opening act on his first arena tour in 1991. At the time, Brooks was married to Sandy, whom he had met in an Oklahoma nightclub in 1983 and wed in '86. By the time Garth and Sandy Brooks divorced in 2001, Yearwood was also divorced from second husband Robert Reynolds, bassist with the Mavericks.
Throughout their respective relationships, Brooks and Yearwood were there for each other. As a friend of Brooks's once said, "He's been in love with her for years." But the transition from friendship to relationship was very quiet. Their first PDA was holding hands at a memorial service for Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard in 2002. Little by little, the pair began popping up together at Nashville restaurants and events. But prior to last week's big proposal neither Brooks or Yearwood has been willing to reveal too much about their life together. She splits her time between her own place in Nashville and the 100-acre ranch outside Tulsa he shares with his daughters (there's even a home for ex-wife Sandy on the property). "It's a very small town," Yearwood told PEOPLE days before the engagement. An Oklahoma native, "he moved back so he could be with his kids. I came here because he was here. It reminds me of how I grew up," in Monticello, Ga. "We don't go out and do a bunch of stuff. There's a lot of soccer games."
Apparently they don't need too many outside distractions anyway. "Those two have a chemistry of friendship about them," says Dan Roberts. "They have a tremendous respect for one another, and I know Garth just places her on a pedestal. I think they'll live happily ever after."
Tom Gliatto. Ken Lee in Los Angeles, Kelly Williams in Chicago, Michael McCall
in Nashville and Darla Atlas in Fort Worth