Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Garth Almighty: A profile of the country music legend

Garth Brooks

He could have filled Dublin’s massive Croke Park stadium for five nights and more, yet has been seldom heard of in the past 10 years. So what is it about Garth Brooks that attracts such huge adulation and whose controversial ‘no-show’ has left Ireland’s politicians and the public at each other’s throats?

As the to-ing and fro-ing continues between impresario Peter Aiken and Garth Brooks over the country music star's reluctance to play just three, and not five, concerts at Croke Park, it seems the only people in the world not talking about what Taoiseach Enda Kenny calls a fiasco are the Brazilians – and we know they've other pressing matters on their mind.

Everyone from Kenny to the Mexican ambassador to US diplomat Richard Haass – no stranger to Irish friction – to President Obama himself has had their tuppence worth on the matter which has dominated the headlines all week with even talk of 'a nation holding its breath'.

Shucks, even Gerry Adams succumbed to Garth fever with a rendition of one of his songs on radio the other day.

Aiken's remarks that he doubted there would ever be another artist in his lifetime in Ireland that would sell 400,000 tickets does pose the question: What is it about Garth Brooks, a man who has been out of the spotlight for nearly 10 years, that sees him draw such huge adulation?

Troyal Garth Brooks wasn't the first cowboy to arrive on Music City Row with a heart full of ambition and a head full of dreams.

The highways into Nashville are strewn with talented singers, songwriters, and musicians hoping their day will dawn.

It was the summer of 1985 when Brooks packed his world into his Honda Accord and took his dream east on Interstate 40, half-a-day's drive from Oklahoma straight to the heart of the country music business, Nashville, Tennessee.

His quoted influences back then were Elton John (for the showmanship?), James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, but it was hearing a newbie Texas singer named George Strait that did it for Garth in his decision to have a stab at music and stardom.

It took four more years, though, and countless 'Live Mic' sessions on Music City Row and auditions for the legendary Grand Ol' Opry until April 12, 1989 when Garth's first eponymous album was released, and, since then, the entertainment world and the world at large have never been quite the same.

An ordinary guy from Yukon, Oklahoma, he once hoped to be an athlete until he discovered he could harness the power of music, reaching into people's hearts and souls combining the flash of rock 'n' roll with the music and values of country, three chords against tales of mom, pop, kith and kin.

Brooks has created some of the most spectacular hits in contemporary, pretty much centre-stage, country. Friends In Low Places, Unanswered Prayers, If Tomorrow Never Comes and that most evocative of love songs, The Dance, have become revered anthems on these islands.

Brooks is one of the world's best-selling artists, having sold more than 190 million records up to last year, admittedly much of the output of the past decade being repackaged greatest hits. That's what they want, the 400,000 and the rest.

Ireland has always had a love/hate affair with country music; either like it or loathe it – and the latter tends often to be reserved for the cross-bred, and most times awful, 'Oirish country'.

Indeed, it was mass Irish immigrants, along with Germans, Scots and Nordic people, who brought their music with them to America that, in joining the mix of French cajun and traditional cowboy tunes, created the hybrid we know as country music today, now delivered in a manner best known to Nashville and its musicians.

Artists like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and particularly The Eagles in the '70s brought a wider audience to country when they crossed the genre with rock and pop.

The late '80s and early '90s saw Garth Brooks soar to stardom: Nashville was in a rut, creatively, and needed a new Messiah. These were years of recession, though not on the current scale. Consciously or otherwise, people in recession feel under threat, economically and socially, their core values seemingly eroding. In country music people find a point that harks back to, and celebrates, such values.

Country music, at its simplest and best, is about love, heartbreak, having a good time, even at times assailing authority; it's about children, marriage, divorce and other life issues, about death and so much more.

It's about the hope that you can get the job back, get the car back, keep the roof over your head and, most importantly, get the guy (or gal) back. The everyday dreams, hopes and aspirations of the many. Brooks knows white man's blues, that can make you laugh one minute and cry the next. It's about life. About being human.

Small wonder then that Garth Brooks did an unprecedented 11 nights running at Dublin's O2 back in 1994. That upwards of 70,000 thrilled to his music – and one of the best and energetic stage performances, pyrotechnics and all, I have witnessed – is without question. That his appeal was in giving his audience momentary reprieve from recession and the troubles they'd seen, give them hope for a better tomorrow is more to the point. (Brooks last played in Ireland in May 1997, when he sold-out three massive concerts at Dublin's Croke Park, witnessed by 120,000.)

Sociologists can argue better than this writer that the current recession has so many more people on these islands – at least 400,000 we know of – looking to put their troubles behind them, at least for one night at Croke Park.

There's so much perceived bad news now and questionable issues that a lot of people are just looking for something to gravitate towards that's positive – that has a good message and feelgood factor.

You can go to a five-star Garth Brooks concert, and you've got kids, teens, parents, grandparents – the whole darn spectrum of human experience, apple tart and all.

In February of 1962 more than 300,000 American babies came into the world, the lucky ones with the potential, so promises the American dream, to be or do anything. No dream was too big, no ambition unattainable.

Troyal Garth Brooks was born on the seventh day of that month in Tulsa, Oklahoma, America's heartland; where wheat grew tall, cowboys stood taller, and giant oil rigs gushed black gold, fuelling prosperity and, for a time peace, that made anything seem possible.

Two weeks after Garth's birth, John Glenn safely orbited the earth three times, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was conducting the first nationally televised tour of the White House, and, from suburban New Jersey to rural Arkansas, the talk was of desegregation, as Martin Luther King was dreamin' his dream. Overseas, America was expanding its military role in a country called Vietnam.

The proud parents that day in 1962, Colleen Carroll Brooks and Troyal Raymond Brooks, had begun their lives together with a family that consisted of three of Colleen's children and one of Troyal's. Together they had been blessed with one son, Kelly, and now, 18 months later, they completed their family with the birth of their last child.

Tulsa was a town that loved music. Colleen Brooks loved music herself. As Colleen Carroll, she'd been a singer on 'Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee', the pioneering radio and television country music show. A strong, sweet, clear voice captured the attention of the suits at Capitol Records, where she recorded four singles in the mid-1950s.

Troyal Brooks – Raymond to everyone who knew him – was a former US marine who worked as an engineer and draftsman for one of Tulsa's many oil companies.

Raymond Brooks liked picking the guitar. Garth's siblings, Jerry, Mike, and Betsy, played guitar too, while Colleen sang songs like Kansas City and Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (An Irish Lullaby). So, with brother Jim on harmonica and Garth and Kelly playing the 'comb and silver paper', the happy sounds of music filled Garth's formative years.

The big city of Tulsa was exciting, but Colleen and Raymond wanted a quieter life. In 1966 they moved to Yukon, a town of 10,000 souls about 15 miles southeast of Oklahoma City.

The ride from Tulsa to Oklahoma City was along America's most famous highway, a road of legend, music, and dreams – Route 66.

Woody Guthrie's folk music and that of Bob Wills, John Steinbeck's classic novels, and Jack Kerouac's compelling book, On The Road, all immortalised the lives that were spent, enjoyed, endured, and sometimes lost on Route 66.

What a fitting backdrop for a future music hero.

A life so far...

  • Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on February 7, 1962, Garth Brooks signed with Capitol Records and released his self-titled first album in 1989, which had mild success. His third album, Ropin' the Wind, was the first country album to debut at No. 1 on the pop charts.
  • Brooks startled many in 1999 by releasing In the Life of Chris Gaines, an album featuring Brooks as a fictional Australian grunge rocker. Panned by critics, the album had mediocre sales (by Brooks's previous standards) and was purportedly the soundtrack to an upcoming film about Gaines titled The Lamb.
  • In 2000 Brooks announced he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Sandy, and three daughters, Taylor Mayne Pearl (born 1992), August Anna (1994), and Allie Colleen (1996). Struggling to balance his work and family life, Brooks divorced his wife in October 2000 and officially retired from recording and performing. He made a partial comeback in 2005 – that same year, he married fellow country singer Trisha Yearwood.

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