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Larry Donnelly Garth Brooks can't fix US politics, but he deserves credit for taking a stance
Our columnist looks at Ireland’s favourite country and western singer and finds Brooks has a lot more political depth than you might expect.

LAST UPDATE | Sep 16th 2022, 11:00 AM

A LOT OF time has been spent on radio and television and an abundance of column inches has been filled during the past couple of weeks on the visit to Ireland of Garth Brooks, who has managed to pack Croke Park for five nights.

Extraordinarily, 400,000+ tickets have been sold. The country music marvel may have been fortunate in that the vast bulk were purchased before the gravity of the cost of living crisis was fully known and penny-pinching necessarily became common practice.

On the other hand, the Oklahoma native is so popular in this country that attending one or more of his concerts may have been the sole treat or birthday/Christmas gift that people splurged on. Indeed, much of the media coverage has focused on the same question: Why is Garth Brooks so beloved here?

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That will be addressed anon. A confession first: I am not immune to his charms. I stared at my phone patiently for four hours on the morning tickets were made available and bought a pair for tonight’s gig. Based on the numerous positive reviews thus far, my wife and I are in for something really special.

I am not a super fan; I can’t claim to know the lyrics to every song he has recorded. But I am well-acquainted with and very fond of many of his tunes. And I will sing along with tens of thousands in the crowd – woefully, in my case – when Garth appears around 7:30 on a massive stage to “The River,” “That Summer,” “Unanswered Prayers,” “Friends in Low Places,” etc. My wife is a more casual observer and will be among countless attendees who are there to witness a unique phenomenon and have fun.

Obviously, Garth Brooks is an immensely successful musician at home. He is reportedly worth about $400,000,000. Earning that kind of money and attaining legendary status has allowed him to take at least two career detours: a short-lived attempt to play professional baseball and making a pop-rock album under a pseudonym, Chris Gaines.

In addition to amassing a load of cash and winning a plethora of awards, Brooks has had an enormously significant, actually transformative impact on country music. Perhaps to the annoyance of purists, he veered away from some traditions of the genre. By so doing, he helped to expand its listenership. There are now country music stations in cities, such as Boston, which are a distance from its geographic heartland. Nonetheless, they have large, dedicated audiences.

A political figure

Even his detractors would have to admit that Garth Brooks is a cultural icon. Given his superstardom in a country where celebrities are revered, he can deploy his “soft power” to influence the opinions of a substantial constituency of Americans.

Consequently, on the date Joe Biden was inaugurated in 2021, in the wake of the profoundly unsettling events of January 6th, Garth Brooks was, in my estimation, the second most important person – next to the brand new President of the United States – on Capitol Hill. When I articulated this point on RTÉ, my fellow panellists were rather bemused and the reaction on Twitter ranged from hilarity to ridicule.

I stand by it, however. For Garth Brooks – in his roots, in his speech, in his dress, in his mannerisms and in his music – is broadly representative of Middle America. He hails from a deeply conservative area. Although there are no statistics to verify it and his crossover appeal is undeniable, my strong suspicion is that a majority of Brooks’ fervent devotees are “MAGA Republicans.”

u-s-president-biden-with-kennedy-center-honorees Adam Schultz / White House STYLELOCATIONU.S President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden greet and pose for photos with Kennedy Center Honorees in the Oval Office of the White House May 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Left to right are: Joan Baez, Midori, Debbie Allen, President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Dick Van Dyke and Garth Brooks (Credit Image: © Adam Schultz/White House/Planet Pix via ZUMA Press Wire) Adam Schultz / White House / White House

The incoming administration was determined to send a signal that President Biden was focused on bringing the country together after it had been so divided on multiple fault lines by his predecessor and was still in shock at the ransacking of one of the nation’s best known edifices while the election results were being ratified. The organisers of the inauguration ceremony devised a programme with the themes of societal reunification and inclusion front and centre.

To this end, Lady Gaga sang the Star-Spangled Banner. Jennifer Lopez performed, partly in Spanish. Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old Black woman and the youth poet laureate, recited a poem she had written. They were joined by Garth Brooks, who delivered an impassioned rendition of “Amazing Grace.” That sent a forceful message to some residents of red state America who regrettably, yet surely, were perturbed by the key role played by women of colour in a transfer of power that plenty of them resented.

His presence there should not have been a big surprise. Decades previously, he co-wrote “We Shall Be Free” – described as an “anthem of tolerance” that tackles world hunger, homelessness, homophobia and racism. Garth Brooks cannot fix what ails the US, but he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for having the courage of his convictions, notwithstanding how his sentiments might be received.

Why we love him

And that brings us back to the opening query as to why his fan base in Ireland (and beyond) are so enamoured of the top-selling solo artist of all time. I think there is a pretty simple, twofold answer. First, he has a good voice and sings enjoyable songs that people can identify with. Snobs sneer. But millions can’t get enough of his dozens of hits.

Second, he seems like a decent guy. My sister-in-law provided independent confirmation of my presumption on Monday after Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, dined at the highly regarded restaurant she and her husband own and operate, the Wicklow Heather in Laragh. In Betty’s words, he was “thoroughly genuine, interested, kind, polite and easy-going.”

This world is increasingly complicated and often cruel. When its inhabitants want to be entertained, most of us yearn for an escape, a rekindling of hope and an antidote. Garth Brooks, in his music and in his persona, offers all three. I can’t wait to see him live tonight.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal. His book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – is published by Gill and available online and in bookshops.

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