By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
I NEVER TRUSTED Garth Brooks. How could I? In 1991, I was young and eager to cast pigeon-holier-than-thou sociological aspersions. New Country provided a reluctantly maturing fortyish demographic with a well-groomed-yet-shitkickin' alternative to Nirvana (tuneless nihilist sludge) or N.W.A. (tuneless black nihilist sludge). Who better to fill this niche than an advertising major whose idea of rock & roll was Billy Joel slathered in cornball arena glop? Whose conception of down-home soul was James Taylor with a constricted larynx? Whose only political action was a crusade against the sale of used CDs? No, I never trusted Garth Brooks. In fact, until a few years ago, I never even listened to him.
Anticipating glossy boogie or feigned sincerity, I first heard Brooks endowing cherished common places with contemporary relevance, calling pride and distanced cool cowardly evasions of unbridled emotional commitment. Listening for Glenn Frey, I heard Bruce Springsteen. Just as Bruce amplified "Be My Baby"'s romantic promise into momentary, defiant redemption, Garth reclaimed the candor smothered beneath the '70s confessional set's laid-back solipsism. In doing so, he (re-)energized a stadium-scaled ritual of self-realization without caving into self-pity. Country has always assumed that the stuff of everyday life--infidelity, heartbreak, and, yep, true love--could serve as perfect stuffing for Sophoclean story-songs. Brooks labored to prove that maxim. And he aimed to prove it all night.
Having ridden Buddy Holly's giddy hiccup of sexual anticipation into middle age, Brooks, in his latest issue, acknowledges the lingering adolescent insecurity fueling this desire. Whether anguishing over a potential extramarital affair or admitting that his wife's love terrifies him, Brooks always colors his passion with intimations of inadequacy. This tension between fear and determination even justifies his affinity for self-reliant platitudes like "Do What You Gotta Do." And any guy who hears "a tape of my failures playing inside my head" every night needs all the reassurance he can muster.
But it's vocal timing that revitalizes Brooks's not-so-mellow dramas. On "I Don't Have To Wonder," Garth calmly summons the nerve to attend his ex's wedding as a light piano and fiddle buttress his resolve. But fear and a mournful pedal-steel lick strand him in his pickup outside the church. As the bride emerges to confirm his fears, a piano flourish halts his rising voice in a shocked choke. Only after chucking his diamond ring into a nearby river does he approach full-throated growl. But, just as we begin to sense release, a plaintive guitar delays the chorus. By now, "less time than it takes a tear to fall" could be a subdivided second or an increment of infinity. At the crescendo, Brooks cries, "I don't have to wonder anymore!" with a sudden, cathartic realization of his loss. He momentarily sustains his intensity at a lower pitch. Then he repeats the line softly, with equal parts resignation and relief.
Those who equate authenticity with stylistic purity, or take jaded disinterest for maturity, should distrust Garth Brooks. But I trust his audience's response to his assertion that emotional risk-taking can buoy heroic triumph. That said, alt-country clubbers weary of Tupelonesome fatalism disguised as traditional wisdom might sample Garth's The Hits to gauge how empathetic they find his quotidian grandeur. And they're advised to buy it used.