But that’s the thing about Garth Brooks — he just brings people together. It’s one reason he was chosen to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, which was presented during a tribute concert at DAR Constitution Hall on Wednesday night. (The show airs on PBS later this month.) When accepting the award, even Brooks appeared to recognize the bizarreness of the bipartisan scene at this particular moment in history.
“Boy, if this offends you, I don’t mean it to,” Brooks told the audience. “But I never thought I would see unity like this in this crowd right here.” He then asked everyone to hold a moment of silence for the victims of the recent Tennessee tornadoes, and they did.
Brooks, 58, is the youngest recipient of the prestigious prize, a lifetime achievement award for singer-songwriters whose music made a lasting impact — it was created in 2007 and has been given to artists including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Carole King, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, and Emilio and Gloria Estefan. As the top-selling solo artist of all time, Brooks is often credited for launching country music from a niche genre to a mainstream global phenomenon when his popularity exploded in the 1990s.
“His originality, his artistry, his humanity and, let’s face it, relentless energy, certainly make him deserving of this high honor,” Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, said onstage. “And if you have any doubt after tonight’s concert, let me assure you, the music of Garth Brooks will live on forever.”
Relentless energy was accurate: Brooks opened the concert with the same level of enthusiasm he exudes at his stadium shows with the high-speed “Ain’t Goin’ Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up),” accompanied by Keith Urban. At the end of the evening, Brooks returned to the stage for a nearly hour-long set as he played songs from artists that inspired him when he was younger: Don McLean, Jim Croce, Merle Haggard, Bill Withers, Bob Seger. He closed with “The Thunder Rolls,” “Friends in Low Places” (which he recently called “the drunk anthem of our lifetime”) and “The Dance,” which is also how he likes to close his concerts.
In between Brooks’s performances, his friends from Nashville showed up to honor his hit-filled catalogue: Urban joined the Howard University Chorale for a stirring rendition of “We Shall Be Free”; Chris Stapleton delivered powerhouse vocals on “Shameless” and “Rodeo”; Keb’ Mo’ had the audience riveted with “The River”; Lee Brice crooned “What She’s Doing Now” and “More Than a Memory,” the latter of which he co-wrote; Ricky Skaggs delighted everyone with “Callin’ Baton Rouge”; and Trisha Yearwood, Brooks’s wife of 15 years, brought down the house with “The Change” — and brought Brooks to tears with “For the Last Time.”
“That was not easy,” Yearwood said of singing “For the Last Time” while looking directly at her husband. The couple co-wrote the ballad, which is the story of their relationship: “I never thought forever would ever be for me, I could only guess that happiness wasn’t meant to be/But now both are mine — for the first time, I’m in love for the last time.”
During the celebration, Brooks’s pals insisted he’s the most down-to-earth celebrity. Stapleton described the first time the two met: “It was like hanging out with a dude who just happened to be Garth Brooks.” Jay Leno, who had Brooks perform on his final “Tonight Show” episode, explained during a brief monologue: “Garth is the most normal superstar I’ve ever met. He’s that rare combination of extremely talented singer-songwriter and goofball who used to kick the back of your seat in the eighth grade.”
Brooks certainly played up the self-deprecation. On the red carpet, he joked about the time his daughter didn’t realize he sang a cover of “To Make You Feel My Love,” as she told him, “Oh my God, Dad, there’s this new song by Adele you’ve got to hear.” He emphasized the talent of his wife (whom he called “Miss Yearwood”), especially with her version of “The Change”: “Once you hear her do it, it’ll be ‘Garth who?’" He modestly waved away praise about being the youngest Gershwin Prize recipient, saying all the former winners are “forever young.”
But onstage when accepting the honor, and throughout the night, Brooks also made it clear that the award was deeply meaningful — he spent a long time thanking everyone who made his career possible.
“Now my name joins the likes of some of the greatest names in music history,” he said, adding his goal is to live his life in a way that, when it’s over, “People look at this list of names — and mine, hopefully, is not a surprise.”
“Garth Brooks: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” airs Sunday, March 29, at 9 p.m. on PBS.