THERE IS A MAN standing in the middle of a stage. His jet black felt cowboy hat sits crookedly on his head. His light colored shirt is drenched in his own sweat. His guitar hangs around his neck and swings loosely around his abdomen. His back is arched, his chest pointed toward the heavens. His arms are outstretched, ready to drink in applause and adulation. The thousands of voices that surround him do not disappoint. The noise is deafening. The man is Garth Brooks, and Garth Brooks is home.
Last weekend, for the first time in two decades, Brooks performed to a hometown crowd. To be literal, last weekend Garth Brooks played four shows in a two day stretch at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. Born in Tulsa, Brooks was raised in Yukon, just outside of Oklahoma City.
It’s been nearly thirty years since Garth Brooks released his self-titled debut album and its debut single “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)“ cracked the Billboard Top 10. Since, the awards and accolades Brooks has tallied are staggering. He’s the best-selling solo artist in American history, selling more albums than even Elvis Presley.
His triumphant return to the place of his childhood was a hot get in the Sooner State. So when a friend of mine offered me a ticket to his opening show on Friday evening, I jumped at the opportunity.
There are moments you wait for in a Garth show, in a way that is climactic. To hear him bellow out, “God bless Chris LeDoux!” or tease that he won’t be singing the lost verse of “Friends in Low Places” before doing exactly that, these moments alone are worth the price of admission. As Brooks’ opined in the opening act of his Oklahoma City salvo: you all paid a lot of money, you deserve to hear the classics.
There of course was more. To hear Brooks, standing alone on an enormous stage without the aid of any musical accompaniment, reach deep into his heart and deliver the chorus to “The Change” was both heartbreaking and satisfying. This considering he was singing a song he dedicated around 20 years ago to the people of Oklahoma City following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, not more than a stone’s throw from where he stood at that moment. It was a breathtaking reminder of what we’ve lost and how far we’ve come.
To see him deeply embrace his wife and tour mate Trisha Yearwood was a touching tribute to the bonds of togetherness. There too was Brooks’ visible and vocal gratitude to the people of the place of his maturation, those who nurtured him, and the places that developed him into the man he is today.
Prior to his four shows in two nights, Brooks found some time to visit the Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center where he met with kids and discussed with the adults the finer points of being from Yukon, Oklahoma. Fitting that all into a two day stretch would tax any man, especially one the age of 55. Yet, that is Garth Brooks, and a not small reason why his Wikipedia page is rather enormous.
Brooks gives himself to his audience and they, in turn, return. George Strait may be King George (certainly an appropriate title), but Brooks owns the stage. His energy is rivaled only by his rock counterpart Bruce Springsteen. This is combined with his cross-generational songs that age effortlessly, seemingly like the man who sings them. Brooks understands what he’s selling. It’s fun; it’s love; it’s a memory. He delivers in ways his contemporaries, and even those who currently dominate the charts, do not.
AS I LEFT THE GARTH BROOKS EXPERIENCE, I was struck by a wave of thought and emotion. It stayed with me as I exited the Chesapeake Energy Arena and barreled into a humid Oklahoma evening. I started walking and began thinking. I headed toward Bricktown in Oklahoma City, prepared to enjoy a rare night downtown.
My thoughts turned to Garth and his phenomenal success. Much of the show was centered on the journey of Garth Brooks: from the photos of a young Garth plastered on the arena’s big screen, to his musings on spending his college days toiling away at a sporting goods store and his evenings serenading the guests at Wild Willie’s Bar in Stillwater, a fair portion of the concert was surrounded by nostalgia. His life has produced an amount of success I will never know, and I can say that with pretty fair certainty.
He seems almost blessed, like he was heavenly touched and destined to reach the pinnacle of his chosen profession. Of course, that dismisses Brooks and the enormous amount of work he has poured into his craft. Yet, there is no denying that Garth Brooks has been blessed by something.
Ultimately, as I wandered the buzzing streets of Bricktown, I wondered what it is like to develop an ambition, be laser focused on that mission, and then to achieve it in ways that you never could have imagined would be possible. As a wanderer, and a man who trades his ambition like children do baseball cards, this is something I admire and envy.
My travels brought me past many late night establishments, some I entered and some I did not. I was walking in the fading hours of that Friday evening, and I heard a voice over a speaker that stopped me in my tracks. The voice said, “Do you like the Turnpike Troubadours?” Anyone who knows me knows that my answer to that question is affirmative.
“This is one of my favorite Turnpike Troubadours songs,” said the voice. Then began a unique rendition of “Kansas City Southern.” I almost kept walking; I even took a step forward away from the bar. But I stopped myself, turned my shoulders, crossed the street, and opened a glass door and stepped into a sparkling gin joint.
I WAS GREATED by a small stage where a big, bearded man wearing a tight t-shirt and a red ball cap turned backwards on his head sat on a stool, a guitar strapped across his chest, filling an Oklahoma City barroom with an arresting sound.
Off and on, for the next hour I sat nursing a malted beverage and listening to Jordan Mills expertly croon songs from Randy Rogers, Chris Stapleton, Brandon Jenkins, Jamey Johnson, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and even some of his own originals. I was captivated.
During a break in his set, I went over and started a conversation with Mills and even bought one of his band’s CDs. A CD? I know, right! How, quaint!
If I could have asked a question of Jordan Mills today and Garth Brooks 30 years ago it would be this: What gives you the confidence, the unyielding desire, to stand up on that stage and pour out your heart not entirely sure what any of your effort will yield?
I can’t ask that question of Garth Brooks 30 years ago; the laws of time and space will not allow it. I could ask it of Jordan Mills, but it seems like an odd question to ask of a man who you’ve just approached for the first time, who is trying to rest for 15 minutes as he prepares for his next set. I didn’t ask that question, but regardless, I think Jordan Mills told me.
I have to be clear here, I never told Jordan Mills I might put words about him on the internet (at the time, I didn’t know myself), so I hope I am not breaching any codes of decorum. But I think I’m safe, because, well, all I am relaying is an ordinary conversation a working musician had with some random dude who approached him during a 15 minute break as he was preparing for his next set.
Mills told me that he used to tour with some pretty substantial rock bands. A subsequent internet search revealed he was previously with Distal, a band that had a hit make the Billboard Christian Rock charts seven years ago. He says he recently made a genre switch from playing rock to playing country. He said that playing rock gave him a thrill, an edge. He said this with his fists clinched, his beard shaking, like he was preparing to dive into a mosh pit.
Although he enjoyed playing rock, he told me however, he also loves playing country, for different reasons. When I asked him why, he said, without hesitation, that country provided him something. I’m paraphrasing here, but he told me that playing country music provided him a unique connection with his audience. As an example he mentioned moments, or maybe for him it was just a particular moment, when a man came up to him and said “you just played my wife and I’s song. I lost her several years ago. Thank you.”
WE WALK THROUGH this journey of life, our desire placed paramount. We do everything we can to move forward, our passions driving us through failure, regret, and the inevitable sting of life that comes to all of us regardless of if you’re the greatest selling solo artist in American history or a guy singing for drunk people at the corner bar. In the end, this journey, this ceaseless quest to fulfill some arbitrary dream we’ve concocted, which seems to somehow saddle us to a breakneck bronco, is about meaning.
We want to mean something.
We can write our words, sing our songs, and paint our paintings. However, few of us will know the feeling of our homecoming taking place in a sold out stadium while we bath in the glow of a center stage spotlight. We know this; it’s written in bold letters when we sign our names and turn over our lives to our ambition. And yet, we do it regardless, because we want to make a difference. We want our lives, the brief flicker of our existence, to have an impact.
Does the size of that impact truly matter? For us, of course, it probably does. We want our reach to be as vast and infinite as a stadium sea. Yet, do we matter less if our song only connects one couple, our words only stops one from ending his life, our painting only moves one to tears, our voice grants only one widower one more memory of the woman he has devoted his life and love to? Does that make our work any less valuable? Our earthly metrics may say yes. But the divine cares none for this math. The heavens have a much broader vision. When you change one life, you change the world.
Maybe in the end, that famous line says it all. It says it entirely more eloquently than a writer at the tail end of a nineteen hundred word blog post ever could.
It’s those famous words written by Tony Arata and cemented into the consciousness of history by an Oklahoma boy who helped define a genre.
It is those words that have sold countless records, opened countless hearts, and directed countless young men and women in the direction of a guitar and a microphone with nothing more than desire in their eyes and poetry in their hearts, who send forth the silly dream of stardom toward whatever force rules our universe knowing that dream will most likely be counted as an unanswered prayer.
It’s those fourteen words that sum up our brief time in these bodies far more succinctly and appropriately than most:
“I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”