Show opener “Ain’t Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up),” which Brooks performed with Urban, set a high bar and a high-octane tone. The event would be as much concert as tribute, and the man of the night wasn’t just going to sit in the balcony tipping his hat—although the gracious Brooks, flanked by his three daughters and Yearwood, still did plenty of that. This is, after all, the artist who’s sold more albums than any other solo artist in U.S. history, and is known worldwide as much for his buoyant audience interaction as his songs.
Amid the fanfare, Brooks took time to ask those in attendance to honor the victims of the March 3 tornado that tore through Nashville, which at press time had claimed the lives of 25 people. “I’m going to request, humbly, a moment of silence for those who have fallen and those who are still missing,” he said.
Before the show, Brooks told Billboard, “Representing Nashville is always a joy and an honor, and it takes on an even greater honor tonight because the rest of Nashville who aren’t playing are running chainsaws and opening up their homes to people who don’t have one. We are right on that edge of becoming one of the major cities, but in my lifetime we will not lose that small-town community, and that’s a beautiful thing. We are a family.”
The rest of the evening was pure celebration. Stapleton shared how at 17 he bought a scalped ticket to a Brooks concert “but never heard a word because the audience sang the whole thing,” before delivering a stunning rendition of “Shameless," the Billy Joel tune Brooks took to the top of the Hot Country Songs chart in 1991.
Skaggs put his spin on Dennis Linde-penned “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” a 1993 hit for Brooks. “I kinda knew [the song] from bluegrass, and of course when Garth did it everyone knew it,” he told Billboard pre-show. “And according to the band, that’s his favorite song that they do. An extra honor, and extra pressure too.”
Yearwood, Brooks’ wife of 14 years, performed an orchestra-backed version of “The Change,” and “For the Last Time,” a love song the two co-wrote that appeared on her 2018 album Let’s Be Frank. “I should have rehearsed singing that in front of you,” she said looking over at Brooks. “That wasn’t easy.” Yearwood also lauded him for teaching her not only a lesson in performing “but a lesson in how to treat people, from the person in the front row to the person rolling up cables in the back at the end of the night,” when she opened for Brooks during his 1991 tour.
Before Urban launched into a soaring performance of “We Shall Be Free” backed by the Howard University Chorale, he praised the lyrics co-written by Brooks and Stephanie Davis in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. “When we're free to love anyone we choose… When we all can worship from our own kind of pew.’ You were way ahead of your time. The pioneers take the arrows, and I appreciate you taking every one for us.”
When he returned to stage, Brooks performed for much longer than has been Gershwin custom. Taking a page from his 2009-2014 Las Vegas residency, he paid homage to the songwriters who’ve inspired him through the years via a medley of hit songs. He flowed through excerpts including Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” which Brooks covered for the 1998 film Hope Floats; Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and “Turn the Page,” Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” before turning to a few of his own megahits, including "The Thunder Rolls" and his signature sign-off, "The Dance."
In a government bitterly divided along partisan lines, it’s one thing to talk unity and quite another to see it in action. The entire crowd, including politicos on both sides of the aisle, were on their feet belting out the lyrics to “Friends In Low Places.” Among those catching a groove were speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri).
The vibe was infectious, and Brooks soaked it in. “This crowd… if this offends you I don’t mean it to, but I never thought I would see unity like this in this crowd,” he said. He then explained what receiving the Gershwin Prize means to him.
“Now my name joins the likes of some of the greatest names in music history, and it is my goal and my obligation to you who believe in me to live my life so that when it’s over people will look at this list of names and mine hopefully is not a surprise.”
The night before the taping, Brooks was guest of honor at an intimate dinner at the Hay Adams Hotel, overlooking the White House and Washington Monument. Hosted by Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden and philanthropist Buffy Cafritz, the event drew politicians including Pelosi, Blunt, McCarthy, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Illinois), and many of the musicians who feted Brooks.
PBS stations will broadcast Garth Brooks: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at 9pm on Sunday, March 29. Past Gershwin Prize honorees include Tony Bennett, Billy Joel, Carole King, Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson.