“I was singing with Garth Brooks! I’m freaking out!” said Blake Shelton, shortly after joining his fellow Okie on stage in Boise, Idaho Friday night. Shelton had flown out to the first of Brooks’ two nights at Albertsons Stadium to shoot a live music video for “Dive Bar,” the recently recorded duet that Brooks just put out as a single from his upcoming album. Due respect was being paid: If Shelton is an 800-pound gorilla in country music right now, Brooks will probably still always weigh in somewhere over 900.
Then came word from the truck outside, over Brooks’ in-ears, that they needed a do-over. “Are you telling me I sucked?” asked Shelton.
The 40,000-plus crowd witnessing the first public teaming between the two superstars begged to loudly differ. Brooks, though, was acting as Shelton’s biggest fan, even though they’d barely crossed paths before recording the song less than three months earlier.
“I didn’t know what a singer he was until he stepped up to the mic” in the recording session, Brooks told Variety prior to the show. “But I mean, you remember this guy started with Braddock. [Famed songwriter] Bobby Braddock is what country music is all about; he’s in the Hall of Fame. And Braddock, I don’t know to ever take on anybody as a producer. So when this guy hits town and Braddock is the producer, everybody immediately went, who the hell is thisguy? And what I love about Blake is, he has kind of just lived up to it. And he doesn’t seem to be a guy that ever thinks anything is pressure. If you hang around him, he just seems like, ‘Ah, it’s just another day.’ I wish I was like that. I love him to death. He’s so easy to get along with.”
They’re simpatico partly because “we were 40 miles apart, being raised (in Oklahoma). We kind of dress the same. He’ll show up in a hoodie and a ball cap, as well.” But the duet wasn’t even a gleam in Brooks’ eye until April. “I saw Blake on the ACMs doing ‘God’s Country,’ and there (was) just something in his face, (even though) I don’t even know this cat. …. So I called him up and said, ‘Hey, man, I don’t know if you’d ever think about this.’ And he said, ‘Hell, yeah, I’m in.’ And then he does that thing that makes you feel 150 years old by going, ‘In high school, man, your stuff…’”
Scheduling a video shoot proved more difficult than doing the recording. “He’s the nicest guy on the planet … but the busiest guy on the planet,” Brooks said at a press confab before the show. “We were trying to get it done somewhere else.” Brooks is doing less than a dozen cities on this year’s stadium tour, mostly one-offs on Saturday nights, and “he’s gone on every Saturday,” too. Then, after Brooks’ first Boise show in 27 years — and the first concert ever held on the famous “Smurf turf” where the Boise State Broncos play — sold out in less than an hour, Idaho’s new governor, Brad Little, put in a call to Brooks to plead for a second show … which did get added for the night before. That didn’t just allow for Brooks to play for more than 80,000 people in a state that has an entire population of just 1.7 million, but to reach out to Shelton’s team again. “I just put in a thing: ‘Hey, I know Friday’s just like a Saturday, I’m sure…’ ‘No, he’s actually off Friday and would love to do it.’ I believe in karma or things happen the way they’re going to, and this is all the cards falling in the right spot. So I’ll apologize to the Saturday night crowd because that show won’t be as good because Blake won’t be here, but tonight’s gonna be a blast.”
Before they did a mid-show retake of the song Friday night, Brooks asked for a bonus for the crowd — a solo turn of Shelton’s current chart-topper. “Instead of doing this back-to-back … this is the coolest crowd you will ever play” for, Brooks promised. “Your ‘God’s Country’ has been No. 1 for two weeks. Would you mind playing the song? Is that cool?” Shelton then sang his hit, accompanied by just his own acoustic guitar, with such passionate and serious intent that it seemed like he might be even stronger as an intense folkie than he is as a laconic good-time country boy, in a musical alternate reality. “Hey, there’s nobody that’ll just play a guitar in front of a stadium,” said Brooks. “This guy has the balls to do it. Blake Shelton.”
Except, of course, Brooks is also a guy who can and will just play a guitar in a stadium. And so while for a while it looked as if Shelton’s unexpectedly raw “God’s Country” might be the highlight of the night — even more than their combined firepower on the light-hearted “Dive Bar” — Brooks got his own solo licks in during the encore segment, in which he traditionally lets the band take five and takes requests for deep tracks from the audience via the signs they hold up in the front rows.
Someone was bearing a sign saying her mother had died two weeks prior, and would Brooks perform “Mom” in her honor? He did, but not before asking the names of both the woman and her mother, and saying, “Okay, I know you still talk to Shirley; you tell her I said ‘Hey.’ I’m so sorry about that, babe. I’m a mama’s boy; I miss my mom so much. My mom’s been gone for 20 years and she’s right here with me. What you’re gonna love is every day you’re gonna notice she’s standing right here with you the rest of your life.” There might not have been that much crying in Albertsons Stadium since the Boise State Broncos lost to Virginia by double digits in September of 2017.
But a weepy tone had already been set in the otherwise turbo-charged show prior to the encore with “The Dance,” possibly the only song in the history of popular music with a 100 percent success rate in making grown men cry. And even a few women, too, like the beer-guzzling young woman in section 15 who’d been happily flitting among friends for the previous two hours of Brooks’ show and then suddenly starting bawling so uncontrollably in the aisle during “The Dance” that security guards and strangers alike came to her aid.
This fulfilled an unlikely promise Brooks had made to the assembled local press and a few stray national media reps earlier in the day, when asked why he’s taken so much to stadiums (not withstanding a few actual dive bars he is playing to promote the new single).
“I hate to say this as a guy, because I never believed it, but size does matter,” he said. “And 17,000 people singing ‘Unanswered Prayers,’ as opposed to 40,000 people singing it? Get ready, because it sounds like you’re hearing the angels from heaven.” (That vow didn’t come true — Brooks skipped over that oldie in the two-hour set.)
“I try not to ring our own bell, but we’ve been in this business for long enough to where I feel like we’ve earned a chance to try to do stadiums. … When you’re a kid, it’s what you think of, because you’ve seen Freddie Mercury do Wembley and you’ve seen George Strait at Texas State or Capitol Stadium. …. Now I’m gonna be real honest. Stadiums were more of an ego thing for me (in the past), because stadiums can’t be warm; they’re echoey, and they can’t be personal. And this tour has showed me the complete opposite. Somebody asked me the other day, what is my favorite tour? It’s this one. It’s so warm. And I know we’re all sitting here — because I did it, too — we’re all sitting here going, ‘A stadium tour can’t be warm.’ So get ready for what you’re about to see tonight,” he warned. “It’ll just make you cry like a little baby.”
That’s just close to startlingly true enough that you may think he missed a merchandizing beat by not manufacturing Garth/Idaho-branded hankies to sell alongside the Brooks/Boise koozies.