He topped the usually staid Washington D.C. event on Wednesday night his own way, with a surprising, freewheeling 16-song finale that largely celebrated the musical inspirations he had, growing up in Oklahoma.

By Roger Catlin and Roger Catlin
March 05, 2020 at 01:48 PM EST

The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song is usually a pretty prescribed, buttoned-down affair. Staged for public TV and attended by members of Congress, the show’s tribute songs are painstakingly rehearsed, its speeches carefully written and timed.

But 2020 honoree Garth Brooks built his career breaking the rules as he reached commercial heights never thought possible for country stars. So he topped the usually staid Washington D.C. event on Wednesday night his own way, with a surprising, freewheeling 16-song finale that largely celebrated the musical inspirations he had, growing up in Oklahoma.

He may not have swung through the sky as he famously did at his record-breaking 1993 concert at Texas Stadium. But he darted from one end of the stage at D.A.R. Constitution Hall to the other, fell to his knees, and closed with his biggest hits, getting high ranking members of state on their feet to sing along to “Friends in Low Places.”

But all that came after he swung through a K-Tel album’s worth of solo acoustic ‘70s singer-songwriter hits  — some with just the first verse and chorus — that ranged from Jim Croce’s “Operator” and Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” to Otis Redding’s “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” He played two songs each from Bob Seger and Don McLean, and performed Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” with quite a different instrument, guitar.

Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

Of country heroes he touched upon, he included just one Merle Haggard tune, though he said he was so “scared to death” doing “Sing Me Back Home” he had to start it over.

The Bob Dylan song he covered was one he had made a hit long before Adele did — “Make You Feel My Love.” And amid all the covers, he threw in a few more of his own songs, from “Unanswered Prayers” to “That Summer.”

“This is like no awards show I’ve ever gone to!” he declared at one point amid the onslaught.

It’s anybody’s guess how the show, which he stretched almost an hour longer than planned, will eventually be edited for its broadcast slot March 29 on PBS.

And while he didn’t include any standards by George and Ira Gershwin, after whom the prize is named, he obviously relished the honor’s distinction, declaring during a dramatic instrumental break in the concluding anthem “The Dance,” “Please remember Garth Brooks as a songwriter!”

The Library of Congress honors Garth Brooks with the 2020 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song during a concert at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., March 4, 2020. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.
Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

Brooks had already opened the show with a scorching version of his “Ain’t Going Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up)” with Keith Urban.

Returning to sing the stirring 1992 “We Shall Be Free,” backed by the Howard University Chorale, Urban noted how far-thinking its lyrics were, calling for a time “When we’re free to love anyone we choose” and “when we can all worship from our own kind of pews.”

After Chris Stapleton sang “Shameless,” as well as “Rodeo,” Brooks quipped later, “Well, that’s how I meant to sing it.”

Country singer Lee Brice crooned a 1991 Brooks song that inspired him, “What She’s Doing Now,” as well as the 2007 No. 1 he helped write for the honoree, “”More Than a Memory.”

Ricky Skaggs brought along his mandolin to gave a bluegrass turn to Brooks’ 1994 “Callin’ Baton Rouge.”

Brooks observed all of it from a box near the stage, doffing his big Stetson in thanks and dabbing his eyes. When his wife Trisha Yearwood sang, backed with a string section, Brooks stood through the performances of “The Change,” which they wrote together, and was affected by the emotional “For the Last Time,” describing their own love story.

“We should have rehearsed my singing this before you,” she said when it was over. “That wasn’t easy.”

Jay Leno, who had invited Brooks to play his final Tonight Show in 2014, hosted the event, chiding the crowd at one point for waving phone lights during Keb’ Mo’s rendition of “The River” (something Brooks may have incited). “Nice to see you all paid attention to the no cell phones rule,” Leno said.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said Brooks was being cited for his appeal as a performer, songwriter ,and humanitarian who “elevated country music into a national anthem of the American people.”

After receiving the award, Brooks first called for a moment of silence “for those who have fallen and those who are still missing” following Tuesday’s deadly tornado in Nashville.

And, marveling at the roster of luminaries who have won the award in the past, including Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and Willie Nelson, “it is my obligation,” Brooks said, “ to live my life so when it’s over, people look at this list of names and mine, hopefully, is not a surprise to people.”

“Garth Brooks: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” will be broadcast Sunday, March 29, at 9 p.m. EDT, check local listings.

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