A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
Well, friends, we have come to a milestone here in the long, strange journey that is Nashville Or Bust. For the first time, I will be writing about a contemporary mainstream country artist. And not just any contemporary mainstream country artist—arguably the single most beloved and reviled figure in contemporary country, Garth Brooks.
Brooks is both an unlikely superstar and a strange inevitability, a man who brought country, kicking and screaming, from honky-tonks, interstate highways, and prisons to shopping malls and suburbs. Under Brooks’ reign, country music went to a college, got a good job with a 401K and health insurance, moved to the suburbs outside of Atlanta, and decided to limit its drinking to weekends. It got respectable and a little bit boring. Or maybe a whole lot boring. I’ll know better later in my journey.
In a genre filled with towering, larger-than-life hellcats like George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams, Brooks was (and is) defiantly life-sized. He’s the superstar next door, the first country icon to look and act like a middle manager at a sporting-goods company. How did a balding, doughy man of modest talent habitually clad in Wal-Mart jeans and work shirts become nearly as big a commercial force as The Beatles, Madonna, and Michael Jackson?
For a period in the late ’90s, more than one in every 10 country albums sold was by Garth Brooks. Think about that for a minute. One man was single-handedly responsible for more than a tenth of an entire industry’s sales. Can you imagine the pressure? Now think about all the people who no longer have jobs because Mr. Fancy-Pants Artist decided to stop releasing new albums after 2001’s Scarecrow, so he could spend more time with his children.
My guide into Brooks’ world is a fawning biography by veteran music writer Patsi Bale Cox called The Garth Factor: The Career Behind Country’s Big Boom. It provides an inside account of Brooks’ career, in the sense that it was written with the author’s head deep inside Garth Brooks’ ass. Cox at least acknowledges that Brooks is wildly divisive, though in her telling, that’s because people can’t decide whether he’s so great because he’s a fantastic lyricist, a peerless wizard at melody, the sweetest guy you’d ever to want to meet, or the single most exhilarating live performer since Elvis. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because Garth gives 100 percent, loves his fans, and releases one masterpiece after another.
Cox depicts Brooks’ long-running battle to have his label market his albums better as a cross between Jesus righteously throwing the moneychangers out of the temple and Willie Nelson taking on the country establishment when he released Red Headed Stranger and changed country music. Cox seems to think that if Brooks’ albums had been marketed more aggressively, he’d have outsold The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Elvis Presley combined by this point.
She angrily denounces the widespread perception that Brooks has a degree in marketing from Oklahoma State. Why, nothing could be more preposterous: Brooks has a degree in advertising from Oklahoma State. They are totes different! A marketing major is obviously a slick, ponytail-sporting phony concerned only with money. But an advertising major? They just want to alert the public to wonderful things that will make their lives better. They’re practically public servants.
Brooks’ degree in advertising looms large in the mythology of the anti-Brooks brigade. To them, he’s less an artist than a sentient marketing construct. In the haters’ cosmology, Brooks’ ascent might as well have begun in 1982 with a brilliant, prescient professor of marketing bursting into his classroom and launching the following exchange:
Professor: Well, class, I’ve been poring over demographic and consumer research for months now, and I have a remarkable theory: It appears that the “Urban Cowboy” phenomenon of the past few years has created a huge untapped market for the genre that, when combined with the rapidly growing income, education level, and discretionary income of this new breed of potential consumer, bodes well for country’s commercial future.
The exponential growth of hip-hop and metal and the increasingly divisive, confrontational, and alienating forms its most popular acts will take will likewise feed into the market for mainstream country that appeals to this “silent majority” turned off by more extreme, aggressive styles of music. The rise of chain stores like Wal-Mart, which are able to undercut the competition by operating in bulk quantities, and which cut exclusive deals with major country artists, will similarly fuel country’s commercial ascent, as will major, long-overdue changes in the way pop charts and album sales are tabulated.
Of course, in order to maximize earning and sales potential, these country mega-stars of the near future will need to distance themselves from some of genre’s rough edges and hardscrabble roots, and embrace elements of rock showmanship. They’ll need to bring a little Vegas razzle-dazzle to their tours. They’ll also need to tour often. They’ll need to appeal extensively to the female demographic and the adult-contemporary crowd. A Billy Joel cover wouldn’t hurt every now and then.
Why, if my calculations and predictions are correct, an artist who took advantage of these new cultural and music-industry variables could sell more than a hundred million albums in a relatively short amount of time.
Student: But this artist would have to be incredibly talented, right? Like Sinatra, Beatles, Michael Jackson, George Jones-level gifted and charismatic, right?
Professor: Astonishingly, no. In fact, he might even sell more records if he weren’t particularly talented at all, if he was, as Bill Murray once legendarily accused Chevy Chase of being, a “medium talent.” Audiences might actually identify more strongly with an artist who wasn’t especially talented, good-looking, or young. It’d make him more approachable. Ah, but what form will this country messiah, this unlikely savior of the music industry, take?
Garth Brooks [Sheepishly raises hand.]: Gosh, I play guitar, sing a little, and write some songs. I’m not much to look at, and I’m already developing a paunch, but maybe—just maybe—I could be this man.
[Class guffaws uproariously.]
Professor: Yeah, that’ll probably work.
To his army of detractors, Brooks is all cunning and guile, a branding super-genius cynically masquerading as a salt-of-the-earth country singer. The Garth Factor plays the Garth-as-just-plain-folks angle to the hilt, but the more Cox works to present Brooks as an apogee of authenticity, the phonier he seems. Cox quotes Brooks extensively, but Brooks never says anything candid or unrehearsed. Or interesting, or revealing. He stays relentlessly on message, delivering the music-business equivalent of sports interviews where athletes talk about giving 110 percent and taking it one game at a time. Like a human press release, he communicates exclusively though blandly positive sound bites. Given that I’ve recently devoured the almost perversely, masochistically self-lacerating memoirs of George Jones and Merle Haggard, I found this relentless positivity not just frustrating, but heretical.
Ah, but enough about image, calculation, and sales. What about the music? I vowed to go into this project and this entry with an open mind. To kick things off on a positive note, Brooks’ “Friends In Low Places” is a great fucking song, a pitch-perfect populist anthem, an unapologetic celebration of dive bars, lowlifes, semi-charming assholery, and the moral superiority of slobs to snobs.
“Friends In Low Places” tells the succinct tale of a shit-kicker who shows up at the black-tie wedding of an uptight ex, commandeers the groom’s champagne, and offers a toast to the honky-tonk world to which he plans to return. Once he ditches the high-society set, he says, he’ll triumphantly head back to where “the whiskey flows and the beer chases my blues.” The narrator gets one last cowboy-booted kick in on the smart set when he vows that he’ll soon be “as high as that ivory tower that you’re livin’ in.” (Apparently he used to date the Dean Of Students at Wesleyan.)
The song begins slowly with a purposefully strummed guitar, then builds in intensity before climaxing with a rousing last chorus sung/hollered by a rowdy group of pals who transform it into a party. Brooks sings “Friends In Low Places” with a wink, a quiver in his voice, and a strategically employed growl. It’s a terrific performance, but it feels like he’s playing a character. The subject of The Garth Factor, for example, would have handled the situation chronicled in the song by secretly paying for his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, delivering a touching speech that has everyone in tears, performing a rousing set during the wedding reception, maybe nursing a Bud Light the entire night (to prove he still has the common touch), then volunteering to pay for the college educations of the bride and groom’s future children on the condition that no one must know about his generosity.
I like some of Brooks’ sprightlier, more uptempo numbers, but his other songs invariably transform my iPod into a dentist’s waiting room. Brooks’ monster ballads (none of which, alas, are actually about monsters) are what catapulted him to the rare air of touring arenas and challenging The Beatles for bestselling act of all time.
“The Dance,” the smash single from Brooks’ self-titled 1989 debut, epitomizes his mass appeal. It’s a tastefully middle-of-the-road ballad about a man looking back at the end of a life or doomed relationship, and reflecting that while he could have spared himself the pain that comes with goodbye, that would have meant missing “the dance.” As he explains, cutting yourself off from the pain of rejection also means cutting yourself off from acceptance, love, and all the good things the world has to offer.
The commercial genius of “The Dance” and so many of Brooks’ ballads lies in their vagueness and ambiguity. It’s a one-size-fits-all song with a message that could apply to just about anything: your high-school basketball team losing in the second round of the playoffs, your dad dying, your summer girlfriend dumping you when she goes off to college, your cat getting feline leukemia, having an awesome time at Fire Island but contracting a wide variety of venereal diseases.
“Mama Tried” will always belong to ex-con Merle Haggard. “Folsom Prison Blues” is inextricably rooted in the outsized mythology of Johnny Cash. But “The Dance”? That belongs to everyone who embraces it. It probably belongs more to the fans than to Brooks. With Brooks, the song always comes before the singer. He’s just a vessel that people can project their own dreams, fantasies, or beliefs onto. Garth is all. Garth is nothing. That is the Zen Of Garth.
Brooks’ oeuvre is filled with songs begging to be adopted as prom themes, or begging to be played as the first dance (eh, eh, eh?) at weddings. “The Dance,” unsurprisingly, has become a funeral staple, to the point where if GB—Brooks sometimes refers to himself in the third person as “GB”—spies a hearse leading a funeral procession, he begins pumping his fist in celebration, doing a victory dance and yelling “Garth Brooks gots to get paid.” It’s a tearjerker for any occasion.
Brooks rose to superstardom in a scary, transitional time in music. In the midst of gangsta-rap transgression and alt-rock cynicism, Brooks’ songs must have felt like musical comfort food. This was country without the tears. “Unanswered Prayers,” a number-one single from 1990’s No Fences, speaks volumes about his optimistic worldview.
In a scene of almost perverse normality, the narrator of “Unanswered Prayers” meets an ex-girlfriend at a football game while out with his wife. The years have not been kind to the ex-girlfriend. In the kind of maudlin terminology that appears far too often in Brooks’ cliché-ridden story-songs, the narrator reflects that his lost love “wasn’t quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams.” The spell has lifted, and as he contemplates his life with his wife, he’s thankful that the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, didn’t answer his high-school prayer that he might possess his ex-girlfriend’s heart for all eternity.
That’s the kinder, gentler country of Garth Brooks: lightly philosophical, middle-class, happily domestic, and ruled over by a beneficent deity whose presence is felt in countless ways, without ever being overbearing. As befits an unremarkable man elevated by society and fate to the level of a god, gratitude is a recurring motif in Brooks’ lyrics.
Yes, everything is A-okay in Garth World. Sometimes it’s better than that. “We Shall Be Free” looks forward to that sunshine day when racism is a thing of the past and we are all “free to love anyone we choose.” That guardedly gay-friendly line qualifies as fairly progressive and even a little ballsy in a genre where even an off-handed quip about George W. Bush’s awfulness is enough to ignite a firestorm of controversy. Brooks skirted controversy when his “Thunder Rolls” music video addressed domestic violence (ultimately coming down against it) but he’s consistently shied away from overt political statements. It’s hard to be everything to everyone if you align yourself with a party that half the country doesn’t agree with.
So is Brooks a cynical opportunist with a cash register for a heart, or a genius with a profound connection to the American public? I can’t say Brooks does much for me musically, but I suspect the answer, as is generally the case, lies somewhere in the middle. I’m not fit to cast judgment on Brooks’ motives or character. He seems like a profoundly decent man with solid values. I suspect he became a titanic cultural figure both because his music strikes a powerful chord with the American public, and because he’s been enormously savvy in cultivating his fan base through canny self-promotion, including a series of highly rated television specials and concerts defined by cornball excess. The Garth Factor approvingly quotes a Country Weekly description of how Brooks began the first show of a tour:
Thick smoke gushed from all corners of the stage. Multicolored lights turned, twisted, flickered and finally framed the stage with beams. The band’s drum set then rose in a slow, full-circle spin, encased in a glass pyramid that looked like a spacecraft. Garth then made his entrance—through a little sleight of band. Fans heard the opening chords of the slow-building song, ‘The Old Stuff,’ then saw a white baby grand piano rise from below stage level. Seated at it was a man dressed in a white suit topped with a white cowboy hat. At first glance it looked as if Garth had decided to act out the all-white scene from ‘The Red Strokes.’ Then the surprise. As Garth’s voice rang out, fans realized he wasn’t in the white suit—he was in the piano! A mechanical lift delivered a fist-pumping Garth through a hole that opened in the middle of the piano. To screams and a standing ovation, he bounded onto the stage and belted out the first of 19 songs.
Cox can’t seem to understand why anyone could find anything remotely problematic about this grotesque, even comic emphasis on showmanship. Yet somewhere in heaven, Liberace was tut-tutting, “Jeez, go a little easy on the mindless spectacle there, buddy. Even I’m embarrassed.” What’s wrong with wanting to entertain the nice people? Besides, everyone agrees that if Hank Williams Sr. were alive today, he’d begin each concert by emerging from a mechanical lift inside a baby grand piano amid a flurry of smoke and lasers while his drummer twirled around inside a glass pyramid that looks like a spacecraft. He just would. I know it.
By the end of the 1990s, Brooks, weary after a three-year world tour and battles with his label, was eager for new challenges. So he embarked on the project that would be his most glorious/only failure. The man with the uncanny feel for the public’s needs was led astray by a sketchy-sounding pre-soundtrack/concept album/movie vehicle about a mysterious Australian rock singer named Chris Gaines. The idea was to raise anticipation for a Chris Gaines film called The Lamb by releasing a fake “greatest hits” album in which Brooks, in the guise of Chris Gaines, the man behind such solo albums as Straight Jacket, Apostle, Triangle, and my personal favorite, Fornucopia (that was his “angry” album), sang the songs that made his fictional alter-ego famous, from the Beatles-meet-elevator-music of “My Love Tells Me So” to the falsetto R&B of “Lost In You,” the album’s sole hit.
To promote the project, Brooks taped a Chris Gaines edition of Behind The Music and had the enigmatic Aussie songbird serve as his musical guest when he hosted Saturday Night Live. Throughout the land a mighty cry of “WTF, Garth? Seriously, WTF?” could be heard. (Yes, the public was so enraged by Garth’s concept-album motherfuckery that they were reduced to communicating via Internet acronyms.) Brooks had met his Waterloo. The response was dire. Plans for a Chris Gaines movie were shelved. His album was deeply discounted. A man used to going diamond every time out barely squeaked past double platinum for Chris Gaines. Brooks became a laughingstock. The soul patch and brooding-12-year-old look didn’t help.
In his detractors’ minds, Brooks was never anything more than an actor, a calculating nothing of a man who slipped into a cowboy hat and boots and played a role the public found appealing. The curious thing about The Life Of Chris Gaines is that Brooks doesn’t sound any more or less committed to the antiseptic genre-hopping of a fake greatest-hits album than he does on his own albums. In slipping on a mask and playing a part, he seemed to have accidentally revealed something about his true self.
Brooks’ wild/mild ride seems to have ended in 2001, when he released his last album to date, Scarecrow, and semi-officially retired so he could concentrate on raising his children and working on various film projects. Like Chris Gaines, Brooks is now shrouded in mystery and speculation. As for me, I’ve found Brooks to be paradoxically fascinating in his blandness. He’s ever so much more interesting to think about than he is to listen to. This exemplar of honorable mediocrity conquered the world, then turned his back on it. How could a yarn about a mercurial Australian pop star hiding from the public following a disfiguring car accident be a tenth as compelling as Brooks’ own improbable life story?
Brooks is the first artist I’ve written about for this project even though I’m relatively indifferent to his work. I doubt he’ll be the last. I don’t like him. I don’t dislike him. He’s a pretty good singer who makes thoroughly okay music. I’ve been cherry-picking artists for Nashville Or Bust so far, but I now intend to address the sum of country: the good, the bad, the painful, and in Brooks’ case, the eminently forgettable. I very much look forward to never thinking about Garth Brooks again.
Next up on Nashville Or Bust: