Tulsa musician Betsy Smittle, born Elizabeth Harriett Smittle, passed away Saturday in Tulsa. She was 60.
Smittle was the older half-sister of Garth Brooks. Her father, Jim Smittle, was a championship fiddler and she learned to sing from her mother, Colleen Carroll Brooks, who starred in Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee and recorded for Capitol Records in the 1950s. She later learned to play guitar from her stepfather.
Smittle graduated from Yukon High School in 1971 and attended one day of college before deciding to become a professional musician. She would go on to tour with dozens of musicians, including Ronnie Dunn and Gus Hardin.
“Betsy Smittle has been in it for twenty years. She didn’t just pick it up just because she’s Garth’s sister.” - Colleen Brooks (Oklahoma Today, January/February 1993)
In 1992, Smittle joined Brooks’ backing band, Stillwater, on bass and backing vocals. She would play bass on four of Garth’s studio albums – Ropin’ the Wind (1991), The Chase (1992), In Pieces (1993) and Fresh Horses (1995) – and one live album, Double Live (1998).
Garth would often tease Betsy during rehearsal, calling her “Hollywood,” for her flamboyant style.
“She has a wonderful knack for rhythm, but probably her greatest talent is relating to the audience. I’m not sure anyone has as much fun as Betsy does onstage.” - Garth Brooks (Oklahoma Today, January/February 1993)
While the impetus of Garth’s 1992 single “We Shall Be Free” came from the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the song touched on the issues of racism, world hunger, homelessness, homophobia, and freedom of speech and religion.
When we’re free to love anyone we choose
When this world’s big enough for all different views
When we’re all free to worship from our own kind of pew
Then we shall be free
“We Shall Be Free” received an Outstanding Recording Award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation/Los Angeles (GLAAD-LA) and won the Academy of Country Music’s Video of the Year in 1993.
In a 1993 interview with Barbara Walters, Brooks accidentally outed Smittle as he talked about “We Shall Be Free”:
“Where the gay issue has hit me the most is my sister. I’ve lived with that forever. And the thing is, the longer you live with it, the more you realize that it’s just another form of people loving one another.” - Garth Brooks
Any perceived furor over Brooks outing Smittle was put to rest when she told journalists that everyone had long known she was gay. However, she later told The Oklahoman in 2006 that Garth “really should have asked her first” before mentioning her sexuality in an interview.
In 1994, Smittle sang “Doesn’t Take Much”, the first single off her new album, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. Under the simple moniker Betsy, Smittle released her debut album Rough Around The Edges in Europe and Australia that same year.
Playing bass, guitar, percussion and piano on her album, Smittle bested her younger brother in one area – she got their mother to record a duet, “This House,” on her album.
By 1999, Smittle was reportedly semi-retired from music and moved to Spokane, Washington, attending nursing school.
In June 2006, Smittle headlined Oklahoma City’s 19th annual Pride Parade and Festival, performing with her band Betsy & the Edge.
Smittle suffered from bipolar disorder and was arrested in April 2009 after concerned neighbors saw her running out of her Tulsa home naked. She was hospitalized after that incident and underwent two weeks of psychiatric care.
Funeral arrangements are pending, according to Ninde Funeral Home in Tulsa.
“She’s got a smile that would light up a room if it was completely midnight.” - Colleen Brooks (Oklahoma Today, January/February 1993)