Armed with just an acoustic guitar, Garth Brooks was met with thunderous applause as he stepped into the spotlight for his headlining debut at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Thursday (Sept. 9).
Long curtains hung behind his back to hide his longtime band who stood ready and waiting to lay into two hours of live hits and then some at the Mother Church of Country Music. The historic performance was taped for a future television special and served as the first live broadcast on SiriusXM’s new Garth Channel 55.
“Welcome to the Ryman Auditorium,” he said as he greeted a packed congregation of passionate Brooks fans hollering in their pews. “It’s going to be a great night tonight. This is what it’s all about. The thought has been what is going to be the first song that was played tonight. Let me let you inside my head so you can know what I’m thinking.”
That’s when the Country Music Hall of Famer and 2016 CMA entertainer of the year nominee started working the stage like a reverend while he delivered a medley of country classics, including 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.”
“I can’t believe I’m going to get to do this in this house,” he said before settling into a breathtaking full-length cover of Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” Throughout the show, moments like the 10-minute opening number showcased Brooks at his best as he made eye contact with every person in the room while he sang.
If he wanted to, he probably could have called out most of the people in the balcony by name. Including his longtime manager Bob Doyle, all around the aisles of invited guests rocking out were colleagues he has worked with since he first arrived in Music City decades ago. Chris Young, Dustin Lynch, Chase Bryant and Nashville’s Charles Esten were also spotted in the audience, which at times sang louder than the band playing onstage.
The crowd went into a frenzy when the curtain dropped and the familiar opening notes of “Friends in Low Places” on an acoustic guitar rang out in the hall. Then the hits kept coming as he lit into “Rodeo,” “Two of a Kind (Workin’ on a Full House)” and “The River.” The fellowship felt from fan to fan as they sang in unison could be described as nothing short of a religious experience.
“I tell ya what,” he said. “Your voices are sounding fantastic!”
The Ryman felt more and more like home by the time Brooks got to “Two Piña Coladas,” “Unanswered Prayers” and “That Summer.” Sweat started to bleed through his button-down shirt when he wrapped a sinister “Thunder Rolls.”
Next came his favorite part of the show as his band left the stage. “People get ready,” he said, “let’s do a song that includes Ms. Trisha Yearwood.” Looking beautiful in curve-hugging black jeans, ankle boots, a leather jacket and a silver top, his wife and soulmate joined him onstage for their hit duet “In Another’s Eyes.”
“We were talking about the greats that have played here,” he said of his wife, “I’m going to put you in the top five female voices of all time.” Then he asked her to sing “Walkaway Joe,” her breakout ballad about a 17-year-old girl who falls for a guy who was born to be a leaver.
The drama continued as Yearwood stayed onstage for the world premiere of the new duet “Whiskey to Wine,” which is expected on a new album due out this fall. Finishing face-to-face, their vocals melded seamlessly as they sang of a divorced couple who find their love again after meeting at a party.
“Papa Loved Mama,” “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and “The Dance” marked the finale of the Sirius XM broadcast and left the audience in an uproar. The sounds of hands beating on pews thundering throughout the room called Brooks and his band back onstage for an encore starting with “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).”
While the players took another breather, Brooks went one-on-one again with his audience for acoustic performances of “Anonymous,” “Every Time That It Rains” and “In Lonesome Dove,” the latter of which was a request from one of his daughters.
“You can bust your butt all over the world, but if you could only impress your children,” he said, “that’s the only thing that matters.”
Then he brought the house down with the closing barn burners “Longneck Bottle,” “Shameless” and “Standing Outside the Fire.”
There were several standing ovations throughout the night. But the first went to a group of seven U.S. Marines who were met with applause as they took their seats in the balcony 30 minutes before show time. As the sun set on downtown Nashville, a line of fans had wrapped around the block all the way to the Legends honky-tonk on Lower Broadway to get into the show.
Brooks’ World tour with Yearwood picks up with three nights in Anaheim, California, starting Sept. 16.