Garth Brooks went back to his roots Thursday night in the midst of his summer stadium tour — not by turning to songs from the artists who influenced him, or even leaning heavily into his own early material, but by returning to the type of performance venue where he and generations of country musicians before him honed their chops.
“This all started with the honky-tonks,” Brooks, 57, told about 600 fans packed into Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, the second stop on his tour-within-a-tour, which he’s calling the Dive Bar Tour.
The first stop came last month at Joe’s Bar in Chicago, but Bakersfield — and the Crystal Palace in particular — hold special meaning for Brooks.
“I’m standing here thinking about all the things that Bakersfield has done for us,” he said near the end of the 70-minute set he played with the backing of his full six-piece touring band. “There was the phone call from Buck Owens that changed my life,” a reference to advice he received from the business-savvy country veteran urging Brooks to negotiate for ownership of his master recordings during a contract battle in the ’90s with Capitol Records. “I came to his funeral here to pay my respects. I proposed to the love of my life right here,” alluding to the night in 2005 when he asked Trisha Yearwood to marry him in the middle of her show at the Crystal Palace.
“When people ask me, ‘where’s the place to play?’” he said, “I’m going to say ‘Bakersfield,’” prompting an eardrum-rattling cheer.
As has been the case at most of his stadium shows, he opened with “All Day Long,” his 2018 celebration of the honky-tonk spirit that sounded right at home at the Crystal Palace: “If we’re gonna get the party started / Somebody’s gotta swing those doors / Somebody’s gotta feed that jukebox / Somebody’s gotta drink that beer / Somebody’s gotta get all rowdy / And raise some hell in here.”
From there he surveyed many of the hits that made him the biggest pop star on the planet in the 1990s: “Friends in Low Places,” “Two of a Kind,” “Aint Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up),” “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” “The River,” “Rodeo,” “The Thunder Rolls,” “The Dance” and “Unanswered Prayers.”
For the last, he pointed out the presence in the house of his co-writer on that song, Pat Alger, Larry Bastian, and invited the crowd to join him in singing it as a tribute to Alger, Bastian, who smiled and waved from his post in the balcony.
He didn’t, however, include any songs from Bakersfield favorite sons Owens or Merle Haggard, saying before the show that he attempted something similar at the first Dive Bar Tour stop in Chicago and it didn’t fly.
“The only way in [to an audience] is through radio, right?” he said backstage a few minutes before the show got underway. “So we’re in Chicago with all these [contest] winners and I decide to let the band take a five-minute break and do a small little set like I used to do: Haggard, [George] Jones stuff.
“I don’t know how to say this,” he said, taking a pause. “The fans knew who the artists were, but they didn’t know the songs. … It was weird. We’re at the age where it’s just now showing,” meaning a good percentage of younger country fans aren’t exposed by country radio to the music that inspired Brooks and his peers from the Country Class of the ’90s.
That’s a situation Brooks faces with his own music as well. Although he remains a powerhouse on the concert circuit, he has struggled to win radio airplay since his return to touring and recording in 2014 after more than a decade on hiatus while he focused on raising his three daughters.
Of the seven singles he’s released from his three post-hiatus albums, only “Ask Me How I Know” cracked the top 20 of Billboard’s country singles chart, and that peaked in 2017 at No. 13.
“But it’s cool,” he said. “We’ll just stick to the set and tell some good stories.”
“I felt a little guilty coming tonight. My daughter is the one who listens to the radio all the time and always wins the contest,” said schoolteacher Christine Hunter, 53, of Bakersfield, who scored tickets to the event for her and her husband, Lavone Hunter. He said they frequent the Crystal Palace to see country acts such as Restless Heart and Wade Hayes.
“I really wasn’t that big of a fan,” Christine confided about 30 minutes into the show, saying she’d never previously attended a Garth Brooks concert. “But now I am. This is the loudest show I’ve ever seen here.”