There may not be many firsts left for Garth Brooks, but somehow during his meteoric rise in the ‘90s, he never played in any of the honky-tonks on Lower Broad in Nashville. He rectified that oversight Monday night with a secret, nearly two-hour-long bar gig for an audience of fewer than 200 country radio professionals inside Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, along with a couple dozen startled onlookers on the street pressing their nose against the glass to get a glimpse of Brooks’ back (and occasionally front) side.
“Me and Mike (Palmer, his drummer) have not played this close together in 30 years,” he marveled, experiencing the power of the kick drum in a way he’s unaccustomed to on a tiny stage that barely had room for his six band members.
Although he didn’t explicitly state it as the reason for the pop-up gig, Brooks no doubt wanted to thank radio programmers who gave him his first No. 1 hit in a decade in December. He wasn’t the only genre star looking to give thanks at the 49th Country Radio Seminar. The first night of the three-day confab had many of the 2,000 industry visitors checking out overlapping appearances by Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean, Kelsea Ballerini, and Chris Janson.
Janson’s was the only public gig, as he headlined a sold-out Ryman Auditorium show that drew a good number of the radio visitors. They got to see a historic moment for the fast-rising freshman, as a surprise duet with Keith Urban on the John Michael Montgomery oldie “Sold (The Grundy County Auction)” was followed by something that was a surprise even to the headliner — Urban inviting him to become the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry. In honor of the honor, a tearful Janson broke into covers of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams.
It was nothing but covers over at the newly opened Lower Broad nightclub dubbed Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Bar, where the owner announced that instead of plugging his own upcoming album, “The Mountain,” he’d be turning the stage over to his favorite ‘90s cover band, Hot Country Knights. Said group of course turned out to be Bentley and his band in ‘90s drag, acting out some Spinal Tap-style band beefs that included arguments over whether certain picks were released in the fall of ’89 or the spring of ’90. Guests, some introduced by their own name and some also bearing pseudonyms and costumes, included Jon Pardi, Maddie & Tae, Jordan Davis, Eric Paslay and newcomer Kassi Ashton, doing a spot-on, bare-midriff shimmy to Shania’s “Any Man of Mine,” even as the others picked slightly more-lost-to-time choices by the likes of Hal Ketchum, Aaron Tippin, and Shenandoah.
Earlier in the day, Bentley had appeared (minus his period mullet) to receive Country Radio Seminar’s humanitarian award for his Miles & Music for Kids charity, along with a keynote Q&A. He touted his forthcoming album “The Mountain,” which he recorded in and around Telluride, Colorado, with the moderators showing some outdoorsy video imagery that resembled nothing so much as the marketing for the latest Justin Timberlake album, except that Bentley is actually from the West (Arizona, specifically).
Bentley spoke candidly about his own career struggles on the way to arena headliner status, including making the leap to sheds too early in his career, picking the wrong singles (“Bourbon in Kentucky,” which he freely reminded the assembled radio pros was a rare flop), and nearly nixing the right singles (he’d desperately wanted to leave his smash “Drunk on a Plane” off the otherwise serious album it was included on).
He drew a murmur of surprise from the crowd when the host put up a slide of him and Luke Bryan hosting the Academy of Country Music Awards. “Yeah, we got fired this year, so we’re out,” he said. “No longer. Is that common knowledge? I assume it is.” (It wasn’t.) “We won’t be back. We did two years. I mean, I love Luke to death. He’s one of my favorite people… Obviously it’s hard not to have fun with Luke… The ACMs have been so good to me.” (The org has not yet announced new hosts for the April telecast.)
Asked if his just released single “Woman, Amen” was written specifically to speak to the female-empowering moment, Bentley said it predated the recent spate of attention to harassment issues, but added, “I don’t think there can be enough ‘atta girl’ songs out there right now.”
Nashville mayor Megan Barry preceded Bentley at the opening-remarks dais at the Omni Hotel, mentioning that the country star, a pilot, was on the city’s airport authority board. She spoke to the ongoing Nashville boom, mentioning that Music City is “on track to have another million people by 2040,” and that “transit is key,” bringing in the topic that’s been her signature issue.
But right now that issue and others are in danger of being derailed by attention to a scandal involving an affair Barry has admitted to with her head of security, after the Tennessean raised issues about conflicts of interest. The mayor was not only not ditching the CRS gig, but not avoiding the elephant in the room.
“How many of you live here?” she asked, to nervous laughter. “Well, I have to tell you, I have been pretty humbled over the last week. I haven’t slept a lot; kicked myself — made a big mistake. And I’m kind of reminded that oftentimes that’s what country music songs sound like. And I also know that the sun comes up—it did this morning, it’s going to do it again tomorrow morning, and I’m going to keep getting up and doing the job I was put here to do, and I’m grateful for that.” Much of the room applauded. “I disappointed a lot of people, and I’m sorry. And now I’m actually gonna give y’all the remarks that were written for me for this.”
Come evening, attendees were scattering across the downtown area, as some of the night’s superstars did double duty. Aldean, who just released the first single off his upcoming album, headlined an invite-only Broken Bow showcase at the Country Hall of Fame event hall and the official Amazon-sponsored kickoff concert down the same block in an Omni ballroom. He was joined at the latter for a surprise appearance by none other than Brooks, on the way to his own gig.
The Layla’s performance will go down as one of the most unusual of Brooks’ career, and not just for the beyond-intimate setting. It was an all-request night, the condition for the asks being that the requester had to speak up first about some personal memory connected to the song. Sometimes, those explanations were short: “Me Too,” said one woman, requesting “The Thunder Rolls.” Others had to do with associations with estranged or deceased loved ones, resulting in some unusually emotional moments amid the sweat and frolic.
Brooks and his band were never actually stumped by the requests for songs from his 30-year catalog — it helps that, as he noted, the “new guy in the band” has been with him for 24 years — although a few obscurities came close to taxing his memory. “Red Strokes,” he announced, he’d only be able to do a snippet of, on acoustic guitar. Another oldie did get a full-band treatment but only after a length discussion of whether it might or might not have been in the key of E, back in the day. “We haven’t done ‘Not Counting You’ in 8,000 years,” he warned. “The night was going so good. You are gonna regret this.”
The song that finally restored him to No. 1 in December, “Ask Me How I Know,” was more taxing that some of the obscurities, because of the lack of crew and equipment. “When you go on tour, everybody wipes your butt for you,” Brooks said, adding, “This would be the time somebody is handing a guitar tuned a half-step down to me.” But no one should be surprised that the guy who’s managed to remain a superstar for three decades has what it takes to find a brand new key.