Contrary to the press clips, there is no musician more difficult to write about than Garth Brooks. How do you describe a shadow? How do you get inside that which is not there? So many millions of words have been spent discussing him over the past decade, yet he remains a most inscrutable star -- a middling talent close to outstripping the Beatles as the most successful act of all time, a James Taylor fetishist who sports a cowboy hat and harbors Bobby Brown dreams, a heartfelt phony who has conned a nation into buying his plastic grin. He's everything and nothing, a tome and a blank piece of paper -- in other words, Kenny Loggins beneath a wide brim. Brooks is what happens when modest talent and voracious ambition collide, like atoms, and reduce everything around them to rubble. He may well come across like a man who cares about you, but that's only because he wants you to buy his records, push him over the 100-million-units-sold mark, drench his legacy in so much platinum you won't notice the copper beneath. It has never been difficult to explain his popularity -- the man is the single-serving, shrink-wrapped, ready-to-microwave Ballpark frank of the music world. If anything, it's simply difficult to swallow his success without choking on it. As one colleague insists, "He's proof that there's more of them than there are of us."
Yet, there's also something oddly compelling about Brooks, something almost hypnotic. Perhaps it's that chubby, cherubic face beneath the cowboy hat -- that serene smile coupled with that determined, demonic glare. He is, after all, the most unlikely superstar, a round-mound Okie who fits into his Wranglers the way Camryn Manheim wore her Xena get-up to the Golden Globes. Yet he's the very embodiment of pop -- meaning populist, not unlike a candidate willing to commit to any one ideal. As Garth Brooks or Chris Gaines, two characters created by an OSU marketing major out to move product, he's all things to all people -- the wet-eyed folkie, the honky-tonk hero, the would-be Billy Joel (e.g., "Shameless"), the Don Was-produced R&B sap-slinger, the nostalgia rapist intertwining golden-oldies (e.g., "Get Together") into his bar-code concoction. That he's adored by the zombie throngs is no small mystery, especially when, standing on a stage in front of a crowd, he lowers his voice and speaks in the sincere, whispered tones of a man on the verge of tears. People love him because they see a little of themselves in him -- the country-boy underdawg singin' about their fears ("If Tomorrow Never Comes"), their lives ("American Honky-Tonk Bar Association," probably "The Thunder Rolls" too), their pals ("Friends in Low Places"). That he's also willing to go on TV and discuss his troubled marriage is an extra, weepy bonus: See, Maw, he got worries too! Never, for a second, do the faithful see the calculation in such actions. Who wants to believe there is no Santa Claus?
To see him on the Austin City Limits stage a decade after his from-nowhere rise to supersupersuperstardom is to be confronted once more with the engrossing paradox that is Garth Brooks. (I can understand why ACL would open its 25th season with Brooks -- even public TV likes ratings -- but it still creeps me out just a little. Why not open with the Willie Nelson show taped last March? Isn't he "the pope of Austin City Limits"? Says so in the press release.) Standing in front of that landmark backdrop (which somehow makes Austin look as though the entire city's lit with 10-watt bulbs), wearing a plaid shirt and starched Wranglers, Brooks holds an audience in his hands like a giant playing with toy soldiers. He gets more standing ovations than Pat Buchanan at a Klan rally, especially when he softens his voice and speaks from the bottom of his bottom about his late mother and his father, "who taught me love extends beyond death." More than once, he closes his eyes, opens his hands, and whispers above the applause, "I needed this." We're here for ya, Garth. Then, about halfway through the show, he ditches the country band for the Chris Gaines band -- which is the really average white band, every one of them looking like refugees from a Details photo-spread. Still, I hardly noticed any of it; had a hard time recovering from the laughing fit caused when Brooks uttered the phrase "The Garth Decade" before launching into an explanation about "the fictitious pop-rock legend Chris Gaines." Face it -- the man is the devil. That, or maybe Brooks did retire...two years ago.
Austin City Limits
Premieres February 9
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