Anybody who’s been to college knows a lot of the learning happens outside the classroom—over cinnamon rolls and coffee at Johnny T’s, in four a.m. rambles around Theta Pond, on the lawn before Low library or in dorm rooms dominated by massive stereo speakers; at honky-tonks or prayer meetings. I’m talking about myself, obviously. When it came to my own true identity, my best lesson started at Willie’s Saloon.

“Hey, man. You want to go to Willie’s with us?” That was Phil, slouching up in a trench coat. We all had trench coats, because some other guy in the dorm was going back to Australia and didn’t want to lug his gear on the plane.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m playing spades.” The cards fluttered through a shuffle and clattered through a cut. “Who’s playing at Willie’s?”

“Guy named Garth Brooks.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He’s country, but he’s good.”

“How can he be good if he’s country?” And to the other spadesters, I said, “You guys want to go see this yutz?”

There was laggardly talk of cover charges and getting up for work in the morning.

“If we go, who’s going to bust this nil?” one spadester said.

“I hate country,” I said.

“Suit yourself,” Phil said, and slouched away.

Yet I found myself, minutes later, striding down the Strip, hands in my pockets against an April wind, one of the other spadesters striding beside me and chattering through shivering jaws. We passed Coney Island, where cowboys clacked pool balls behind neon beer signs.

“Where you guys going?” said a stranger. He must have weighed four hundred pounds.

“Willie’s, to hear Garth Brooks,” said the spadester.

“Who’s Garth Brooks?”

“A country guy.”

“Country sucks, man. You guys know any place to eat around here?”

“How about Yer Mother’s?” I said.

“What did you say to me?”

“Not yours,” said the spadester. “It’s a restaurant. Farther down.”

We slipped into Willie’s—no turning back now, if I wanted to lose the stranger—and it was too hot as soon as we did. We sloughed our trench coats. Phil waved us over to his table, where he sat, as usual, with the best-looking women in the place. One of them shrunk from me as I sat down, like a slug from salt.

“He don’t look like a country guy,” said the spadester.

The singer growling from the stage was a sixtyish African-American in a beret.

“Got my wires crossed,” Phil said. “Garth was last night.”

I’ll tell you what I had against country, in case you want to know.

In the summer when I bussed tables at the Oklahoman Restaurant back in my hometown, KGYN played in the background. Country and the ag report. I longed for the fall, when I’d have the freedom of college again--when, if I really wanted, I could drive around all night listening to Rock 100 the KATT, and Boston would blossom from the speakers to mingle with the darkness and dashboard light. In fact, my college town was mapped by my memory of the songs I’d heard there—the Piggly Wiggly parking lot glimpsed in clouded October light to the sound of Def Leppard’s “Too Late for Love”; the dorm basement where my friends sang Robert Palmer hits, substituting vulgar lyrics; the Grandy’s restaurant where the Thompson Twins’ “Lay Your Hands” trickled out of the PA and a certain young lady laid her hands on mine and told me God was trying to tell us something.

Sure, you could hear rock and roll back home if you tried. But it wasn’t naturally in the air. I didn’t even hate my jobs, or, as I discovered in later years, my hometown. But I would go to my weekday job landscaping at the hospital, and there I’d be in 110 degrees of Guymon, Oklahoma, hoeing the grass that got out of its bounds and dreaming of Iron Butterflies and Rolling Stones. And Sunday afternoons it seemed to me, as I wiped the lipstick traces from somebody else’s tea glass over the Oklahoman’s stainless-steel sink, that the blistered air was full of Buck Owens, a language I didn’t care to speak.

Waitresses and bouncers wore shirts said IT’S OK, I KNOW BILL. Bill was the real owner of Willie’s, and all the drunks claimed to know him when they wanted favors. Some of us went to the pool table; Phil and his lady went out to what seemed the single square yard of dance floor. It was me and the spadester left at the table, and he was saying something about his engineering final. Loud music, chatter all around. My ear was hurting from the cold wind, even though I was prickling with sweat now. Somewhere in the chatter I found out the singer’s name was Flash Terry. He was playing blues with a flavorful guitar and a voice like buttered gravel. Blues wasn’t really my thing, but it sounded more like rock than country did.  

Phil and his lady came back, and the spadester fell into a shouting conversation with someone or other. I got wrapped up in Flash Terry’s music. His guitar made me stop and listen. I felt suddenly as if some other version of me living in a distant country had been wounded, and I was hearing the report of it.

It wasn’t just me. At the next table, the fraternity guys who had been shouting out requests like “Theme from Scooby-Doo” a minute ago were rapt. The chatter hadn’t stopped altogether, but it was dying out, like brushfires under rain. I supposed he’d had the crowd mostly with him before, but now Flash Terry had turned the corner into communion.

“Thrill is gone,” Flash Terry sang. “It’s gone away for good.” I’d heard the song somewhere before, but there was a new kind of silence in its phrases. A pool cue clicked against the ball. I actually heard the ball hitting the bumper. Then there were no more pool sounds until Flash had finished telling us about his broken heart.

A couple of years later, Tracy pulled out a CD and set it on the table in our apartment, cautiously, as if it were a bomb.

“I bought Garth Brooks,” she said.

“The country guy?”

“He’s country, but he’s good.”

“How can he be good if he’s country?”

“Country can be good.”

“Isn’t this the guy that used to play around Stillwater?”

“He went to school here, but he’s big now.”

She put the disk on. I went back to my homework, which I had somehow decided to take seriously after we got married. I tuned Brooks out. After a while I heard him singing something about rodeo. Somewhere in there, I heard the word latigo, which I hadn’t heard in a while. My memory groped for a definition but somehow ended up telling me about the time I sat in the pickup with my dad watching the bronc riders; and I got to go off to the concession stand by myself for the first time ever and buy us two cherry Shastas and get a nickel back from my quarter. And people at the rodeo said “just fine and you” when my dad asked how they were, and they said the whole phrase as if it were one word, and for the first time I noticed that a man says he’s fine even if he isn’t.

“Hell of a song,” I said. “Even if it is country.”

“I pooh-pooh your categories,” she said.

“I went to see him once.”

“How was he?”

“It didn’t work out. I saw Flash Terry instead.”

“That’s funny. Jane invited us to see Flash Terry at Willie’s tomorrow. I never heard of him.”

Garth Brooks has continued his rather decent career. In 1994, as if to prove to me once and for all that music is music and genre doesn’t matter, he teamed with the rock band Kiss on what I consider the definitive version of their old hit “Hard Luck Woman.”

Tracy and I went to Willie’s that night and had a great time dancing to Flash Terry. His version of “Thrill Is Gone” prompted me to buy a copy of B. B. King’s, which I like almost as much. Flash died in 2003, the year the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame inducted him.

I loosened up and learned to like me some country—and some blues, some jazz, some other stuff. It’s been said that blues and country are really black and white versions of the same thing. I just know that somehow the mingling of them brought me back to my roots. I still listen to Spirit and the Stones, but here’s Flash Terry bookmarked on my Youtube, and here’s Hank Williams on my shelf, and Johnny Cash and Bobby Gentry and so on. And here, between Blue Oyster Cult and Patsy Cline, is that same Garth Brooks CD Tracy brought home all those years ago.

 Originally published in Oklahoma Today



Show more