There he was, swinging on a rope from the rafters of Salt Lake City’s gilded Abravanel Hall, home to the stuffy Utah Symphony.
It was early in 1989 and people were just starting to hear about Garth Brooks. His self-titled debut album had been released a few months earlier and “Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old” was all over the radio.
Still, there were some empty seats in the 2,800-seat hall. Ricky Van Shelton opened the show, playing acoustic guitar while leaning on bar stool. And, he was quickly forgotten. Garth was still relatively unknown then, but he was already GARTH.
I was there as a young reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune, taking my turn on the evening shift, which included the occasional review of artistic events in the city. Having grown up on Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, I was a little resentful of country going pop, and still am. But, even I could see this new guy was bound for glory, and he deserved it.
Arriving like Tarzan onto the stage, Brooks never stopped moving, or grinning. Before even singing a note, he whirled his big black hat to whip up the crowd and his band, opening with what was then his only hit. He then tried out a new song no one had heard yet, “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” and then another new song, “Not Counting You” and then another, “The Dance.” He could do no wrong.
The show was mesmerizing and the relentless tide of firepower became a little overwhelming, in a good way. Even when he covered pop ballads like Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston” and James Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is,” the air sizzled. In the end, it felt like the building had been hit by lightning. I hadn’t seen anything like it, and haven’t since.
It was clear the new guy had “it,” whatever cosmic energy “it” is that creates mega stars.
That energy during his live shows hasn’t diminished much in the last 30 years, despite his various retirements, family challenges, Las Vegas casino residency, and the increasing gravity of middle age. I’ve seen a few mega-stars in their late careers, Johnny Cash, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and you can’t expect them to glow like they did in their heyday. Brooks still glows.
Here he is well past his last charting hit, and probably well into billionaire territory, and he’s still swinging from the rafters. And, by all accounts, he's also still a nice guy with a surprisingly boring private life. That’s weird when you consider how predictably other suddenly famous artists — Elvis, Hendrix, Joplin, Winehouse — finished their careers.
The world tour that brings Brooks and his wife Trisha Yearwood through Billings began nearly three years ago with 11 sold-out shows in Chicago, a city not exactly known for country music. Those 180,000 Chicago tickets sold in less than three hours. And since announcing dates for this year’s leg of the tour, Brooks quickly sold out nine shows in Edmonton, Alberta and six shows in Kansas City. In many of the cities he’s passing through, Brooks has broken arena attendance records that have stood since he himself set those records nearly two decades earlier. That’s true in Billings, too.
Since seeing Brooks in Salt Lake City all those years ago, (I bought his cassette tape at the merch table on the way out), he’s gone on to sell more than 116 million albums. That’s hard to imagine in these modern times of streaming and iTunes singles, when selling even 100,000 albums is considered a hit. And, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “The Dance” played at weddings, and teared up a little.
I’m still feeling a little sore about his popification of country music — and his launching a generation of bad shirts — but I have a deep respect for those numbers and his staying power.
Here’s another reason I respect him. That ticket to see Brooks in Salt Lake City in 1989 cost $28. That’s about what even huge artists were charging back then. I paid $32 the same year to see Stevie Wonder.
Since then, the price of mega concert tickets has risen so high, especially for festivals, that some venues have allowed a payment plan. Two years ago, I checked into to seeing Roger Waters with my wife in Denver and a pair of floor seats would have been more than $1,000, plus fees.
The Rolling Stones during their last tour were charging an average $624 per ticket. Justin Timberlake was getting $339 and Paul McCartney $240. Brooks is charging $66. He doesn’t need the dough, although he could get five times that and do five times less work in Billings.
Maybe that’s why I’m still a fan. He’s the people’s country star, a true blue collar working man who deserves to sell nearly as many tickets in Billings as there are people in Billings.
"What he loves might kill him, but he's got no choice,” Brooks sings in “The Fever.”
Here’s hoping that never changes.
Jorgensen is one of The Billings Gazette's city editors, entertainment editor, writer and reviewer of all things musical.