February 6, 2004

 

Seminar: Irish Studies, 535

 

Meeting Date: February 6, 2004

 

Chair: Martin J. Burke

 

Speaker: Prof. Mary McGlynn

            Assistant Professor of English, Baruch College, The City University of New York.

 

Title of Talk: “One Man, Two Nations:  Garth Brooks and the Rhetoric of Compromise.”

 

Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons

 

Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Peter M. Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Ed Hagan (Western Connecticut State University); Bob St-Cyr; Diane Menagh (Fairfield University, Connecticut); Terry Byrne (The College of New Jersey); Anna Brady (ex. Queens College, CUNY); Michael Malouf (Columbia University); Dermot Ryan (Columbia University); Bill McGimpsey; Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Patrick McNierney (Columbia University).

 

“One Man, Two Nations:  Garth Brooks and the Rhetoric of Compromise.”

A copy of the paper that Prof. McGlynn gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis.  A version of this paper will appear in a forthcoming volume, The Irish in Us, edited by Diane Negra for Duke University Press.

 

In 1997, a time of unprecedented prosperity in Ireland, Garth Brooks sold out Croke Park, Dublin, three nights in a row.  That same summer, he played to 800,000 fans in Central Park, New York.  An HBO promotional campaign soon afterwards dramatically compared the two tour stops: “ONE MAN, TWO NATIONS.”  His success in both countries speaks to the cross-fertilisation of US and Irish cultures, suggesting that each national self-image was reinforced by his persona.

            While cultural critics frequently bemoan the pervasiveness of American influence in Ireland, economists repeatedly credit Ireland’s boom to its openness to American products and investments.  The importation of American culture reverses centuries of cultural dissemination in the opposite direction.  Scottish and Irish immigrants heavily influenced bluegrass, music from Appalachia, the Deep South and the Ozarks, which had come by the 1930s to be associated poverty and backwardness, but which was lifted out of its hillbilly roots in part by Gene Autry’s reinvention of himself in the 1930s as a cowboy—a classless, white man of indistinct region.

            In Ireland through the twentieth century, the fascination with all things western—referring to both west of Ireland and the American West—increased, perhaps spurred on by a burgeoning sense of individualism, borne of resistance to the collectivism of nation and religion.  Fintan O’Toole suggests that the popularity of country music in Irish cities could be a result of the fact that it reminded people of their country past, and the image of that past was American.  Equally, country music’s popularity in the US, Stanfield argues, was thanks to the urban dwellers’ desire to remember a lost agrarian past, while effacing the pejorative connotations frequently attached to such a past.  While the west of Ireland moved into modernity, its past was kept alive in the memory of city dwellers and emigrants.

            Garth Brooks’ pop country breaks with the downward class trajectory of country in the late twentieth century, moving away from the Nashville sound and portraying the west in his shows as a technologically progressive Sun Belt.  Country music, in the guise of pop country, belies its trajectory of upward mobility—it has lost its political edge, and has become part of a larger political and cultural consensus.  Its core values reaffirm monogamy, religion and family, advocating a world of individual conformists.  His song “Friends in Low Places” crystallises the values of what could be called “New Country.”  Garth is not himself in a “low place,” but he has friends there.  In a live performance he displaces the crude lyrics of the final verse from himself, letting the audience take over.  Brooks represents a compromise between upward mobility and working-class roots, between the myth of the west and the ethos of the suburbs.

            This upwardly-mobile trajectory may explain Brooks’ popularity in an Ireland in the late 1990s in which the middle class was growing dramatically in size and the standard of living was improving rapidly.

 

Q. What was Brooks’ audience in Ireland?

A. It was very broad, including almost all social groupings.

Q. There was always a strong affinity in Northern Ireland with the dissenter tradition of the southern redneck, but in the republic in the 1950s showbands were the major acts on the Irish music scene—there was always resistance to endorsing southern music.  Then suddenly it changed—country music took off and The Chieftains headed to Nashville.  Why?

A. The Lost Highway documentary on BBC claimed that by the 1970s the Nashville sound had become too cant—Nashville became too predictable, and Austin and Southern California revived country music by dissociating it from the Nashville sound.

Q. Could there be other factors involved?  It was a major shift.

Q. I was in Ireland in ’66 and it was huge then.  I had the impression that it had been around for quite some time.

A. Part of the reason for its success was television and the increasing popularity of movies.  In the 1960s country music was big in the US too, so it was not simply an Irish phenomenon.

Q. Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy fits quite well with your story of the west.

A. I am not familiar enough with the book to say.

Q. Where else was Garth Brooks popular?

A. In Russia and in Germany.

Q. Southern Italian immigrants in the US seemed to connect with it—there was some link between country music and the south of Italy.

A. One of the reasons it is big in Germany is because of its connection to the land.  That might be the case here too.

Q. Bluegrass music is different from the rebel sound.

A. Yes—it is associated with Gospel.

Q. The rebel sound and southern music was very popular earlier in Northern Ireland than in the Republic.

Q. A connection with Northern Ireland is the pentecostalist preachers from the US who are preaching and playing music in stetsons.

Q. Many people in the American south are descended from immigrants from Northern Ireland.

A. Yes.  People in the American south are never “Irish”—they are always “Scots-Irish”.

Q. The New Yorker ran an article that claimed that the Lincoln County War, between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, was an extension of the Irish strife.

A. There is a lot of interest in Ireland in stories of the American west.  Fintan O’Toole has a Jesse James obsession—he went looking for places in Ireland that claimed to have been home to his family.  He was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

Q. What is difference between alternative and mainstream country, and are both big in Ireland?

A. Alternative is more acoustic, and not as popular.  It has a lot in common with Seattle and with movements antithetical to mainstream American culture.

Q. Obviously what makes a musician popular is not simply his voice or his message—there has to be a huge and effective publicity machine.  What was Brooks’ promotion of himself like?

A. His promotion of himself is very directed to certain market.  His “world tour” took in just three countries—the US, Canada and Ireland.  People see him as not being in the business of promoting country music, but promoting Garth Brooks.

Q. What’s his reception in Britain?

A. It is nothing like his reception in Ireland.

Q. Another American from the south popular in Ireland in the 1990s was Bill Clinton.  The seemed to triangulate themselves with both Ireland and the US.

A.  I think triangulation is a good term.  Of course, they both also cast themselves as “new”—Clinton was the “new” Democrat, Brooks the “new” country musician.

Q. The song that you mention having been suppressed on CMTV—did it advocate violence against abusive husbands?

A. The song is “Thunder Rolls”.  The heroine lies in wait for her husband to come home, and shoots him.  The Dixie Chicks had a similar song banned two yeas ago.

Q. I am wondering about your causal narrative—did the change in the economy cause cultural change?  It seems that there was already a market for country music in Ireland before the 1990s.  How did he integrate himself into it?

A. That is an important issue, and I am not sure exactly how I negotiate it.  I would not say that the economy determines culture, but that there is a relationship.

Q. He may not be popular in England, but is he popular in Scotland?

A. I interviewed the Scottish writer James Kellman, and he asked me where I was from.  He was familiar with Lubbock, TX because of Buddy Holly, who was huge.

Q. You mention fiction in which boys have an affinity with the American west.  Are there adults who do?

A. I am looking for this.  Joseph O’Connor has written Desperadoes, and of course there is Colum McCann’s interest in the west.

Q. Is this a gendered phenomenon in the books?

A. Yes—there are very few girls with a fascination for the west.

Q. Where does Dolly Parton come in here, as the archetypal superwoman?

A. I don’t know about her role, really,  Cultural studies has largely neglected country music—much work remains to be done.

Q. I grew up in Wyoming and Colorado, and there is little association there between country and western.  They are quite separate.

A. The appropriation of the western in country was an attempt to dissociate it from hillbilly.