On Garth Brooks coming out of retirement and my untoward affair with pop-country
When I was a freshman in high school, my sister Katie was a senior. As such, it was her job to transport my brother (a sophomore at the time) and I to and from school every day. Because their house was on the way, we also crammed a pair of twin brothers into our daily commute.
Let me sidetrack for a sec. DeLand, Florida, is only about six miles from end to end (I made that number up, though it’s probably not far off), but the morning drive felt like a lengthy journey to my 14-year-old senses. For one thing, the twins were really into that Garth Brooks record. The one. With “Thunder Rolls” and “Friends in Low Places.” It became an integral part of that commute. It was the first time I ever listened to country music with any level of contentment. I didn’t know anything about Hank, Johnny, and Merle yet, much less Guy, Townes, and Steve, and the seemingly bottomless cache of outlaw country singers and classic-style crooners I’d discover in just a few years. My ears had been more attuned to the ambitious pop arrangements of Billy Joel and Elton John, or, when I needed something to the contrary, the dirty raw distortion of what was the grunge and riot grrl movements.
Although I spent all my formative growing up years in DeLand, my family was from New York, so there was a separation in my head between southern small town culture and the culture of my family. I felt impervious to certain things I’ve since realized I picked up anyway – namely the tendency to south-out some vowels, the frequency with which I call groups of people “y’all,” and some ever-evolving affection for country music. Country music – like grits and deep fried everything – just did not happen at our house. It was something I had to learn about elsewhere, and my introduction came through those drives to school and the country-pop megastar crossover power of Garth Brooks.
Go ahead and judge me. I’ll also admit I still listen to some of that mainstream crap. I’ve already admitted to enjoying Carrie Underwood on this site, and I appreciate Sugarland’s “Steve Earle” for obvious reasons, though their “All I wanna do-oo-oo-oo-oo” song irritates me to no end. We all come to the truth in different ways. Riding Garth’s coattails into my brain were Brooks & Dunn, Billy Ray Cyrus, Reba, Trisha Yearwood. (Who woulda thunk they’d wind up married?) I’m not going to credit Garth Brooks with getting me to Hank, Johnny, and Merle. I got to classic country via folk music, a completely separate route. I digress, though.
The point is that Garth Brooks, for better or worse, was the first artist I heard who demolished my to-that-point conclusion that country music was for dumb, slow, rural southerners. (I have since also changed my mind about “dumb, slow, rural southerners,” for the record. I also now love grits and fried food and have come to embrace my small town southern upbringing, lest anyone badger me in the comments about stereotypes and whatnot.)
Nonetheless, hearing the news yesterday that Garth Brooks is coming out of retirement stirred something in me, now nearly twenty years after his debut went a long way to make pop-country acceptable to the greater wide world. And it’s in no small part because of the enormous success of pop-country that I now get to explain to the “I listen to everything but country” folks of the world that the kind of country music I love and listen to and write about is “the other country.”
Last year about this time, I started working on a story for a local magazine where I tried to pull readers far enough away from what they thought country music meant (thanks to Garth, et al) in hopes they would open their minds to the kind of country music that’s happening all over Seattle. I recall writing a line about “everything but country” hipsters blasting Johnny Cash from iTunes while they pull their cowboy boots over their skinny jeans. This phenomenon still fascinates me a year later. Maybe in part because I’ve spent that year on my own journey with country music. I’ve had to make a clear distinction in my mind between Garth’s country music and my country music so that, when I talk to people who don’t know what No Depression is, I can adequately explain what we talk about here.
I can’t find it now, but I read somewhere where Garth Brooks publicly said something to the effect that country music had gotten too far away from itself. So, will his return from retirement mean he’ll use his powers for good and not evil? According to the AP, the Vegas show that’s dragging him out of retirement is going to be decidedly more rootsy than the avenues his fellow pop stars have pursued on the strip. Forget the “giant animatronic frog, complete with trademark black hat, sitting atop a massive video screen overlooking the resort’s ‘Lake of Dreams’ while singing ‘Friends in Low Places.'” It’s apparently going to be a one-man show devoid of glitz and glamor, seeking to recreate the vibe Brooks had back when he was poorer and unknown, playing for tips in Oklahoma.
The problem, of course, is that he’s no longer poor and unknown. And a packed Vegas showroom is not a dirty little bar in Stillwater. The whole thing smacks of Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree to me, but I’m a cynic. After all, he plans on doing some covers, and none of them are pulled from the Nashville he and his 100 million sales helped inspire. Instead, quoth the AP, he’s going to pull from my country music – the stuff I found years after “Thunder Rolls” poured from my sister’s speakers and convinced me there might be a place in my heart for what I’ve always thought was Garth’s country. Turns out Garth’s country is Merle, Johnny, and Hank. And Guy and Townes. Go figure.