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Published: Friday, 11/16/2007

Country music needs Garth Brooks

As Garth Brooks belted out the final bars of his classic "Friends in Low Places," the crowd broke into wild applause.

That was an impressive feat considering Brooks was 700 miles away from where the theater crowd in Maumee was watching live his sold-out concert in Kansas City.

There had to be some anxiety in the Brooks camp when he signed on to have his Kansas City concert simulcast in more than 300 theaters around the country. There was probably concern that fans wouldn t plunk down $10 to see video from a concert taking place hundreds of miles away.

But, in Maumee at least, the concert was an overwhelming hit. Fans of all ages, including elementary school-aged kids in cowboy hats, cheered wildly and sang along as Brooks ran through his catalog of monster hits.

Brooks is 45 years old and has sold more than 120 million albums, but he still exuded a boyish charm and enthusiasm as he interacted with the crowd and dashed around the stage. He s been officially retired since 2001, but he dipped his toe back into live touring by booking nine dates in Kansas City. Each night sold out within hours. The crowd absolutely loved his antics and actually sang louder than Brooks on several of his songs. There wasn t a song he sang that the crowd didn t sing back to him.

Perhaps the biggest cheer in the theater occurred as Brooks wrapped up his 90-minute set. A clearly emotional Brooks bowed to the crowd and said, "I promise if you wait for me, I ll be back."

Country music has seen its share of stars grow into superstars since Brooks retirement - Tim McGraw, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney - but none of them can match the star power of Brooks.

Chesney has done incredible things the last several years, most notably selling out several football stadiums. But in 1997, Brooks performed a free concert in New York City s Central Park that drew hundreds of thousands of fans. Some estimated that 900,000 people were there, plus another 14.6 million watched on HBO. Brooks second album, "No Fences," spent 23 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart and has sold more than 16 million copies. Garth recently released a new single, "More Than a Memory." It went to No. 1 - the FIRST week.

No disrespect to McGraw and Chesney, who have been the superstars of country music the last couple years, but there is only one king in country music - Garth Brooks. Millions of fans are anxiously awaiting his return to the throne.

***

Congratulations to Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush of Sugarland. The duo temporarily ended the Duo of the Year reign of Brooks & Dunn at the Country Music Association awards.

One of their biggest fans is Chesney, who was backstage in a press conference when the award was announced.

Sugarland spent time on the road touring with Chesney, and he was visibly touched when Nettles thanked him on stage.

"They are very, very deserving of that [award]. Last year, when I was on the road with them, you could see the groundswell happen with them," Chesney said. "You could tell that the crowd was relating to them and what they were saying."

***

And I have to congratulate buddy Dierks Bentley for reaching the top of the charts this week. "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" is Dierks fifth No. 1 hit. Eight of his nine singles have reached the Top 10.

The man just loves to play music. When I caught up with him in Nashville, he was headed to John Rich s bar for a post-CMA Show jam session.



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