It was 25 years ago, almost exactly to this week, that Garth Brooks' “Friends in Low Places” reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard country charts. With it, the Oklahoma native shot into a realm of popularity and success that country music hadn’t seen before — or since, for that matter. By the time Brooks rolled into Dallas to play a series of legendary shows at Reunion Arena eight years later, he'd long since singled himself out as country's biggest star and its most electrifying live performer.
Brooks hasn't played here since, and much in this post-Chris Gaines world has changed in the years since. He doesn't have the power of recent hits to inspire the masses or build his legacy, and he hasn't in years. But the pull of those last shows he played back in 1998 remains strong, which is why his return this weekend — with seven shows across five nights at the American Airlines Center — still feels like such a massive occasion.
Taking cues from his rodeo cowboy singer hero, Chris LeDoux — who added pyro, confetti cannons, and electronic bulls to his stage shows before Brooks had even released an album — Brooks became more than a country singer. He became a prime-time draw that crossed genre lines and transcended many musical and social boundaries. He didn’t hit our neck of the woods that often over the ensuing decade, but when he did, it was an incredibly big deal. After a few buzzed-about area concerts, including his still fawned-over Texas Stadium television spectacles in 1993, the legend of Brooks as an unparalleled live performer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was cemented with a smattering of theatrically smashed guitars.
In February of 1998, Brooks was entering a different stage of his career, however. He had been vocal about his thoughts on retiring, and slowing down on touring and recording. His 1995 LP, Fresh Horses, and the 1997 record, Sevens, were both solid albums which sold millions of copies, but neither record offered the anthemic staples that blockbuster albums No Fences or Ropin’ the Wind had a few years earlier. Brooks, the consummate showman, took his insane live show back on the road for a massive tour, and guess what? Everything was awesome, and the newer songs such as “Two Pina Coladas,” while not as great as hits of his past, were killer.
For three nights at the relatively tiny Tarrant County Convention Center (now Fort Worth Convention Center), and three more dates in the dearly departed Reunion Arena, Brooks made sure no one was too worried about whether he would ever have another “The Dance” or “The Thunder Rolls.” The show I managed to see was special, and even now, 17 years later, without irony, or the over-used “guilty-pleasure” asterisk, I fondly recall the overall special vibe of that remarkable night.
On Sunday night, February 15, 1998, I was creeping up on my 22nd birthday, and I was pumped about the last night of Garth’s Reunion Arena shows. Some friends, my younger sister, and I had been lucky enough to stumble upon a local ticket agency dumping a ton of tickets for that night at $20 a pop. After arriving relatively late, and overcoming a sketchy parking situation, my 18-year-old sister and I ascended the steps of the nosebleed seats at the old arena. Sure, we were up high, but we were looking directly on top of the stage’s left corner, so we felt fine, as I knew this show wasn’t going to be some intimate, quiet affair only enjoyable to those along the stage’s lip. The fireworks would come to us.
I remember the night mainly in snapshots all of these years later. Sadly, I don’t remember singing along to “That Summer” or “The River;” hell, he may not have played either song. I do remember beaming the whole night. I remember the drummer’s kit either flipping over (on purpose) or at least rising a good bit into the air. I remember yanking my shirt off and swinging it in the air as I screamed, because I was a 21-year-old dude, and that's what we did when we were having fun. I remember the dramatic light show changing colors with every song, and thinking to myself how I wouldn’t be surprised if Brooks, a well-known creative control freak, had drawn out the lighting plan for each show by himself.
I remember Brooks mugging for the crowd as he scanned the arena in fake shock at how much we all adored him. I remember high-fiving the friends I was there with, and looking over to check on my sister to make sure she was having as much fun as I was. And I certainly remember the painfully hoarse throat of the next morning, which proves that I did fervently sing along quite a bit, setlist memory be damned.
Of course, many thousands have better memories of Brooks' last swing through North Texas, thankfully. Lisa Hooks, a North Texas resident who has worked in various capacities in country radio, including a stint at KHYI 95.3 The Range in Dallas, remembers her girl’s night out to the Brooks show well.
"The night came and all the girls showed up with our Texas-tall hair, and Rocky Mountain jeans,” Hooks recalls. “We found our seats, and all of a sudden, it happened: Garth, the god of country music, was floating over our heads, right in front of us, strapped to a wire and floating to the stage! I didn't need a seat because my feet never left the floor."
Judging by the historic manner in which tickets for the upcoming slate of seven Brooks brooks shows at American Airlines Center sold upon immediate release — 100,000 in the first day, shattering the number he'd sold 17 years ago — it’s both clear and refreshing to see that Brooks remains an artist that North Texans rely upon to add a special flourish only he can add to the memories that will be made in the next few days. Perhaps it's even a greater achievement given that the record-breaking ticket rush is clearly based upon Brooks' legacy as a live performer, and certainly not any sort of mania surrounding his latest recording.
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Brooks' comeback album, Man Against Machine, a respectable-selling, yet musically pedestrian effort, quickly pales in comparison to his epic records of the early 1990's. Based on that record alone, Brooks wouldn't be worrying about playing multiple, consecutive nights in any venue, let alone a massive one such as the AAC. Similar to seeing the Rolling Stones at AT&T Stadium, seeing Brooks on this run is about feeling the magic, and revisiting the best of one's past.
It's safe to assume some folks will be ruined for regular concerts after one of this weekend's shows. I won't likely be there myself, nor will Hooks — life gets in the way sometimes — but I'm excited for those who will experience for the first time what I did so long ago. That night 17 years ago for Hooks certainly had a lasting impact.
“He was amazing that night," Hooks marvels, "and he changed my expectations for concerts forever.”
GARTH BROOKS performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, September 17, at American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave., 214-222-3687 or americanairlinescenter.com, $74.98