Blame it all on my roots – An indie-rock obsessive confesses (slight) admiration for Garth Brooks
Last week, I wrote about the Matrix moments that are brought upon by well-crafted nostalgia. While much was said about the cars, the rock ‘n roll, and the movies, I neglected to mention what media I was actually consuming by choice. Sure, the open garages cranked the kind of stuff you’d hear on the soundtrack for Dazed and Confused, or Foxes (which gave me nightmares at a 7-year-old – damn you, Cherie Currie). However, on the rare occasions where I got to choose the radio station (or 8-track tapes) on those sweltering drives to Inland Empire sprawl-fests like Victorville, I was screaming for some Country. Despite my multiple MTV marathons, and what was ostensibly a Master’s-level course in how British musicians utilized fog machines, I wanted no part of any of that rubbish (except for Joan Jett). I remember when my sister and I tried to memorize the lyrics to Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”, and after asking my dad “LSD? What is that?”, he responded, “It’s a railroad!”, which made sense to us, considering an object of our obsession – Monopoly – featured similarly-named transportation companies. The next day, I sang “Okie” in my Kindergarten class during “show and tell” (too bad I can’t recall the response of what was likely a freaked-out Mrs. Davis). Good thing there was no YouTube, and political exploitation of precocious children, back then.
(Readers from the UK might want to skip this next paragraph).
I’d love to talk about how “cool” I was, recounting tales of Kool-Aid-fueled evenings, anxiously awaiting Martha Quinn to pop in a live clip of “She’s Lost Control” or “Ashes to Ashes”. Unfortunately, the reality is that I hated the New Wave[i] stuff intensely (especially Bowie, although not nearly as much as Yankee embarrassment Devo), so much that I would get up and change the console TV set to Nickelodeon or The Movie Channel, checking back periodically to see if the smoke-filled silliness was finally finished, at least for a few minutes. No matter how long I watched, they would never play any Eddie Rabbitt, Crystal Gayle or Sylvia. Damnit, I thought everybody loved Smokey and the Bandit or Convoy. There were some great songs in said films – where were those videos? Eventually, my prayers were answered for country songs in video form, in films like 9 to 5, which I still think is awesome, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which doesn’t age quite as well. (Note to my second-grade readers – if you want your parents to continue to allow you to watch films called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, it’s best to not tell your dad “I like that song by Dolly! She has big boobies!”) Last year, while reading Simon Reynolds’ Rip it Up and Start Again, I felt like I was experiencing an alternate history of an anti-me. “Wow, a guide to everything I hated as a kid!”, I thought. Well, at least until U2, Prince, Michael Jackson and Duran Duran made me toss aside the Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, and Billy Joel.
(UK readers: you can return now. Perhaps Uruguay’s defeat by the Dutch was karmic retribution for their referee’s terrible call, robbing Lampard of the equalizer. Oh wait, I didn’t mean to scare away Americans! Come back! The football/soccer talk is over!)
Once I left country, there was no return. Bring on the Brits, and pop, and rock, hell, all of it. America’s Top 40 became my addiction, and I grew to hate anything without keyboards, electric guitars or scratching. I was able to completely avoid anything tangentially-related to country music for almost a decade, even after relocating to rural Kentucky in the late 1980s. After hundreds of my classmates (the same ones cracking wise on me for my “Hey Ladies” cassingle) burned through their respective Vanilla Ice phases, a maelstrom of MOR was waiting to strike with brute force – a polite, inoffensive brute force. Avert your eyes from the checkerboard shirts, the tech-support headset mic, and the prop acoustic guitar – ’cause the whole country was about the get Garth’d[ii].
If “alternative” can be defined in relative terms, then my high school days were far more indie than any other time of my life. When 90% of your fellow students, your teachers, and local merchants are all listening to Garth Brooks, and his lesser associates (Alan Jackson, Faith Hill, Travis Tritt, Tim McGraw, and the natural disaster of Billy Ray Cyrus), trumpeting your love for R.E.M. or Rush is an effective way of alienating yourself from the immediate culture. I could not stand Garth, largely because I thought the songs were crap. In my eyes, Garth Brooks was the modern Air Supply, a Peter Cetera-era Chicago with a cowboy hat, a man who would fight for your honor (sure), but unwilling to rock while doing so. Songs like “Unanswered Prayers” and “The Dance” were Titanically-cheesy[iii] gropes for the middlebrow dollars of people who answer the “What kind of music do you like?” question with “You know, whatever is on the radio”. Attempts to kick up the tempo were ignored by “country” stations, which quickly learned that their listeners did not actually want to hear the country music of their youth. According to radio programmers, “country” songs all began with soft piano arpeggios, meaning that Journey could have released “Open Arms” on K-93 (which I am sure had some animal mascot, like “The Armadillo!”) and it would have been a mammoth hit (Johnny who?). Worst of all, I could not avoid GB – no matter where I went from mid-1991 through mid-1994, the man was everywhere. Grocery stores, extracurricular events, social functions, telescreens above public urinals, it didn’t matter – one of his massively-popular CDs would eek from tinny drop-ceiling speakers, and eventually that blasted 1992 TV special, where he added the “secret” verse to “Friends in Low Places”, would wind up on all available televisions. At one memorable birthday party, the only other non-country fan in my senior class (the infamous Twavis) had the temerity to ask a roomful of admirers, “Does he actually play that guitar, or does he just tote the thing?”, which I brazenly added, “No doubt!” The resulting anger rained down upon us, as if we walked into Minneapolis’ C.C. Club and said “You know who sucks? The Replacements!” I soon learned that Garth Brooks was Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania, without the decency to keep his songs within the hate limit of two minutes.
As one of the unlucky blokes with the inability to ignore music, no matter how incidental (are pizza places in Long Island required to play “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” every five songs?), I knew that my only option was to find something tolerable within the GB oeuvre[iv]. After raiding my youngest sister’s CD collection[v], I eventually found “Dixie Chicken” from The Chase, and “Calling Baton Rouge” from In Pieces. Garth’s version of “Dixie Chicken” omitted the sounds of bottles clanking and other general rowdiness of Little Feat’s original, not to mention that that Brooks, Inc. did not have the stones to follow it with a seven minute Funkadelic-style jam in 17/8 time, a la Waiting for Columbus. As for GB “originals”[vi], “That Summer” stood out as a solid Eagles pastiche[vii], “Standing Outside the Fire” rocked just enough to sound like something Faith No More might have written as a joke, and “We Shall Be Free” reminded me of elementary-school friends whose only tape in their trailer’s living room was either Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell or John Cougar’s American Fool. As the decade came to a close, I dealt with the impending doom of Y2K by returning to my country roots (or at least the hipster-approved axis). While college and the immediate years afterward allowed me to escape Garth and the wave of mediocrity that followed, I was happily reunited with the twangy allure of artists like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. I’d meet with fellow guitar pickers to roll through the catalogues of revivalists like Whiskeytown, The Old 97s, and The Damnations TX. Being a total smartass, when the rotation for song selection made it to my Yamaha, I’d drop campy references to Garth songs (“The Thunder Rolls” was identifiable enough for instant laughs, at least the first five or six times). Our live performances as the Quiet Storm often featured fake setlists taped to the front monitor, and “The River” was always near the top (after “FIFA 1998 World Cup theme”, of course).
Which is when Garth decided that pretending to be a former Australian alternative-rock star would be far more entertaining than pretending to be a cowboy. I have to admit, I thought the whole “Chris Gaines” idea was brilliant – a fake “Greatest Hits” album, an fictional VH1 Behind the Music, and a potential feature-film, all topped off by one of the greatest moments in Saturday Night Live history. The frustration from GB superfans at my workplace was so intense, I had to completely re-evaluate my previous assessment of the guy. He did have guts. Garth wanted to challenge the comfort-zones of his audience, a la Neil Young’s Everybody’s Rockin’, ABC’s Beauty Stab or Andrew Dice Clay’s The Day the Laughter Died. Or so I thought – until I heard the record. Damnit, what should have been a competent aggregation of pop and rock styles turned out to be yet another soft-schlock snooze-fest. Was I silly in hoping to hear the influence of T. Rex, or Sweet, or hell, something remotely-related to power-pop[viii]? After GB appeared on a tribute album to KISS, I knew he obviously had a knowledge of the Rock and Roll canon. Yet, he hires the guys responsible for Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” (a song I like, but in no way does it rock) to write most of the “Greatest Hits”, and completely wastes an opportunity to throw a monkey wrench into the pop landscape.
Eventually, Chris Gaines became associated with major flops, and the film never materialized. His career spiraled into a series of bizarre public-relations exercises. After scolding American youth for purchasing used CDs, he had a high-profile divorce from the woman who inspired “Unanswered Prayers”. Jay Leno temporarily abandoned his OJ n’ Lewinsky jokes to offer this quip:
“So Kevin, you hear Garth Brooks and his longtime wife are getting a divorce? Yeah, um, in the custody battle, she was awarded the solid colored-sections of his shirts.”
While his charitable work should definitely be commended (his appearances in Spring Training with the San Diego Padres were for his foundations, and the guy offered part of his liver to an ailing friend), his attempt to become the all-time leader in record sales for a solo artist was a cheap stunt among all cheap stunts. After recording some new tracks, he sold them as part of a box (more like a plastic-wrapped) set of his five studio albums, requiring fans to re-purchase his entire Gaines-free catalogue in order to get the bonus songs (well, he did tell us he was “Shameless”). Hey though – he was willing to drop the price to $25, if you bought the redundancy at That Aspiring Monopolist Megastore, a far cry from his ranting about $9 used CDs.
Despite all of that, I still like the guy. His performance on Saturday Night Live placed him with Sean “Puffy” Combs in the realm of musicians who are far more entertaining as actors. For a brief spell in 2005, “Friends in Low Places” made a quasi-ironic comeback in Minneapolis rock bars, which unfortunately became crushed under the unstoppable forces of Journey and Rick Astley. What I originally interpreted as an ode to anti-intellectualism has become a fine expression of frustration with the conventions of the upper-crust. In addition, the video for “The Thunder Rolls” works as propaganda for aggressive Wall Street reform, and “We Shall Be Free” has a not-so-subliminal slam on homophobia. It isn’t fair to blame Garth for the soft-rock homogenization of country music, just as it isn’t fair to blame Pearl Jam for Creed, Nickelback or Puddle of Mudddd. (No, I am not comparing the two as artists – just let it go!) If anything, GB did for alt-country what industrial strife did for punk, giving musicians that valuable commodity – something to rise against.
[i] According to my older sister, “New Wave” is what this style of music was called – all of it.
[ii] No need to point out that I placed about 6 verb tenses in that sentence. Don’t worry, it’s cool.
[iii] Celine Dion was taking notes, for sure.
[iv] Robert Christgau has a way with the word.
[v] It’s wild how different two people’s musical tastes could be, even within the same family.
[vi] Being a songwriter for Garth was the equivalent to winning the lottery, but not having your identity plastered all over the media.
[vii] I’d love to hear Whiskeytown cover this song in the style of “Don’t Wanna Know Why”
[viii] Looking back (ha ha GB opening line), I’d accept Kyle from Party Down’s “power-emo”