Photo by Colin Houck

Country Grammar

Country megastar Garth Brooks draws a huge crowd and brings excitement to Autzen Stadium

In loose jeans, an oversized hoodie and work boot-looking Nikes, Garth Brooks is dressed more like an ordinary guy than a country music megastar when he shows up for a June 28 press conference. If it weren’t for the police officers he had as an escort, I would’ve passed right by him.

I was expecting to see the Garth Brooks I obsessed over when I was four years old living in Bakersfield, California — one of the greatest country cities in the U.S., just ask Buck Owens.

I mean, my obsession was more than just listening to his music. I demanded that my parents put in a Garth Brooks’ live VHS tape, and I’d put on a cowboy hat, collared shirt, jeans and boots. Then, I’d strum a cardboard cutout guitar and sing in gibberish what I thought were the lyrics to “Friends in Low Places.”

With the impression I’ve had of Brooks since childhood, I thought he’d step out wearing a clean cowboy hat, neat collared shirt and a large belt buckle. Although he’s no longer at the age where zip lining to the stage is feasible, he can still draw a crowd in Eugene. In fact, he drew a record-setting crowd, beating an Autzen Stadium record once held by U2, which Brooks says makes the record even cooler.

During his time in Eugene, he not only packed Autzen Stadium with nonstop roaring fans but also talked with me about country music and if Eugene Weekly is right to wonder if he’s a hippie.

Garth Brooks addresses a group of reporters and country radio DJs.

The Dance

Brooks first came on stage dressed in a blue T-shirt tucked into his jeans. After seeing him in a press conference dressed casually — even without a cowboy hat — I figured this is the new Garth Brooks, just like how he tried to repackage his image when he did the Chris Gaines gimmick.

He was only there to introduce the opening group and for the crowd to channel some Brooks energy for the young band.

But the crowd — me included — exploded with applause. Being on the floor, about 20 yards away from the stage, I now know how it feels to be an away football team: You can feel the noise in waves, assaulting your eardrums. Call me blasphemous, but, for a second, I wondered if this was what seeing The Beatles live was like.

I wasn’t wearing earplugs as I didn’t care about the potential hearing loss. I was about three $10 beers in and excited to see the man I, for some reason, was obsessed with when I was four years old living in Bakersfield — even if he was just going to wear that blue T-shirt and jeans.

Just like me, probably everyone in the crowd had some reason to love Brooks. Not even two hours after tickets went on sale for his show, it sold out. A few weeks ago, more tickets went on sale — and those disappeared quick.

Once the opening group wrapped up, Brooks returned in more of his signature look, hat and all. When he stepped on stage, the crowd didn’t quiet down. In between songs, the crowd just couldn’t stop cheering on the Oklahoma-born man.

During the press conference, he says he’s used to the reaction and the crowd’s passion for singing along to his songs and even sobs when he sees people react to “The River.” And a crowd’s engagement is always more intense in college towns, where it’s more about the music than showmanship.

“All you can do is feel that feeling that these people are singing your stuff back to you,” he says. “That’s sweet.”

With a full house of Brooks fans from all over the Pacific Northwest, during the press conference, Brooks calls the show a great chance for Eugene to show its visitors what it can offer. Or maybe it’s a foreshadowing of how Eugene will descend into chaos when the 2021 IAAF Championship comes. Around 11 am, fans were blocking Martin Luther King Boulevard waiting to access Leo Harris Parkway, the road leading to Autzen Stadium. No police were there to issue tickets.

One nagging question that has bothered me is, why Brooks didn’t have a second show in Autzen? He has two shows in Boise, Idaho, and is known to add another show when the first sells out. I’m putting my money on the UO’s lack of interest in hosting someone as beloved as Brooks.

Photo by Colin Houck

A Country Man?

With a country music-loving crowd at Autzen Stadium, you’d expect the music heard during equipment set up to be artists like George Strait, Clint Black and Hank Williams (senior and junior). Instead, the pre-show playlist included artists like Bruno Mars blasting out of the speakers. It seems odd to have a pop artist like that, but it fits Brooks’ taste in music.

His setlist at Autzen even included “American Pie” by Don McLean, which he said is the song that made him want to pick up the guitar. He also played “Night Moves” by Bob Seger, an artist who’s also been known to wrestle with genres much like Brooks.

During the June 28 press conference, I had to ask Brooks what he thought about “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, which later had Billy Ray Cyrus (whose best work is probably Miley Cyrus) on the remix.

Ironically, you probably won’t hear “Old Town Road” on a country music station around here. You’re more likely to hear it on 104.7 KDUK. The song has some hip-hop elements to it and got popular thanks to the social media app TikTok. The song’s success led to Lil Nas X signing to a major label. But the drama song got heated when Billboard wouldn’t put the song on its country music charts.

I was stricken by fear — and embarrassment — when Brooks didn’t know what song I was talking about. After a minute of the country music station DJs judging me, Brooks realized that he had heard the song, though referencing Billy Ray Cyrus as the artist.

Although some may think Lil Nas X is killing the business and tradition of country music, Brooks says that fear is unfounded.

“They all love and respect country music,” he adds. “We’re in good hands whether traditional country music fans think that or not.”

That’s because country music is always changing, and, at some point, country music will encapsulate everything, he says. When Brooks came on the country music scene, he says you couldn’t have the rock ‘n’ roll band Boston’s guitar licks in a country song. As the genre evolves, though, now country songs do have some rock ‘n’ roll elements.

“These guys grew up on hip hop; they grew up on street beats. That’s naturally going to find its way into country music,” he says. “The audience likes what they like, and, if they don’t, they’ll leave it.”

Basically calling country music a free market, he’s been a product of people “leaving” his music. Of course, this could be referencing the backlash he experienced over “We Shall Be Free,” a song that was side panned by country music stations and fans.

After the press conference, Brooks asked me what I thought about “Old Town Road.”

“I think it’s a different take on country music, and country music needs to diversify,” I tell him.

“Oh yes, of course,” he replies.

Just a Cowboy Who Cares

In the June 27 issue, EW‘s Sarah Decker explores whether Brooks is a hippie with values similar to Eugene. With songs like “We Shall Be Free,” it’s an appropriate assessment.

When I had a few minutes with Brooks, I asked him what he thought about being called a hippie.

“What I think people do is stereotype the hat. It’s a hard thing to get past,” he tells me. “They don’t think a cowboy might think that.”

Instead, Brooks says growing up in a blended family, and being the youngest of the six, he saw right away how complicated life is.

Brooks then pivots to say that he isn’t someone who thinks the U.S. is a place where either free love and conflict is a black and white choice.

“We need dreamers. We need dancers. We need the arts,” he says. “At the same time, we need defenders that protect the choices they get to make.”