Belfast Telegraph

Why Garth Brooks is still our cowboy hero by a country mile

By Gail Walker

Let's hope Garth Brooks returning to these shores to replicate the record-breaking concerts he gave in Croke Park in 1997 will flush out the po-faced, pseudo-intellectual snobbish unpleasantness which for most of my adult life has practically banned from radio, TV and the talent shows exponents of the real traditional music of Ireland – country.

Undoubtedly there was a sustained campaign by the arbiters of taste in Britain especially to eradicate country music from the airwaves. By and large, they succeeded.

There can't have been a house here that didn't have an album by Charley Pride, Jim Reeves, Slim Whitman or Patsy Cline. At parish talent contests someone was always getting up and doing Rose Marie, Distant Drums, Crazy, Deck of Cards or Crystal Chandeliers.

Americana. It was what people grew up with. Westerns in the picture house, love stories on the plain, heartbreak beside the record player. The promise that someone was going to ride into the valley and make everything okay. It was aspirational; about things working out alright in the end ... in America.

But it was also a way for people to describe the details of our small, everyday lives on a big screen. Little disappointments, small triumphs, victories over the bad guys, the wheel coming off the wagon.

Crucially, too, unlike every other form of modern music, country music routinely described failure. And that was what people understood: they were lonely, their marriages broke up, people went to jail, loved ones died. Women left their husbands because they were bored and men left their wives because they got drunk, were stupid and regretted it.

All that fitted perfectly with a certain lifestyle – ordinary working people, in city or country, trying to make a living with a bit of fun thrown in.

Yes, other types of music came after. We know all about rock 'n' roll, punk rock, glam rock, progressive rock. But the core musics are still there – jazz, blues, country (bluegrass, Nashville).

But somewhere in the Eighties, British culture took against country big-time. Maybe it was a coming of age for those who'd grown up with it, felt embarrassed by their secret guilty pleasure and so made fun of it and tried to kill it.

But then two things happened. Johnny Cash played Glastonbury in 1994, exposing festival-going teenagers to the raw power of country music in its gospel-ridden, evil-identifying, Hell-describing apocalyptic glory. And three years later Garth Brooks arrived in Dublin for those now-legendary concerts.

The internet allowed country music to escape the censors in Britain.

Suddenly, people could access footage of stars like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Dolly Parton – long regarded as a kind of cartoon figure in the UK – was recognised as a great musical icon of the age because of her attitude, her life story and songwriting.

And the saintly character that Johnny Cash has assumed through his music, lifestyle and faith paved the way for the amazing generation of new stars, of which Garth Brooks is the greatest.

Currently, he's the second highest selling artist of all time, next to Elvis. Bigger than the Beatles. That's not to say "better than the Beatles", but it shows the respect that his music is due but hasn't been given by the establishments on this side of the Atlantic.

The Troubles added a piquancy, of course. Songs about 'oul decency, love and loss sung by performers from all sides to fans from all sides, tuning up at the end of the night for God Save the Queen or the Soldiers Song or neither, if it was a mixed house. The appalling savagery meted out to The Miami Showband, notwithstanding, this was how we survived.

Country fans long ago got used to the sneers from so-called sophisticates who cringe at the Hugo Duncan show and stare aghast at posters for a sell-out night for Philomena Begley at the Bannville House Hotel.

And we don't care.

I was so young when I first set eyes on an LP called 'Sample Charley Pride', I thought Sample was his first name. Desperately missing my father one day, I walked straight from work to a music shop to buy a Big Tom & The Mainliners CD, sat in the car and listened to A Bunch of Violets Blue again – he used to play it all the time.

I tracked down a copy of Jim Reeves' Old Tige to play down the phone to someone who hadn't heard it since childhood. When it finished, there was just the sound of sobbing.

That's life. That's death. That's love. That's country.

If Tomorrow Never Comes at least we were true to ourselves.

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