Blame it all on my roots
So Garth Brooks has just sold out a fifth Croke Park show in Dublin… If there’s a sixth, it too will sell out quicker than a jiver on the turn, adding another 80,000 to the 400,000 Irish people (that’s one tenth of the population) already making the pilgrimage to Croke Park in July to watch the country crooner make his comeback. It’s quite an amazing turn of events for a singer who, to all intents and purposes, became one of the forgotten men of music. In media circles few could have predicted such an amount of sell out shows at Ireland’s biggest stadium, but if you are to take music as a barometer of a nation, these full houses represent a great snapshot of Ireland and the hold country music has on its people.
Ireland has had an innate fondness for inoffensive country music ever since the showband days of the 1960’s. It’s a comfort thing. It’s a social thing. It’s a dancing thing. It’s a thing largely ignored by mainstream concert promoters, “the Dublin meeja” and commercial radio stations. One look at the country dance ads in The Sunday World or in any regional newspaper will confirm that when it comes to live music in Ireland country music is still king.
As more a hobby than anything else, I worked as a music and events promoter for over a decade. I ran all sorts of concerts with all sorts of acts – mainly for the love of music, be it rock, pop, folk, alternative, metal, dance… you name it I was into it and I promoted it so others could enjoy it. Simple as that. I worked on festivals with big-name promoters, game-changing promoters, hustlers and gangsters. I wrote about music in the local paper and spoke about it on the local radio stations. I lived in a medium-sized town where I knew lots of people into the same music, but we had nowhere to go to see it performed live. So, having met each other over and over at gigs in Dublin, myself and my mate Declan Murray decided to re-open The Stables music venue in Mullingar and anyone in Ireland who ever dreamed of a write-up in Hot Press or a spin on the radio from Dave Fanning came to play. Every genre of music was welcome at The Stables and for several glorious years we spent every weekend putting up posters, handing out flyers, talking the talk and running shows. But there was one genre that was hard to get in the door: Country music.
Whereas the rock, folk, pop, dance, metal and alternative music I promoted had no home as such, country music already had its home. It didn’t need a dirty, smoke-filled rock’n’roll joint. It was in hotel ballrooms, hotel bars, rural pubs, provincial radio stations, The Sunday World, garages, GAA clubs, faded ballrooms, dinner dances, your cousins wedding, VW Jettas, factory floors and from the back of a lorry during the summer festival season. Despite being onmi-present, country music was a world away from “cool” concert promoters like me and Declan. It was in my roots – my father is to this day a massive George Jones fan – but it was too big, too much and too dangerous to touch. Leave it where it is lads. That was the attitude and all around us, in the mainstream media and in the words of other music fans, it was ignored.
I knew many people who orbited country music and many who played it and they always seemed busy. They were always going from one gig to the next, hustling for PA systems and trustworthy lads to do the door and hump the gear. I eventually did a bit of work for a friend who was promoting country dances and it was an eye opener. Whereas I was struggling to fill a 120-capacity venue with a singer-songwriter of international repute, or a once-great Irish rock band making a comeback under a different name with new songs and a reluctance to play the hits that made them, my friend was filling hotel function rooms with names that, to me, sounded like truck drivers.
I did the door for him a few times, and watched him fill towns like Killarney and Bundoran over Bank holiday weekends with country music and showband fans. Such was the demand, special trains would be laid on and there wouldn’t be a vacant bedroom or a single bed for miles around. Joe Dolan would be added to the bill to bring non-country fans or undecided couples to these towns, and it was amazing. It was another world, even though it was world occupied by the vast majority of Irish citizens. If country music in Ireland had a Glastonbury, then Bundoran on a Bank Holiday weekend in the 1990’s was it.
Years later, the Midlands Music Festival was staged at Ballinlough Castle. The 2006 event was billed as “2 days of contemporary country at the castle” and quotes about it being “more hip than hick” abounded in papers like the Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune. It was the first big-scale attempt to tap into Ireland’s fondness for country music and featured an amazing line-up of country and “kind of country” acts alongside acts that were, er, big in the country, but not necessarily in the cities. Kenny Rogers, Dwight Yoakam, Glen Campbell, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Don McLean, Del McCoury and more with first class country credentials were on the bill, and there was also Van Morrison, Jackson Browne, Loudon Wainwright III, Guy Clark, The Saw Doctors, Tony Joe White, Hayseed Dixie, Albert Lee and, rather oddly, Lambchop, Low and The Jimmy Cake among others. The only concession to the Irish country music that was filling venues all over Ireland was Charlie Landsborough. The man who asked “What Colour is the Wind” was playing an afternoon slot in a tent so full a hurricane wouldn’t have moved it. There was more people trying to reconnect with their old friend Charlie outside there was enjoying whoever was on the main outdoor stage at the time. When poor Lambchop headlined the same stage there was more of them on it than punters in the audience. I remember remarking to the promoters before the festival took place that they needed to add the big names of Irish country onto the bill if the festival was going to be a long-running success.
A year later the country music festival switched venue to Belvedere House, and instead of Jimmy Buckley, Declan Nerny and Big Tom, names like Paul Brady, Mundy and Christy Moore were on the bill. Whilst Ricky Skaggs, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Glen Campbell, Gillian Welch, The Hillbilly All Stars and others on the bill would please anyone who ever considered wearing a stetson at an outdoor concert, it was hard to classify Richard Thompson,. The Waterboys, “Leonard Cohen presents ‘Anjani'”, HotHouse Flowers and the Blind Boys of Alabama as country. There was no Irish country, but there was plenty of open spaces in those Belvedere fields and the festival never returned.
The country juggernaut went on regardless. If anything, as the “boom years” petered out, country music got even bigger. I stood on the door at the Red Cow and couldn’t keep count as over a thousand people came to dance at Jimmy Buckley on a Wednesday night on the strength of one ad in the Sunday World. There was similar scenes all over Ireland, new stars were emerging and the country music scene was so healthy that even Big Tom made a comeback, and every single show he has played since has been sold out.
What got me was that hundreds of these country singers with names like truck drivers all sounded like one man: a man we had not heard of in a long time; a man who rode out of town after selling sold close to a million tapes and CD’s in Ireland; a clean-cut crooner that went by the name of Garth Brooks.
The Thunder Rolls
It was a song called “Tomorrow Never Comes” that launched Brooks in Ireland. Country music fans knew of the song long before RTE2FM and other commercial stations discovered it. They were hearing it every weekend, either covered by a live act, played between bands at a dance or during the slow set at the rural disco. Aside from the dancefloor, the country music scene’s weapon of choice was the cassette tape and Garth Brooks first self-titled album sold as well in record shops as it did at car boot sales and weekend events like the famous Clara Markets.
He was a very well-known best-kept-secret in country music circles, but in 1990 he made the breakthrough to the mainstream as Larry Gogan et al latched onto singles from his second album “No Fences”. Tracks like “The Dance”, “Friends In Low Places”, “Unanswered Prayers” and the ominous “The Thunder Rolls” were everywhere. A year later, another album came, and another, and another, and another. During his hot streak he churned out six albums in seven years, he filled Croke Park a couple of times and could have filled every big provincial GAA stadium in the country ten times over if his Irish promoters were brave enough (Aiken Promotions eventually got brave with Bruce Springsteen touring hallowed GAA stadia in 2013).
Brooks was absolutely everywhere. In 1994 he released not one, but two ‘best-ofs’, with worldwide sales of these touching 30 million. I worked in The Manor House Hotel in Enniskillen for nearly a year and the second of these compilations “The Hits” was the ONLY CD played in the hotel stereo. By the second month up North it was mental torture, and so one night after a shift I snuck into the office behind reception and sabotaged the CD, rubbing it across the floor and scraping it with a bedroom key in the hope of never hearing it again. The next morning, the rumble of thunder that heralded the arrival of “The Thunder Rolls” could be heard as I served breakfast to American tourists…
Wedding bands would trot out ten Garth Brooks songs in a row before the tea and sandwiches were served. After this, they would go on to bang out the same ten songs and the reaction would be even wilder. Couples would enjoy their first dance to “The Thunder Rolls”, oblivious to the fact it was a song about a two-timing husband about to be shot by his wife!
I sat in buses, cars, bars and even sought refuge at a Bagatelle concert that summer in Enniskillen, but everywhere I went, Brooks was sure to follow. After one very strange episode which involved the wrong broken window, a gang of strange scary men, an undercover agent and ultimately shelter in a ‘safe house’ I awoke to Gareth Brooks being played in a kitchen by a soldier. There was literally no way of escaping him. When I moved back to Dublin there he was at every turn, and then in 1997 he was in town filling Croke Park!
And then in 1999, just as his crossover pop-country crooning began to wane sales-wise, he took an impressive musical gamble and became a fictional character called ‘Chris Gaines‘ for a mockumentary and album. But his alter-ego experiment failed and in 2000 he divorced his first wife and retired, secure and comfortable with well over 100 million units sold world-wide. If he was ever slagged off, all he had to say was “hey, I’ve sold more records than The Beatles”.
In Ireland he lived on, and not just in the tape players of old VW Jetta’s and in Northern Irish hotels. Even though he had hung up his stetson and was not releasing music, he ended up dominating the Irish country scene.
Standing outside the fire
The Irish country music scene was always a place where you followed others. No one in Irish country music have truly parted a sea and strode on purposely through the gap. They waited until someone else did, then they did what he just did. Much like a large proportion of the showbands in the 60’s and 70’s, Irish country acts relied on material and moves already very familiar to its audience, and there was no one more familiar than Garth Brooks. His songs endured, and because there was more heartfelt emotion in them than complex steel guitar and fiddle breaks, they could be covered by just about any act. The songs of Garth Brooks were a million miles away from the roots of country music. His big hits were pop songs delivered in a country style, and this suited Ireland just fine.
But it wasn’t just the covering of his songs that saw Brooks endure long after his retirement, it was the copying of his voice that really kept him alive here. Whereas once upon a time, Irish country singers tried to emulate bad boys like George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings, from 1990 on they instead focussed on Brooks. They were all steeped in him, as were their audiences. Go into any medium-sized town in Ireland at night and you will find one of a thousand Brooks-soundalikes singing a hotch-potch of music, be it countryfied versions of ‘Galway Girl’, worldwide country classics like ‘Ring of Fire’ or Irish country classics like ‘Stop the World and Let Me Off’. No matter the song, no matter the sentiment, it will be delivered as if Garth was in the room singing it.
The really successful Irish country stars – Jimmy Buckley, Mike Denver, Robert Mizzell, Patrick Feeney, Nathan Carter etc – have aped Garth Brooks’ in other ways too, delivering a slick show which appeals to dancers, country music fans, pop music fans and housewives secretly in love with the singer. They wear hats, suits and denims when they need to and they pack venues all over the country.
Of the 400,000 people who bought Garth Brooks tickets in just a few hours, the vast majority of them have, at one stage or another, gone to a show by one of the above. They have never forgotten – or been allowed to forget – Garth Brooks and his music. He has lived on in a world of music that has gotten bigger as time went on.
These people don’t need a new album – which is good as Brooks hasn’t released anything of substance since his heyday in the mid 1990’s (his records are now repacked and released in Walmart in America, where a box set of his favourite covers is due soon). They are not blind or stupid, as many commentators and well-known journalists are implying online, on Twitter and elsewhere. They are fans of comfortable, safe, secure music. They don’t need a challenge, they don’t go to many “event” concerts (hence the queues), they don’t need songs written by a handful of Swedish boffins, they don’t need to hear vocals auto tuned and they certainly won’t be dancing to Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis or any of the music currently on the playlists of RTE2FM (who are oddly the media partner for the Croke Park gigs despite their recent move toward the ‘yoof’ market and the move away from the regional studios), Today FM, iRadio or any other popular music station.
What they want is a good time, and even though it’s been 20 years since he gave them a good time in person, Garth Brooks has been giving the majority of them a good time all the time, only the rest of us didn’t know it. By buying 400,000 tickets (and generating over €30 million in sales, and that’s not counting the financial spin-offs in July) Irish country music fans have just demonstrated that they are the silent majority. Aside from deciding where to store the money, the biggest challenge facing Brooks’ Irish concert promoter Aiken Promotions is who will they have supporting Brooks. This is a great chance for Irish country music to shine, but as it has been for the last 20 years, no matter who plays, they will always be standing in the shadow of Garth Brooks. He never went away you know…