Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Shameless when it comes to loving Garth Brooks and country

Garth Brooks sold 200,000 tickets for three Dublin shows in less than two hours. Proof, were it needed, that the soundtrack to Irish life isn't folk; it's country

Back at Croke Park: Garth Brooks

You can't quite trust someone who says they don't like country music. Sometimes, of course, the appeal to the sentiments is too glib and easy and you feel you don't want your emotions to be touched by a slick, professional singer with a slide guitar who dashed off a rhyme for the money.

And you know the difference between the cloying lyric of a balladeer and real poetry. Or think you do.

But, if the words are getting through and speaking to your own experience, then sometimes you just have to go with them and recognise that, in some small, heartfelt way, that's you in the song; that's your love for your woman; your fear; your daddy; your road.

That's what they're singing about.

One of the simple facts about Northern Ireland is that its native traditional music is country. In dark and lovely antique bars, of course, the session musicians are playing their reels and jigs for a couple of pints and the tourists come in to see the real Ireland.

But that's a minority interest. In the wee halls of Pomeroy and Dungiven, the music the people want to hear is country. Has always been country. Always will be country.

That's annoying if you're a folkie and you think you have the pulse of the people and their past. You might, indeed, be right, but the folk themselves decide what they like. And what they like is country.

This week, thousands bought their tickets for Garth Brooks, a country star who tried to retire from the business of crooning about anguish and his daddy and the woman he loves, but couldn't shake off the need his following had for him.

He even extended himself into covering rock and blues, including Otis Redding songs that sound like anything but country – until he sings them.

The appeal of country music is that it calls people back from the business of life to reflect on simple values.

A man wakes up in the night, looks at his wife sleeping beside him and wonders how she would remember him if he died now and didn't wake up in the morning; If Tomorrow Never Comes.

Has he told her clearly enough how much he loves her and how important she is? Or has he left any doubt in her mind that she was the only one?

It's a sermon. It's a lesson in living. It's telling all those guys out there, drinking beer by jukeboxes, that they don't know when they will die and they better make sure they don't leave the wife with bad memories, or doubts.

Actually, it's amazing that a singer can get away with preaching like that in music for people who have just come out to enjoy themselves.

Country gets people to think about their relationships – not just with their lovers and partners, but with their parents and children, with their country. For me, the classics are Springsteen's The River and Walk Like A Man; philosophical songs about what really matters in life and how easily it is lost.

And country music has proven flexible enough to incorporate feminism, as in K D Lang, or even irony about the idea of the good and docile wife in Emmylou Harris's To Daddy, which starts off sounding like it is pure slush about duty and in the end celebrates a mother walking out on her husband and children.

Country music can also be political, as in the Ballad of Joe Hill, or There Is Power in a Union. It can be unreservedly religious, but it often plays with religious themes and has fun with them, too, as in Dropkick Me Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life).

Essentially, country is more words than music, more story than song, more moralising than merely relaying images. It is a tradition of music that passes down ideas and values and which has yet proven itself adaptable to new generations.

Of course, most if it is rubbish, as most films and novels are rubbish. But, sometimes, its pure corniness is irresistible.

Brad Paisley's He Didn't Have To Be is about a wee boy's love for his stepfather. The rhymes arrive so predictably they make you cringe. Yet there is something in the bravura of a manly singer being so candid and plain that clutches the heart in spite of itself.

That's what country does; it pulls down your sophisticated, or cynical, critical guard and makes you listen, even when you're confident you'll never listen to that song again.

If there is something inevitably dishonest in saying that country music means nothing to you, there is also something wrong with the person who indulges this maudlin stuff over and over again.

The story is nearly always so simple that you get it the first time and the music is often too trite to be replayed for its own sake. Though there are exceptions, like Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe.

And then, for most of us, there is one song that got us through a bad time, played to death as the backdrop to anguish and grief; the one that matters more than all the others, whose story was our story.

Sometimes, only country music does that for you. Unlike rock, it's not about escape and abandon. It's about coming home.

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