Outside, the brand-name bazaars of Nashville’s Opry Mills beckoned yuletide browsers with all manner of urban delights. But inside the BellSouth Acuff Theater next door, folks were enjoying a rural Wyoming Christmas — with Garth Brooks leading the carols.
The event was the Sunday evening (Dec. 9) presentation of Joe Henry’s Lime Creek Christmas, a cozy marriage of lyrical prose and seasonal music. Actor Anthony Zerbe read winter reminiscences from Henry’s novel-in-progress, while Brooks and singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman interspersed the readings with songs. The three performed side-by-side on a set constructed of piled bales of hay and evergreen trees. On the previous evening, the three had performed the show in Sheridan, Wyo.
Brooks, whose entrance sparked wild cheers and a summer storm of camera flashes, wore a long-sleeved, red and gray flannel shirt with the tail out, cargo pants and a baseball cap. He and Chapman accompanied themselves on acoustic guitars, sometimes singing solo, sometimes harmonizing.
Although the house was full, Brooks maintained a fireside intimacy by chatting good-naturedly with the crowd as he introduced and performed his songs. He did not, however, dominate the proceedings. Zerbe held the audience spellbound as he read Henry’s vivid vignettes of ranch life. And Chapman earned the only standing ovation during the play with her quietly impassioned rendition of “Ave Maria.”
The two singers opened with “The Flame,” the Joe Henry/John Jarvis composition Trisha Yearwood debuted at the end of the 1996 Summer Olympics. Brooks closed the scripted portion of the show by leading the house in “Silent Night.”
In its strong sense of place, exalted language, gentle whimsy and child-like level of wonder, Lime Creek Christmas is similar to Dylan Thomas’ timeless short story, A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Instead of A Child’s one viewpoint, though, Lime Creek has two — those of ranch owner Spencer Davis and his son, Luke.
The most engrossing tale is Spencer’s minute-by-minute account of the difficult birth of a winter foal and the tenderly heroic measures his wife, Elizabeth, and the veterinarian take to keep the new arrival and its traumatized mother alive. In another charming story, Luke recalls sneaking out to the stable with his brother just after midnight on Christmas Eve in a comically failed attempt to hear (as they’ve been told) the animals talk.
Other songs featured in the 90-minute production were “Colorado Christmas,” “Joy,” “A Baby Just Like You,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Away in a Manger,” “Christmas for Cowboys” and “Belleau Wood.”
Brooks brought the normally reclusive Henry on stage for the curtain call. But the audience wasn’t ready for the evening to end. After sustained applause drew the cast back to the stage for an encore, Chapman told the audience that this time a year ago she was taking chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Unaware that she was ill, she said, Brooks called her and proposed co-writing a song. When she told him of her problem, she continued, Brooks gave her $100,000 he had earned from appearing on Hollywood Squares and told her to contribute it to breast cancer relief.
Chapman then sang “Years,” her song about going home for Christmas and one of Brooks’ favorites. Brooks followed with a story about his 9-year-old daughter springing the question on him, “Daddy, what’s sex.” This led to his reading Henry’s poem about Bosko Brckic and Admira Ismic, the young lovers from opposing camps, who were killed in 1993 by snipers as they attempted to flee Sarajevo together. He concluded the encore by singing “Blood Is Thicker Than Water” from his new album, Scarecrow. Many in the crowd sang along.
Proceeds from the show will be donated to Gilda’s Club of Nashville and the Opry Trust Fund.