By his own admission, Garth Brooks has been waiting his entire life to say five words: “Welcome to the Ryman Auditorium.”
Believe it or not, the best-selling artist in country music history had never played a show of his own on the sacred floorboards of that hallowed hall, once walked by greats like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl as one of the Grand Ole Opry’s original homes. But that finally changed on Thursday night, when Brooks packed the house for an invite-only event to celebrate the launch of his own channel on SiriusXM satellite radio. The Ryman itself only holds a little over 2,300 people, but since the show was broadcast live as the the Garth Channel’s first program, it was like the whole world was in on Brooks’ special moment.
From the opening straits of “Friends in Low Places” — which he brilliantly opted to play as his first “Garth” song of the night — to the fist pumping close of “Standing Outside the Fire,” the show was filled with blissful nostalgia and positivity, plus a humble sense of gratitude that had Brooks choked up for days leading into the event.
At a press conference earlier in the afternoon, he told reporters that he’d never played the Ryman because he literally did not think he deserved to be there, a mind-boggling statement from the global music icon. But to him, it was about respect for all those who made his career possible.
“That’s where the legends live, it’s always killed me,” he said, standing just across the street in the SiriusXM Music City Theater and looking anxiously at the Ryman through a window. “People that walk in and play that building without going ‘holy shit,’ I don’t know if they get it. Is there anything in your life that you go, ‘I would never. . . that’s where the cool people are’? Whatever that is, that’s that building for me.”
Not only had he never played a show of his own there, he said he’d never even stepped foot inside until Hall of Fame songwriter Harlan Howard’s funeral in 2002, so the first thing he did onstage was salute those legends that kept him away so long.
Arriving to a deafening chorus of screams and dressed in a throwback button-down with a white front and blue back, a black cowboy hat and gleaming belt buckle, Brooks spent no less than the first 10 minutes of his show playing snippets of songs from the greats, working up to courage to sing a whole tune.
Cal Smith’s “Country Bumpkin,” George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning,” Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again,” Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and Randy Travis’ “I Told You So” all graced the Ryman stage once again, as Brooks stood alone with an acoustic guitar. He then picked his way through the first full classic of the night, Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”
“I’m going to come out and sound like a bumbling idiot, but hopefully I’ll get my message across about how much I love and respect this format,” Brooks explained. “That’s what I need to get off my chest.”
With that weight lifted once and for all, the rest of the night found Brooks soaking in the atmosphere and delivering one crowd-pleasing hit after another. With a seven piece band behind him and three backup singers, he rumbled across the stage like a benevolent great-plains twister, those iconic vocals still pumping strong like a trusty old oil derrick.
“We’re gonna do some new things tonight,” he told the crowd. “But for me it’s all about the old stuff.”
He moved quickly (this was on the radio, after all), busting through “Rodeo,” “Two of a Kind,” “The River” and “Two Pina Coladas” before breaking it down for a quiet, solo version of the gracious “Unanswered Prayers,” then planted himself at the edge of the historic stage for “That Summer” as Ryman staff shooed away fans who scrambled to his feet.
“I’ve never been here before, but they’re gonna have to get rid of me now!” he shouted.
“The Thunder Rolls” led into what Brooks called his favorite part of the night: a mini-set with wife Trisha Yearwood, who nearly stole the show and caused her husband to remind the crowd that this was actually a Garth Brooks concert.
After circling each other on the devoted duet of “In Another’s Eyes,” Yearwood’s mic began cutting out, causing Brooks to call for a backup.
“Let’s get another mic, please?” he said.
“I thought you said ‘Let’s get another glass of wine, please,’ and I was like ‘Ok!'” Yearwood cracked in response.
Calling her one of the top five female voices in country history, Brooks asked his better half to sing “Walkaway Joe” before the pair tried out a new song for the very first time in concert.
Likely part of Brooks’ new album — which he calls “stupid fun” and is still coming together (you can keep up with the progress every Monday with Inside Studio G on Brooks’ Facebook page and the new Garth Channel) — “Whiskey to Wine” featured an intoxicating vocal blend and lyrics about a divorced couple who have moved on with new love, but the high is just not the same.
“Papa Loved Mama” and “Callin’ Baton Rouge” segued into the big-picture classic “The Dance,” which Brooks said he looked forward to singing on this night the most. And indeed, looking back on 25 years of music that has led to a holy pilgrimage of sorts, Brooks choked up as he addressed his fans one final time.
“I don’t know why I stayed away from here for so long,” he admitted. “I didn’t feel like I belonged here. But I tell you what, if you could have ever sent a message to an artist tonight, you sent it. I feel the love in this room!”
When the radio broadcast ended, Brooks kept the Ryman party going with a pretty unprecedented move for the guy who normally plays massive stadium shows: He returned to take actual requests, written on homemade signs or shouted from the audience.
“Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” joined snippets of “Anonymous,” “Everytime That It Rains” and more, plus a scorching dismount that included “Long Neck Bottle,” “Shameless” and finally, “Standing Outside the Fire.”
A triumphant, tearful bow ended the show that was being called a once in a lifetime event. But judging by both his and the audience’s overwhelming response to the performance, this won’t likely be Brooks’ only chapter in the Ryman history book.
The Garth Channel is now live on SiriusXM, found on channel 55.