The signal out of KBAD radio – just a bicycle spoke in a high-interest, short-term loan business-wheel shut down by the state’s banking authority two weeks ago for exorbitant late fees – was lifeless static when diesel pick-ups and shiny SUVs motored in for the King of Pop Country’s seventh of nine shows. The adjacent Badlands Pawn sagged in the dark, its military heirloom tanks and the helicopters adorning the building’s edifice eerily somber, and in the parking lot, as gray wind whipped overhead, a family from Luverne, Minnesota tailgated, shouting at passersby, downing beers, and grilling burgers out of their truck.
“Is Garth Brooks playing a concert?” asked a man in a “Red White and Beer” t shirt, repeating this reporter’s question. “You tell me!”
His brother, wearing a “Fishweiser” hat, said they’d been out there all day. “People thought we were tailgating for the football game. Seriously? You don’t even know?”
Asking the obvious—“Are you here to see Garth?”—only invited an Abbott and Costello routine. But these fans nearly expired waiting for what the last two weeks in Sioux Falls has seen.
“Where do you think I’m from? My mom!” replied Rod Fortune, a rancher who eventually disclosed he’s from near Huron, South Dakota. Fortune accompanied his girlfriend through the tunnel into the main floor, wearing a broad, tan cowboy hat and an orange scarf. (“It’s not an ascot.”)
“The first time I saw Garth, I was in Tillicum, Washington in the early 1990s,” said Fortune. “I was in the military, and he was playing a dinner theater. Did you hear that? A dinner theater.”
Back in ‘92, Garth set a record at the old Sioux Falls Arena for six sell-outs. In local lore, that event rivals the night Steven Tyler cold-cocked the county fair and then matriculated to the grease-belly downtown rock club Pomp Room to dance on the bar. After Garth “retired” in 2001 to raise his daughters (and finalize a divorce), this week’s event—the prodigal troubadour returning with his wife, Tricia Yearwood, to recapture this city on the banks of the Big Sioux River’s attention for nine sold-out shows—felt like a nostalgic wish.
Banks, airports, and hotels all threw up marquees welcoming Garth and Tricia in the days leading up to the shows. A restaurant put together a Tricia menu. A radio host from nearby college town, Brookings, wanted to rename his city to get the Oklahoma native and 10-time-diamond-record-selling artist’s attention. The local paper reported a Tricia spotting at a go-kart track, and finally, two weekends ago appeared Garth, christening this newish arena, kicking and fist-pumping and Howard-Dean-squealing his way back into Dakotans’ hearts.
“I hope you’re okay if I play some cowboy songs!” said the 55-year-old singer Saturday night to a roar of applause.
Sioux Falls isn’t a cowboy town. It’s a banking town. The Sanford Events Center is named for a billionaire who sold high-interest loans to poor people and has since gone on a Dickensian giving-spree (while slapping his name on a healthcare company and throwing up statues to himself outside a hospital and a sports complex).
Certainly, there have been rising tides. Big-name shows have increased for this community of 150,000. Two off-duty police officers, working as security, leaned against a window, sipping pop as revelers by the hundreds streamed past. “The national acts, like Florida Georgia Line, always tell us in advance how many people they’ve thrown out for being drunk or stupid—or drunk and stupid—at previous shows, but that never happens here in Sioux Falls,” one told me. “We stay pretty even keel.”
The city has undergone a small cultural renaissance. The New York Times featured a downtown macaroon shop and deli run by a former protégé of Lucia Watson, and big-name banks like CitiBank and Wells Fargo dot the skyline. But the heartbeat of the state (and of the night’s audiences) is somewhere west of here, in F-150s bigger than tanks and along fence-lines within view of some cows and bluestem tall grass.
Standing in the lobby after passing through security were the Micheels, from Cavour, South Dakota (pop. 114), who showed up in matching pearl-button western shirts.
“I farm soybeans and corn,” said Matt Micheel. “We really like his music, I guess.”
“We drove two hours,” said Kathy, her children grinning beside her.
Bearded, sleeveless Nate Eastman from Yankton, South Dakota, strolled through the entryway to the main floor with his father-in-law. “His music relates with all types of country folk, and that’s who we were,” he said. “He sings in a way we can relate to.”
And Garth answered Saturday night. “When I pay money to go see a show, I want to see the old stuff, the hits,” Garth said, early in his set, itemizing his rules. “So that’s what I’m going to do!”
Garth is shorter than you imagine, with a wisp of hair that stands up when he takes off his hat, and his beard suggests more of a hardy dad than the clean-shaven squire who’d first stepped onto the scene with a scarf (not an ascot) around his neck. On Saturday, Garth wore a Canadian tuxedo, jeans tucked over his black cowboy boots, a glittering belt buckle, and a black Stetson; he used a drive-thru headset as a microphone and held up a guitar, he joked, to “hide his belly.”
“Is this like this all the time here?” he shouted, seguing into another track, as the Sanford Events Center caterwauled.
A Garth show is part revival meeting, part pro-synergy business seminar hosted by a dynamo from the Verizon sales team. His employees tirelessly work the crowds, handing out tickets to folks for better seats. A mother and son from Madison, Minnesota got moved from nosebleeds to the front row. “Momma’s going to get another cocktail. You’re okay driving home, right?” the woman asked her 18-year-old son.
And fans hold up signs, looking for blessings-in-songs. A mulleted concierge, Dan, said during Saturday’s matinee a woman with a brain tumor had been serenaded. Tonight, a woman named Chantal, whose son had been through 39 surgeries, received a dedication from Garth and had Garth sing “When You Come Back to Me.” Another woman—who grabbed the jumbotron’s attention, but not Garth’s—held up a sign saying, “We played ‘The Dance’ at my son’s funeral.”
Garth Brooks is not ideological. He sings about people, not values. Yes, these people often are truckers or rodeo aspirants or flannel-pajama-wearing women who wait up for good-timing husbands (rarely the reverse), but he’s not telling you how to live your life or what’s so awful about cities. Moreover, Garth came of age in the vaguely utopian early ‘90s, when the Berlin Wall had fallen and Michael Jackson sang about petty distinctions between black and white.
Saturday night, Garth even played “We Shall Free,” a song the son of an Oklahoma oil worker wrote after watching on television the 1992 L.A. Riots while he was in in Los Angeles. Saturday’s crowd was pretty white, even by Sioux Falls standards – Garth’s band included African-American singers and a Latino guitarist, which nearly equaled the number of people of color in the audience.
Garth doesn’t explicitly mention Dakotans in any hits. But he does sing about the west, and the 100th longitude, where cartographers traditionally say the west begins, is about a two-hour straight shot on the interstate from Sioux Falls. And he does sing about weather, which is to say he sings of the land, a daily concern for many of the fans at his shows.
My old friend Rod Fortune, of rural Huron, in the orange scarf, told me it’d been a tough summer. The Dakotas, especially out west, have been wracked by a drought that forced ranchers to sell cattle and the state to drop estimates for its pheasant brood. “It just didn’t rain,” Fortune said, for a moment getting quiet. “But we made it, I suppose.” Then he and his girlfriend walked into the glitzy main floor of an arena that’s mostly used for semi-pro hockey and will next week host the bull-riding championships.
Sioux Falls may’ve been the gathering point for Garth on this night, but the congregants had driven down dirt roads and fenced sectionals to get here. Toward the night’s end, Garth acknowledged a neon sign down front that simply read, “We Came from Wyoming.” Garth’s Wyoming oracle is Chris LeDoux, a rodeo star-turned-DIY-country artist, who sold his own music playing rodeo and fair stages across the High Plains and mountain west. After Garth played his 2005 send-up, “Good Ride Cowboy,” in which he sings of his friend, LeDoux, “He would not slow down / From town to town / Like children running through the rain,” the marketing graduate of Oklahoma-Stillwater said the highest honor for any musician is to achieve a Saturday night hootenanny.
“But you had it started long before we got here!” he cried out to applause. And as lights came on, the people shuffled out, tired and looking for caffeine, with a long drive still ahead of them, the lights of downtown lit up, but the trucks filled with families and people exiting for the interstate, driving back to points west, where the rock n’ roll radio stations are fewer, and only a few country stations can be heard on clear nights almost free of static.