Monday, June 15, 2009

Class of 89 - Garth Brooks

In honor of the 20th anniversary of debut of Country Music Class of 89, I am writing a series of posts on each of the artists. I am including those artists who debuted in 1989 – Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I am also including artists – Vince Gill and Lorrie Morgan – who had their first true commercial impact in 1989.

Decided to do two post today. This post will be on Garth Brooks.

Garth Brooks seems like a complicated figure, but he is not. Garth Brooks is simply a performer. He is not a singer or a songwriter though those are part of his performer makeup. He is an artist, but he is a performance artist not a music artist. Garth Brooks is all about the performance – not just when performs music in concert, but when he holds a news conference, makes an appearance, or even seems to go into retirement.

When Garth debuted in 1989 he seemed an unlikely success story. But by the time his back to back career hits “The Dance” and “Friends in Low Places” had finished their runs at #1, he was more than a success story – he had altered how people perceived country music.

A truly great performer needs to command a stage. Garth Brooks commanded the stage. Whether he was singing alone with nothing but a guitar before a rapt audience of 50,000 or swinging from ropes above the same 50,000, Garth commanded attention. Garth had the ability to make even the person in the last row feel like they was part of the performance. Garth insisted they be part of his performance.

In 1996 Garth did not just sign autographs for people at Country Music’s Fan Fair for a couple of hours. He signed till everyone who wanted one got one even if it meant staying 23 straight hours. He was a performer; he could let the audience down. When he arrived for that autograph signing he did not come in limo with body guards. He drove his pickup truck right through the crowd then hopped out and walk right through the crowd which parted before him, awe at the sight of this superstar who seemed to be so real yet to transcendent.

I was always impressed to see when he won an award that was presented to him by a female he would remove his cowboy hat from his head. He was ever the gentleman, ever the heroic figure in the performance.

This is what people missed about Garth Brooks. It was never about his supposed rock concert performances. Other country artists before him (Hank Williams Jr.) and after him (Brooks & Dunn, Shania Twain, others) have performed rock like concerts, but they lack the mythos of Garth. Garth the heroic figure in the center of a never ending performance – the performance is not about the music, but the man. Garth is the performance, the songs are about him. He is the central figure in a never ending opera that continues on from the concert stage. His fans clung to his saga making it their own.

Garth climbed to the highest peaks; he sold the most albums, won the biggest awards, had the highest rated television specials a country artist ever had, brought country music to its highest heights. Yet once you get to the top you have to come down. Garth saw the drop coming, rode it out for awhile then decided the performance was over. He retired. Once in a while he comes out of retirement for brief moment back in the spotlight, but it is not the same. The audience is not what it once was.

Garth Brooks made country music better, he made it worse. He exposed country music to new audience made it new fans. He destroyed country music by making it too commercial; driving his successors to make it more like pop music in order to make it sell like Garth’s sold.

I like Garth Brooks’ singing. He has a great voice. I like “Much Too Young (To be This Damn Old)”, “The Dance”, “Friends in Low Places” and “The Thunder Rolls”; but since his second album “No Fences” his music has been ordinary. Garth simply became too much about Garth and not enough about the music. Too bad really Garth could have made some interesting and bold albums. Instead his only real attempt at doing something different he created an alter ego name Chris Gaines. Maybe Garth Brooks felt it would be anti-heroic to put out something other than was expected of him. If so, I think he was wrong.

Garth Brooks does not allow his music videos on YouTube or any other video site. Even CMT is not allowed to have any. Garth does not let his music on itunes. Instead Garth keeps his music only available on his album. He releases compilation albums of his old hits and include 3 or 4 new songs on them. Maybe it is his way of ensure good albums sales. Whatever his reasons, I think it is a mistake. He should allow fans to views his video; hear his songs on the Web. He might be surprise, people might really enjoy the performance.