He recently passed Elvis Presley as the top-selling solo artist in American history and remains second overall only to The Beatles.
So it’s only fitting that country icon Garth Brooks received the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on Wednesday night at DAR Constitution Hall.
“It’s sweet,” Brooks told WTOP. “You’re a child of God first and you’re an American citizen after that, so getting to be any part of the fabric of the greatest country on the planet is very sweet. … Country music is all over that fabric. I was lucky to get a spot in line behind the greats: [Merle] Haggard, [George] Jones, Randy Travis, George Strait.”
The numbers don’t lie. Brooks has outsold every other country artist that ever came before him, from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn to Dolly Parton.
As such, countless celebrities showed up to pay tribute to the king at his request.
“It’s very awkward and embarrassing to ask, but the feeling you get when they show up wipes all that stuff out,” Brooks said. “I’ve always played for the guy in the box, but I’ve never been the guy in the box. It’s wonderful, humbling and awesome at the same time.”
Contrary to past years, Brooks himself took the stage to open the show, performing a duet with Keith Urban on “Ain’t Goin’ Down Til The Sun Comes Up.”
Urban later returned with the Howard University Choir to sing “We Shall Be Free.” He praised Brooks for the courage to sing the lyrics, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose, when we all can worship from our own kind of pew.”
Brooks’ wife Trisha Yearwood performed “The Change,” Keb’ Mo’ performed “The River,” and Ricky Skaggs performed “Callin’ Baton Rouge.”
“Everything that any artist could have ever imagine we’d love to do, he’s done it,” Skaggs told WTOP. “He’s still out selling tickets and doing tours and he’s just reinvented himself to this 20- or 30-year-later generation. It’s unbelievable.”
Mr. “Tennessee Whiskey” himself, Chris Stapleton, performed “Rodeo” and “Shameless.”
“I grew up in that era when he took off, so I had every album and knew every word to every song,” Stapleton told WTOP. “I did scalp a ticket to a show back then one time and I never heard a word he said because everybody in the crowd was singing every word to every song.”
Fellow country star Lee Brice performed “What She’s Doing Now” and “More Than a Memory,” which Brice wrote for Brooks.
“I was 10 years old and Garth Brooks came on the radio with his very first single, ‘Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)’ and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,'” Brice told WTOP. “Garth was a huge influence on me. It’s that thing he has that connects with you. It’s like he’s speaking to just you.”
Perhaps the most famous guest was former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno.
“He’s the most normal superstar I’ve ever known,” Leno told WTOP. “No ego, no nonsense, he signs every autograph.”
Leno even shared his favorite Garth Brooks story, laughing as he told it.
“He’s in a restaurant eating and there’s a guy watching him. He thinks, ‘This guy is going to come over.’ Garth finishes his meal, goes into the men’s room, sits on the john. The guy walks in, opens the stall door and goes, ‘I didn’t want to bother you while you were eating. Can you sign this?'”
It all culminated with Brooks returning to the stage to receive his award. Upon accepting the award, he asked for a moment of silence for the victims of this week’s tornado in Nashville.
“To our home in Nashville, from all the players up here, our hearts and love are with you guys,” Brooks said.
After that, he closed the show with arguably the most impressive set of any Gershwin Prize yet, saluting his favorite singer-songwriters, including James Taylor, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Bob Seger and Don McLean.
He then broke into his own biggest hits with the lights flashing for “The Thunder Rolls,” a giant singalong to “Friends in Low Places” and closing on the chilling “The Dance.”
How did Brooks get to become the superstar deserving such a prize?
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1962, Brooks earned a track scholarship to Oklahoma State University, where he majored in advertising. He played in the bars around Oklahoma, inspired to play country music after hearing George Strait’s “Unwound” on the radio.
In 1985, he tried his hand at Nashville, but returned home to Oklahoma within 24 hours, discouraged from the experience of the music machine.
“I went to Nashville thinking it was all about music, but the truth is it’s all about the business of music,” Brooks told WTOP. “I had the music thing, that was in my heart and soul, and I had the dreaming part like everybody does, but when you get there, you better be ready to respect it as a job, as a business for all those people.”
Thankfully, he gave it another shot, moving to Nashville with first wife Sandy Mahl.
He caught the attention of manager Bob Doyle and producer Allen Reynolds, who signed him to the record label Capitol Nashville to release his self-titled debut album in 1989. A star was born thanks to the aching violins of “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” the sweet lyrics of “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and the tear-jerking piano of “The Dance.”
His second album, “No Fences” (1990), featured the gratitude of “Unanswered Prayers,” the upbeat poker analogy of “Two of a Kind, Working on a Full House,” the controversial domestic violence epic “The Thunder Rolls,” and his trademark saloon song “Friends in Low Places,” which country fans and non-fans alike still sing by heart at dive bars.
His third album, “Ropin’ the Wind” (1991), was arguably his biggest success yet, featuring the catchy “Rodeo,” the edgy “Papa Loved Mama,” the spiritual “The River,” the wistful “What She’s Doing Now” and a killer cover of Billy Joel’s “Shameless.”
He took a big chance in his fourth album, “The Chase” (1992), by urging unity after the L.A. Riots and Rodney King with the aforementioned “We Shall Be Free.” The album also featured hits in “That Summer” and “Somewhere Other Than the Night.”
His fifth album, “In Pieces” (1993), featured “Standing Outside the Fire,” “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association,” “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up),” fueled by hard-charging guitar.
“I think he knew an audience that would go to a rock concert,” Skaggs said. “He was developing that into his show, but keeping it country, having fun, running around like a madman and people were loving it.”
Indeed, Brooks broke attendance records and packed Central Park with a million people, taking the genre mainstream by sprinting across the stage, breaking guitars and flying out over the audience on a harness.
“Everybody gives us credit for bringing what they call the rock show into country, but the truth is we stole the show from Chris LeDoux,” Brooks said. “He was a real bona fide cowboy world champion that could not stand still when he played. He was fun to watch and we just took everything he was doing.”
After his “The Hits” collection was certified diamond, Brooks delivered a sixth album, “Fresh Horses” (1995), that included “The Change,” “The Beaches of Cheyenne,” “She’s Every Woman” and a cover of the Bob Dylan ballad “To Make You Feel My Love.”
His seventh album, “Sevens” (1997), featured the bittersweet “She’s Gonna Make It” and a pair of good-old-fashioned drinking songs with “Longneck Bottle” and “Two Pina Coladas.”
After a Christmas album and a bizarre detour as pop star Chris Gaines, a character he created for a movie that never materialized, Brooks returned to his country roots for his 10th studio album “Scarecrow” (2001). It featured the hits “Why Ain’t I Running,” “Wrapped Up in You,” and “When You Come Back to Me Again.”
However, it was around this time that he took a well-earned hiatus to raise his three daughters with second wife Trisha Yearwood, who sang backup vocals for him in the early ’90s before becoming a country star in her own right with “She’s in Love with the Boy.”
“People said, ‘Did you feel bad leaving?’ And I said, ‘No, what you gotta understand is what I left for I loved more than music itself,’ and if you’ve ever been a parent you know what that is,” Brooks said. “I watched them grow from 1998 to 2014 and never missed a day. Now they’re on with their lives and we’re back touring.”
After sending the kids off to college, Brooks made his triumphant return with two new albums “Man Against Machine” (2014) and “Gunslinger” (2016), while launching a record-breaking stadium tour that won him Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards in 2016, 2017 and 2019.
He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2016.
Now, he can add Gershwin Prize to the list.
Named after George and Ira Gershwin, the Gershwin Prize was created in 2007. Past recipients include Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett and Gloria & Emilio Estefan.
“The goal is to work at your music so that 20 years from now when they read that list of who’s won this, your name is not a surprise,” Brooks said.
The ceremony will air on PBS on Sunday, March 29.