Flashback: Garth Brooks Makes History With Central Park Concert

Twenty years ago today, an estimated 980,000 fans packed the New York City park to hear the country superstar, though this figure has been disputed

Garth Brooks played New York's Yankee Stadium in 2016, his first NYC concert since his historic Central Park show on August 7th, 1997. Credit: Theo Wango/Getty Images

In 1997, global news highlights included the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the birth of Dolly, the sheep that was the world's first cloned animal. Closer to home, Garth Brooks had a memorable summer with the mid-August release of "In Another's Eyes," the Grammy-, ACM- and CMA-winning duet with his future wife, Trisha Yearwood. Twenty years ago today, on August 7th, 1997, just 11 days before that single was issued, Brooks headlined a free concert in Central Park, breaking attendance records (more on that later) and marking the entertainer's only New York City date on his massive second world tour, which ran from 1996 to 1998.

Following the 1995 release of his sixth studio LP Fresh Horses, which sold seven million copies in the U.S. but earned a lukewarm critical reception, Brooks continued to trot the globe, swing from arena rafters and plot his next album, which was initially planned for release on August 7th, to coincide with the Central Park concert. Hampered by shake-ups at Brooks' label home, Capitol Nashville, and clashes with new label chief Scott Hendricks, Brooks turned to Capitol's New York contingent to market Sevens and although the release was delayed until late November, the Central Park show was one hell of an opening act.

It's particularly fitting that a 1979 Central Park concert by one of Brooks' idols, James Taylor, was the first at the Big Apple landmark to draw a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands. While Barbara Streisand, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Elton John and Diana Ross, among many others, have staged shows in the 843-acre park over the past 50 years, the 1981 reunion of Simon & Garfunkel drew more than half a million people and a 1991 solo show by Simon brought in 600,000. A planned 1985 show on the park's Great Lawn that would have featured Bruce Springsteen was on track to draw more than 1.3 million but was called off due to safety concerns.

On the park's North Meadow the stage, which spanned 360 feet and included a lighting rig 100 feet wide, was one of the most elaborate built for a Central Park concert and the advance publicity fueled rumors about what spectators could expect. What they got was vintage Garth, a turbo-charged 19-song set with special appearances from "American Pie" tunesmith Don McLean, who joined Brooks at the opening of the four-song encore for a duet on that tune, and New Yorker Billy Joel, who took the stage twice, for duets on "New York State of Mind" and the show-closing "You May Be Right." Brooks, of course, also included a rendition of Joel's "Shameless," which became the country superstar's seventh Number One single in 1991.

While the New York Fire Department officially reported that a crowd of 980,000 had attended the concert, in 2008, the New York Times alleged that attendance numbers for many of the Central Park shows had been wildly over-inflated, quoting then-New York City parks commissioner Adrian Benepe asserting, "The truth is that those historical crowds, you couldn’t accommodate that many people if you crammed them into every open space in Central Park – Great Lawn, North Meadow, Sheep Meadow." In the same article, Doug Blonsky, a former city parks administrator said, "You would get in a room with the producer, with a police official, and a person from parks, and someone would say, 'What does it look like to you?' The producer would say, 'I need it to be higher than the last one.' That's the kind of science that went into it."

Whatever the truth, Brooks' Central Park concert, which was broadcast live on HBO and released on home video later, did exceed expectations and create anticipation for the eventual release of Sevens, which was his penultimate studio album (not counting the alter-ego "Chris Gaines" side project) before 2001's Scarecrow and his 13-year hiatus from performing and recording. Sevens returned Brooks to the top of both the Country Albums and Billboard 200 charts, selling more than 10 million copies in the U.S., a figure that's not in dispute thanks to official certification from the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America).

The HBO special, Garth: Live From Central Park, was nominated for six Emmy awards and was 1997's highest-rated music special. In July 2016, Brooks returned to New York for the first time in 19 years with a pair of shows at the new Yankee Stadium, the first country act to headline a concert there.