A friend of mine moved from Texas to Wicklow as a child. He didn’t realise he’d changed country for years – he was on a chicken farm in Avoca, and everyone listened to Charley Pride.
I was reminded of that story this week when Garth Brooks made his triumphant return to Ireland. It explains the connection those of us from outside the capital have with the country superstar, and with country music itself.
I’m excited just watching the telly ad for Garth’s gigs, because I’m Not From Dublin. Country music’s dominance – its significance – begins just outside the Pale, where I grew up.
Hoteliers know the crowd for Garth will be out-of-towners, which is why room prices for the concert dates shot up by 200pc.
There’s a cultural shift once you cross the capital’s boundaries. I might be a city slicker these days, but my roots are hillbilly. I too recall chickens in the yard, and Charley singing The Crystal Chandelier.
Country music was massive, unavoidable, in my childhood. Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash; and my favourite, Tammy Wynette, the first lady of country music.
The wheat was there with the chaff.
For every Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, there was a Billy Ray Cyrus and a Cotton Eye Joe.
Its biggest star was this fella in a Stetson hat everyone referred to as ‘Garrett Brewks’. It felt like his 1991 album Ropin’ The Wind was number one for about three years straight.
You could try to be above it, but it was like the Borg ‘Resistance is Futile’. In fairness, Garth Brooks is a brilliant performer with first-class songs.
Why do the regional and rural Irish love country music so much? It’s about shared identity with our counterparts across the Atlantic. Country music – and its culture – is familiar, relatable and resonant to us.
We know it, innately. American country has its roots in Celtic music, and so the instruments used are often the same as in Irish trad: fiddle, harmonica, banjo.
We have similar values, interests, interactions.
Their celebrations and struggles are the same as ours. Take the main themes of country music: drinking and death, twin preoccupations in Ireland.
We love the light and the dark – the tearjerkers and the party songs, the proud patriotic anthems. They’re all over Irish traditional music too.
In both country music and Irish trad, the songs are often about drinking and gambling, leaving and returning, love and loss.
The defiant status of outsider, underdog, or rebel is another shared theme – as is the strong identity of place.
Garth Brooks’ biggest hits fall into these categories, from Friends In Low Places to The Dance to Standing Outside The Fire. It’s the music of the people. Garth is one of us.
That’s why we love him here.