His marriage of country, rock is marketing dream

This appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal on March 20, 1998

To save country music, Garth Brooks first had to destroy it. In 1990, musician Marty Stuart, a proud guardian of hillbilly tradition, took stock of the changes then underfoot in Nashville.

Brooks' second album, No Fences, had just been released and was doing something that no record from Nashville had done before: It was selling millions and millions of copies--and not just to die-hard country music fans. People of all ages and all walks of life were suddenly buying cowboy hats and boots, starched striped shirts and Garth Brooks albums. Everybody, it seemed was "goin' country."

Brooks had done the impossible. Country music was generating big money for the first time, and Nashville was turning into a boomtown--all because Brooks had turned country music into something hip.

"Drop by the mall, buy yourself a cowboy hat, and go be a country radio singer," Stuart said at the time. "Nashville is getting ready to make more money than it ever dreamed possible. And mark my word--when that happens, you are going to see 15 different versions of Garth Brooks running around here.

"We're not rock stars in cowboy hats. It's important to honor the music's heritage, to build something new from history that is honest. And I'm not sure that is happening. I respect the numbers that Garth is generating. I applaud his ability to make inroads for country music into the world market. But is what he is doing really country music?"

He laughed. "I figure it like this: The reason that Long John Silver makes a lot more money than the catfish house on the edge of town is because Long John Silver makes fish so it doesn't taste like fish." From Stuart's perspective, rooted as it is in the past, Brooks and his newfangled music were crossing some mighty treacherous--and treasonous--lines.

The country music that Stuart adored, thick with hillbilly dust and made by such down-home icons as Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Johnny Cash, had always been music of and for the common man. It celebrated the working-class hero in simple language and song. It described a life in which betrayals led to empty lives and empty bottles.

The hillbilly music of old personalized a fatalistic world of hard times and broken hearts. It thrived in the dim lights and thick smoke of the honky-tonks found at the end of Lonely Street. Its heroes wore their emotions on tear-stained sleeves and believed, with all their hearts and souls, that integrity and individuality were their own reward.

The high-lonesome sound of country music, proudly delivered with a rural twang, reflected and ultimately rose above the discord of life. To such true-believers such as Stuart, country music has always been less an industry than an ideal. The great country singers of old didn't create music to make money; if they didn't make a dollar, then a dime would have to do. Rather, they wrote and sang to honor the principles by which they were raised. They understood that the miracle of country music lurked within songs sung true to the heart. They lived what they wrote.

By paying homage to the values and traditions behind the music, they made sure that the world never forgot who and for what the music stood. Today, the straight-and-narrow hillbilly highway has been abandoned. It's traveled only by a few wayward traditionalists who are searching for clues that will lead them to a past that, if judged by the music of New Nashville, seems to have never existed.

Young country music opportunists now cram the fast lane of the road that leads into the mainstream. Few of them understand that it is a one-way street built from greed, slickly paved with covert intentions, fraught with hidden tolls. This is the road that Garth Brooks, who declined to be interviewed, built.

In 1989, he decided to fuse the time-honored sentiment of country music with the energy and pyrotechnic image of rock 'n roll. Brooks was smart enough to see and capitalize on the growing cultural division in America. The fracturing of popular music had created a lost legion of music fans. These were young, middle-class people, like Brooks, who had been weaned on the folk rock, country rock and arena rock of the 1970s.

They could not tolerate the nasal honk of old-school country. They recoiled from the hard-line imagery and unmelodic beats of rap. And they couldn't relate to the youthful rancor and punkish edge of modern rock. Brooks understood their frustration. He felt their pain. And he did something about it. A generation's pain became his personal payday.

Brooks was by no means the first person to sully the sanctity of hillbilly tradition with cosmopolitan window dressing. In the '60s, Chet Atkins created the highly successful Nashville Sound--a slick smooth uptown alternative to down-home country. In the 1970s, the Urban Cowboy craze, fueled by the slick crossover arrangements of top-dog producer Jimmy Bowen, inspired record numbers of country singers to openly dance dirty with pop music for tidy profits.

For that matter, how does Brooks' marriage of country and rock really differ from the late Gram Parsons' quest to create a "cosmic American music"? It was Parsons who in the late '60s introduced The Byrds and rock 'n roll to old-school country music. With the Flying Burrito Brothers and on his own, Parsons worked to incorporate the energy and rhythms of rock with the integrity and form of hillbilly music. In doing so, he created a form of hip country music that could be played in the back rooms of Texas honky tonks and in the rock clubs of New York, London and Los Angeles.

The difference, say the traditionalists, is that Parsons studied, loved and respected the old music; his music was a delicate balance between old tradition and new ideas. It was all grit, no glitter. Brooks' glittering modern variation only partially follows suit. Some people claim that his success has less to do with musical vision than marketing savvy. Others feel that his songs are precisely calibrated to fit the needs, concerns, and desires of his audience. Over the past nine years, he has seemed only too willing to sacrifice genuine emotion and integrity for all that can be gained through image and gimmickry.

The argument could be made that, though the image-conscious Brooks is not much of a singer, he is one heck of a cartoon, an amalgamation of great Warner Bros. characters. He is a shrewd as Bugs Bunny and as laughably self-centered as Daffy Duck. And when he puts on that oversize cowboy hat--shades of Yosemite Sam--he looks for all the world like a bunkhouse version of Elmer Fudd.

Nowhere is Brooks' cartoonish image more pronounced than in concert where he plays up an image that is part charming host, part sensitive Regular Guy and part rube gone crazy. Wild-eyed and grinning, he races around the stage, swings out over the audience and climbs lighting rigs. He smashes guitars and body surfs on the hands of his audience. Explosions are the norm. No rock-show cliché goes undetonated in the course of a Brooks show.

But there is one thing that his detractors cannot make go away: In the history of country music, there has never been a more popular performer, or better entertainer, than Garth Brooks. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Michael Jackson, Brooks is a genuine cultural phenomenon. Since 1989, Brooks has sold a staggering 67 million albums. Only The Beatles have sold more. According to the Recording Industry Association of American, he is the biggest-selling solo artist in history.

His album Ropin' The Wind, which sold 11 millions copies, was the first album to debut at No. 1 on both the pop and country charts. Brooks' desire to give his audience more bang for their buck has made him a wildly popular live attraction. Last year, he sold more tickets than any other act in the world--more than the Rolling Stones, more than U2. There is much about Brooks to dislike. He is manipulative. He is a master of hype. He is obsessed with sales, and boasts an ego that borders on megalomania.

But does that mean that Brooks is nothing more than a raconteur in hillbilly drag who was shrewd enough to make sure that stardust blew his way? If a true country singer's music is an honest reflection of his environment, then Brooks' stance as King of Contemporary Country is legitimate. His fans, by and large, grew up listening to a wide variety of music; Brooks' twang-free country hybrid perfectly reflects their tastes.

He has never claimed allegiance to hillbilly tradition. He has been open in his love for such rock icons as Billy Joel, James Taylor and KISS. In fact, it could be argued that Brooks' music is far more honest than that of, say Gillian Welch, a blue-blood Californian who creates vintage-sounding music steeped in Appalachian hillbilly tradition.

And, yes, Brooks' success certainly ushered a new era of prosperity and greed into Nashville. There is no disputing the fact that his success also ushered in a new corporate mindset that changed the face of country music. Hillbilly music is no longer welcome in Nashville. But can Brooks be held responsible for the actions of all the record companies who decided to base the future of country music on the blueprint of his success?

To his credit, Brooks has some memorable songs in his catalog, among them "The Dance," "The Thunder Rolls" and "If Tomorrow Never Comes." His songwriting is not particularly original and much of it may be manufactured dross. Even so, it is hardly the antithesis of the music made by the traditionalists who care for and love country music with abiding love.

But is Garth Brooks making real country music? That questions was again put to Stuart during an interview last year. Since he commented on Brooks in 1990, Stuart had seen many of his predictions come true. Still, Stuart has prospered playing music rooted in old-school hillbilly. And Brooks continues to sell millions of albums and sell out arenas around the world--even as his clones, and Nashville itself, falter.

"I reckon there's room for everybody in country music," Stuart said, laughing. "does Garth Brooks play country music? I'd have to say that it is up to each individual to make that decision. But if you are asking me if I'd trade my copy of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison for a Garth Brooks album, then the answer is no."

By Ed Bumgardner

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