He looks into your eyes, moves you to tears, touches your heart. You cheer, raise your hands to heaven, bring offerings of red roses and baby’s breath. Garth Brooks is conquering another audience, and country music is conquering America.

Check the music charts. Brooks is passing frenetic rap, snarling rock, and slithering MTV. True, Garth Brooks represents the “new wave” of country music singing, and he docs not please the old-time performers and fans. For them electronic instruments, glitzy costumes, and sugar-sweet songs represent a sellout to the entertainment industry” and a pandering to popularity. They miss the whine, the nasal sound, the impromptu chords and changes that used to mark “country” For them genuine hillbilly and mountain culture were destroyed by mass culture and contrived songs; for them, folklore has become folklore. The debate rages, and both sides hold firm.

Garth Brooks may be a yokel from Yukon, Oklahoma, but he signals a change of heart in much of America and even in the world beyond. We all want to touch something solid, hear something sweet. We want to center on people, places, and values held long before the Age of Discs and Disinformation. People and places—populism and regionalism. Those are the isms that will win our support and votes. “Brooks has become,” notes James Hunter in the New York Times, “the most influential agent of something that country music, occasionally to its advantage, loves to resist: change.”

Garth Brooks sings of old friends, high hopes, log fires, and rivers: “You know a dream is like a river, ever changin’ as it flows.” He thinks about people, not cash flow: “When you see these people, it’s like there’s suddenly a bridge and you can just walk out and touch them . . . and they touch you.” A man for this season, he reaps a golden harvest and links emotion and memory. Make way for the hillbilly.

Scholars say the term was coined circa 1500 in hilly Scotland, where “billie” meant fellow or companion. The term crossed the Atlantic and re-routed into Appalachia. I’here were other terms for hardworking migrants: poor white, woolhat, redneck, tarheel, bluegrass. North Carolinians arc still known as tarheels, and Kentucky is the Bluegrass State. Back then “western Virginia” meant “western America.” The Wilderness Road was a Virginia road. Kentucky was a Virginia county. Orange County, established in 1734, stretched to the Mississippi. Jefferson sent two fellow Virginians, Lewis and Clark, to push to the Pacific. They did.

Meanwhile hillbillies, landless and often penniless pilgrims, were passing large rivers without shoes or stockings and (as Moses Austin wrote) “with barely as many rags as covers their nakedness,” Their songs reflected a poignancy and a sadness that still marks country music:

I came to this country in seventy-forty nine

I saw many a true love, but I never say mine.

I looked all around me and found I was alone

And me a poor stranger, a long way from home.

There were good moments. The children could mock mockingbirds, catch Juncy bugs, and call doodlebugs out of their holes. There were revivals and weddings with lots of vittles: pork, beef, turkey, bear, corn pone, chucky-beans. Maybe even pot licker. There was something else: community. In traditional societies such as theirs, people were the most valuable resource and place gave identity. In modern times the formula is changing. “Things” are in the saddle and ride mankind. Power and privilege are indispensable; people are disposable. “In our Western societies,” Marcell Mauss writes, “we have turned people into economic animals.”

The results are devastating—for families, cities, nations. Wedded to the bottom line, we have hit the bottom so far as consensus, discipline, and denial are concerned. Instead we go for the gold, look out for Number One, winner take all. This may create sports stars, celebrities, junk-bond dealers—but community?

Change is in the air. That is the chief lesson of the 1992 political campaign at home and of populist revolts abroad. Instead of fire power, we need a fired-up economy. Instead of more stealth bombers and spy satellites, we need more jobs. Of course we have commitments abroad, but where does charity begin? At home.

Country music has been saying this for a long time. For generations it was folk music. Folklore is the country mouse speaking, even when the city mouse isn’t listening. For a long time Appalachian folklore was confined to the isolated hills and hollows where it originated. Not until 1925 did the “Grand Ole Opry” begin airing country music, broadcast from Nashville. It proved to be the longest continuous show on radio. The Nashville Sound is still booming, with records, tapes, and television shows that reach a world audience. It has come under different labels: country, western, country-western, mountain, old-time, dixie, cowboy, Nashville, rockabilly. The first American to combine hillbilly and music 111 print was Abel Green, in the December 1926 issue of Variety magazine. How could he have dreamed of the Nashville Revolution that followed? In 1985, 16 country albums went gold, each selling half a million copies. In 1992, 35 went platinum—selling over a million apiece. During those years TNN (Nashville’s country-based cable network) jumped from seven to 53 million subscribers, and who knows how many people fought their way through urban clutter and pollution to watch The Dukes of Hazzard, The Beverly Hillbillies, or Hee Haw?

The village green seems more attractive than the global village. Mr. Big is on the retreat. The EC is seeing its plan for a united Europe blocked by farmers, truck drivers, local merchants. Lattle Denmark, like David, has already dared to defy Goliath and to withdraw from the union. French truckers defied their government and halted traffic for days. The middle class is tired of working more and enjoy ing less, expecting solutions but getting soundbites. For many people, life is a mere barrage of unsolicited mail, of hard-sell phone calls from strangers, of notes from a bungling bureaucracy that does nothing in particular and does it rather well. Paper paper everywhere, and not a chance to think. Enough already!

What shall we do? E. M. Forster suggests a two-word answer: Only Connect. That is what Garth Brooks does and what we must do with our families, neighbors, politicians, and students. We want to live in harmony, if not always in agreement. This never has been, and won’t be, easy. It will require new “habits of the heart,” new modes of thinking. Amidst all our problems, there are some healthy signs, some good people, some emerging leaders. And, of course, there’s always country music.