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    Sunday, November 27, 2022

    Everyone wants Garth Brooks on their side. He just wants everyone to get along.

    Garth Brooks sings "Amazing Grace" Jan. 20 at the U.S. Capitol for President Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony. (Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys)

    OK, here's what happened at President Joe Biden's inauguration. Garth Brooks didn't mean to cause a slight delay. If anything, he joked, it was Barack Obama's fault. The country music icon was, as always, just doing what he was asked to do, which in this case was sing "Amazing Grace" on one of the highest-profile stages in the world.

    When he was done, he shook Biden's hand. He shook former vice president Mike Pence's hand and Vice President Kamala Harris's hand, too. Brooks put his cowboy hat back on and was dutifully walking up the stairs to exit, he said, when Obama suddenly caught his attention with a quick, "How ya doin,' Garth?"

    What would anyone do in that situation?

    "I hugged his neck," Brooks explained. "Hugged Miss Michelle." Then he noticed the couple's seatmates. "As I'm hugging Miss Michelle, there's the Clintons — so I go over and hug them and tell them I love them. Then I hear this voice go, 'Hell, you love everybody.' I look over and there are the Bushes. Now, 41 — Jiminy Christmas, I worship that man and I worship his family. So I go hug them."

    Brooks, sitting on a couch in his recording studio in Nashville last month, laughed at the memory. "And now I'm holding things up. It's like, 'Oh, crap!' So you just try and run as fast as you can and get out of there." His expression turned thoughtful. "It's gotta be some kind of record. I don't know who has hugged that many presidents in that short of time."

    Really, you could not script a moment — which of course went viral — to more accurately capture the beloved icon that is Garth Brooks, the unifying megastar who redefined country music in the 1990s, leading its growth from niche format to global phenomenon. His combination of traditional country injected with rock and pop enchanted listeners who previously scoffed at the idea they could relate to anyone in a cowboy hat. He has sold out stadiums and arenas around the world by treating country shows like rock concerts, and has been certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as the top-selling solo artist in history, just ahead of Elvis Presley.

    For all these reasons, Brooks, 59, will receive the Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, one in a small class of country artists in the ceremony's 44-year history. As with any award he has won — every one you can think of — he waves off praise: "I just want to represent God and my family and where I'm from — Yukon, Okla. — the best I can."

    Washington was where Brooks played his final concert before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down the world. Last March, he dazzled a packed DAR Constitution Hall after being presented with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Brooks has thought about that night a lot. It was a particularly contentious time, yet politicians who were fighting earlier in the week were standing a few feet away from each other, all rocking out during an epic singalong of "Friends in Low Places."

    "I couldn't tell who was red or blue ... but everyone singing the same lyric. It was like, how cool was that?" Brooks said. "It stayed with me, and it stayed with me for a reason. For me — and I don't know if everybody outside of D.C. is this way — there is no red or blue. For me, there's red, white and blue. It's us as a community."

    That thought, he said, hit him as he took the stage at inauguration: "The thing that unites people is singing together."

    A wistful view of the world? Sure — but it's not wrong. When you spend 30 years onstage looking at a sea of ecstatic faces, as fans from all walks of life go hoarse as they sing-scream "Callin' Baton Rouge" and openly weep during "The Dance," you start to believe that your purpose is to bring everyone together. Countless strangers tell you that your song was the first dance at their wedding, or played at their father's funeral, or changed their lives, and you never want to upset any of them. You're the escape from their burdens, the soundtrack to their most joyful and difficult moments.

    Brooks takes this role seriously, so it's no surprise he doesn't like talking about politics and with very few exceptions will not wade into contentious issues. (He agreed to sing at Biden's inauguration not as a political statement but rather "a statement of unity.") As a result, everyone wants him on their side. Nearly every president in the past three decades has asked him to perform at a high-profile event.

    Still, Brooks is too savvy and too famous to believe that he can please every single person. He vigorously dismissed the idea that he was worried about alienating anyone with an appearance at the inauguration in this very divisive time.

    "If I do something that pisses you off, that makes you want to burn the CDs, burn them," he said. "I'm not running for president, so I'm not trying to be everything to everybody. All I can be is myself. And if you dig that, great. If you don't? World's big enough. Thank you for the chance to listen."

    At this point in his career, he said, he remains grateful for the fans who stand by him no matter what. "I just gotta be who I am. And if that means zero people show up or a billion people show up, you still are who you are."

    Spending time in person with Garth Brooks is everything and nothing like you would expect. Warm and chatty, he lives up to his longtime image as the nicest guy in Nashville. He will inquire about where your parents live and if you had any side effects from the coronavirus vaccine. He will say "Hello, gorgeous" to his wife, country music star and Food Network host Trisha Yearwood, when she drops by. After you discover a shared love of M&Ms, he will reveal one of his favorite recipes, albeit one that would never appear in one of "Miss Yearwood's" cookbooks: Put plain M&Ms in a bowl and microwave them for 60 seconds. He calls it "mayhem," because of the two M's. (While this plays a bit fast and loose with the word "recipe," we can confirm it is delicious.)

    He's not just that way with reporters: His friend Billy Joel — whose smash "Shameless" is one of Brooks's most successful covers — recalled meeting Brooks in the 1990s and, as a rough-around-the-edges New Yorker, was taken aback by his Midwestern manners.

    "He called me 'Mr. Joel' and he kept calling me 'sir,' which made me uncomfortable," Joel said. "I said, 'Stop calling me 'sir,' call me Bill.' He was very, very polite and I appreciated that, because I wasn't used to it in any way ... It's very charming."

    Right now, like everyone else, he's patiently waiting until life can return to "normal" post-pandemic. He will resume his stadium tour in July. But he's excited for the smaller moments to return.

    "I'd probably break down if I got to stare at my wife across the table at a restaurant," he said, becoming emotional. "Just see the candlelight on her face and just stare at her and just order dinner and never eat. And look at her and talk to her. How cool would that be? A waiter coming by and ask if you need anything? I can't help but feel I was taking things for granted. Because those things seem very special now."

    And he will be in Washington to accept his Kennedy Center Honor for a career that still seems surreal — but may be the exact one he was meant to have.

    "People go, 'That's not possible' or 'That's too much work.' I've been told that my whole life," he said. "And you know what? Once you start doing the work, a lot of impossible things start to be possible."

    - - -

    "The Kennedy Center Honors" will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS.

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