I saw Garth—that’s what we called him, just Garth—with three friends when we were in the fourth grade, maybe fifth. He was touring in support of 1993’s In Pieces album. A Nashville native, I had been listening to country music for as long as I could listen, but Garth was the artist that had turned me from a passive listener into an enthusiast. My grandfather had had Johnny Cash, my parents Alabama. But Garth, Garth was mine.
As far as they were concerned, I could have him. When the guitar arpeggio at the start of “Friends in Low Places,” his first hit, came over the radio, my parents would switch the dial from 97.9, which played Top 40 country, to 95.5, which played the classic stuff. “Blame it all on my roots / I showed up in boots,” Garth sang, in a lyric that seemed to announce a changing of the guard, “and ruined your black tie affair.”
My father didn’t own a black tie, but neither did he much wear boots. Something about Garth needled him. What I heard as brave and original he heard as bigheaded, crude. Garth was one of those figures. A line in the sound. There was before and after: B.G., A.G.
His songs could be moving (“The Dance”), suspenseful (“The Thunder Rolls”), clever (“Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House”), scandalous (“That Summer”), even enlightened (“We Shall Be Free”), but for all their emotional and thematic range they were bound by a fervor and intensity that was uniquely his own. A New York Times review from the early days of his career called the music “bawdy,” “self-aggrandizing,” “disturbing,” and “hollow.” You bought into it or you didn’t.
I, for one, was invested. Garth’s rise from “Friends in Low Places” (1990) had loosely coincided with my grandfather’s willingness to let me cut his lawn unassisted, and so I saved the money I earned from mowing, as well as from painting the fences around his pasture, to buy Ropin’ the Wind (1991) and then The Chase (1992) on cassette tape.
Both were sensations. In the spring of 1992, The Chase had debuted at No. 1 not only on the country charts but on the pop charts as well, crowding out Madonna’s Erotica, brushing shoulders with Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard sound track. The album went nine times platinum. But I didn’t know about that. I mounted the tractor, adjusted the headphones, punched play on my portable cassette player. By the time I last-lapped the backfield, having paused only long enough to refill the gas tank and flip the tape, I had listened to the album three or four times.
For all its flamboyance, I sensed in Garth’s music a familiar intimacy. At heart the man was a raconteur. The stories he spun in songs like “The Thunder Rolls,” “That Summer,” and “Papa Loved Mama,” which climaxes in a trucker crashing his big rig into his cheating wife’s motel room, were every bit as detailed as they were overblown.
Garth might have been about the business of crashing black-tie affairs, but I thought he’d have been right at home sitting around the table on my grandfather’s porch or in the passenger seat of my uncle’s pickup on one of those drives when the road and the clock melted away in a space-time warp of narrative.
In theory at least, a close run-in with Garth wasn’t out of the question. In early elementary school, a rumor circulated that he’d bought a farm, of all places, on a hill off of Old Dickerson Pike. We passed by the property every day going to and from school. You couldn’t see much of the house, a two-story antebellum number, from the road, but there was a great big warehouse-looking structure off to the side, into which you could have easily fit a stage, a studio, a fleet of sports cars, or all of the above.
It wasn’t possible, but if Garth really was up there it meant that occasionally he had to come down—the gate would have to swing open and he’d turn onto the very road we were driving on.
And it wasn’t possible, but then one morning on our commute we thought we might have passed him riding by us on a John Deere, but it really wasn’t possible, and then one night he and his family were walking out of Cracker Barrel as we were walking in, and it wasn’t possible, except that apparently it was.
Suffice to say that by the time I came by a copy of In Pieces, this time on CD, Garth’s music had gone from being a private excitement to a source of pride. He’d become Garth. Not Garth as in Prince or Pavarotti, not Garth as in a mononymous abstraction, but Garth as in I felt like I knew him. To my mind, we were on a first-name basis.
A student in my mother’s class had given her a “compact-disc” player and, not knowing what to do with it, she’d lugged it home and left it sitting behind a chair in the den. I plugged it in and, over the course of a week, put to mind the entirety of In Pieces, from the first lines of the rousing “Standing Outside the Fire”—
We call them cool,
those hearts who have no scars to show …
—and the bridge of “Callin’ Baton Rouge”—
Hello, Samantha dear, I hope you’re feeling fine
And it won’t be long until I’m with you all the time
—to the final verse of the acoustic “Cowboy Song”:
So when you see the cowboy, he’s not ragged by his choice
He never meant to bow them legs
Or put that gravel in his voice
The sixth track,“Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up),” gave me fits. It was a barn burner, the fastest song I’d ever heard. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” by comparison, felt like a waltz. The song’s laser-quick tempo took cues from the lyrics, which recounted the story of a redheaded girl’s curfew-testing tear across a Southern town, and it was pure action, a lightning strike of verbs relayed lickety-split through a derecho of fiddles. In the CD booklet, the first verse looked like this:
Six o’clock on Friday evening
Momma doesn’t know she’s leaving
’Til she hears the screen door slamming
Rubber squealin’, gears a-jamming
Local country station just a-blaring on the radio
Pick him up at seven and they’re headin’ to the rodeo
Momma’s on the front porch screamin’ out her warning
Girl you better get your red head
Back in bed before the morning
It sounded more like:
Six o’clock on Friday evening Momma doesn’t know she’s leaving ’Til she hears the screen door slamming Rubber squealin’, gears a-jamming Local country station just a blaring on the radio Pick him up at seven and they’re headin’ to the rodeo Momma’s on the front porch screamin’ out her warning Girl you better get your red head Back in bed before the morning
And went on that way for three more verses. Garth was flouting rules even as he left few doubts that he could keep them. On an album whose title and cover art suggested quiet introspection, the song amounted to an exalting taunt. Go on, it said, see if you can.
I must have listened to “Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up)” fifty times, holding down the rewind button to revisit botched lines and then inevitably pressing too hard and having to scan forward from the start. Unlike the run-of-the-mill country songs on the radio, you couldn’t passively absorb this one. You had to engage. Getting it down felt like an accomplishment. You carried it, flaunted it, like a favorite scar.
The skipping back and forth must have driven my parents up the wall, and yet, for all of their disdain for Garth, I don’t recall them ever asking me to get up off the floor and put the music away. The concert was a harder sell.
The music wasn’t at issue as much as the logistics. Did I have money to pay for the ticket? Yes. Would there be adult supervision? Of course. And besides, why did I need to go now—wouldn’t there be plenty of other chances to see Garth? Maybe so, I said, paraphrasing another Garth song, but what if the next time never comes?
It really was a coup. Like Braves baseball, grandfathers, and Mortal Kombat, Garth was an enthusiasm I shared with my buddies. His music and proximity made us feel as if we were at the very center of something vital. The concert—held south of the city, on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University—would be a confirmation.
Or so we hoped. I’d never been to a proper concert. The little live music I’d heard had come out of modest spaces: restaurants, churches, school gyms. Even so, as we parked and then hoofed across the asphalt for what seemed like miles, any expectations I harbored deep down began to give way.
The basketball arena soared up against the night sky. The ticket line spiraled around the building and spiraled some more. Once inside, we climbed flights of stairs and scooted across aisles before finally arriving at our seats. There were people everywhere. Above us, below us, pooled along the floor, crammed into corners. “Garth!” they chanted. “Garth! Garth! Garth!”
Who were these people? Where had they come from? What did they think they knew about Garth? I stood among them, hating them, feeling already as if a treasure had been taken from me and distributed at random, one of thousands and thousands and yet wanting for some reason to be the only one. As it grew louder, I grew quieter, stiller. By the time the lights dimmed and the music started, I stood encased in a thick cocoon of silence.
Garth shot from the stage. Part trapeze artist, part troubadour, he smashed guitars and slung cymbals, leapt over flames, climbed a rope ladder and swung out over the crowd. He did “Friends in Low Places,” did “Papa Loved Mama” and “Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up),” and I knew every word but, swallowed by the people and struck dumb by the spectacle, could not bring myself to make a sound.
Are we enlarged by what diminishes us, blessed or disparaged by what un-singles us out? Whatever else it signified, the concert forever altered my perception of Garth. He was, I realized, a very big deal.
On those previous occasions when I’d seen him around, I hadn’t thought about getting his autograph. I hadn’t felt as if I needed it, not when I had the music, not when the man himself was right there.
But the next time I saw him, a year or so later, out to eat with my family at a meat-and-three, I worked up the courage and walked over to the table where he was sitting with his wife and daughters.
“Mr. Brooks,” I said, blushing, brandishing forth my father’s pen, “could I ask you to sign my napkin?”
“You can call me Garth,” he said.
“Thank you, Mr. Brooks,” I repeated.
I never called him Garth again.
Drew Bratcher is a writer from Nashville.