On a Saturday night in 1980, Jim Brown, a rising political star who was Louisiana’s newly elected Secretary of State, was driving back home to Baton Rouge from the town of Kentwood where he had addressed a civic club. He hadn’t eaten, but as a former candidate he knew the backroads well. Located near the Mississippi state line in southeast Louisiana, state Hwy. 16 would take him through Greensburg, the St. Helena parish seat of government, toward the town of Amite. There he stopped at the Bear Creek restaurant and Saloon, for a bite and a beer.
By 1980 the Bear Creek was a popular road stop. One of the attractions was the saloon where the crowd, particularly on a Saturday night, could be a little rowdy. That would explain the chicken wire fencing across the front of the stage put there to protect the performer from errant flying beer bottles. More than being a state official, Brown (whose first customer as a young lawyer in upstate Ferriday had been neighbor Jerry Lee Lewis) has long had an interest in music.
“Few listened to the young fellow,” Brown would recall recently in his syndicated column about the singer behind the chicken wire: “Being a frustrated strummer myself, I paid attention to his forlorn country songs. He told the indifferent crowd that he had written the music himself.”
Brown turned to Jesse the bartender and commented, “Gotta nice sound, who is he?” Sometimes the answers to our questions are stamped into memory as though by a branding iron. “From Oklahoma,” Jesse responded. “Comes over every now and then to perform. Let’s see. His name is Brooks….Garth Brooks.”
“As I got up to leave,” Brown would write, “I paid my tab, dropped a few bucks in the tip jar, and shared my opinion with Jesse. ‘He’s got a pretty good mellow voice. Who knows? He might make it big one day.’ “
Brown would soon be heading home to Baton Rouge. Forty-two years later there would be a special significance to that night and the destination.
On a Saturday night in April 2022 Garth Brooks was in concert at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. The facility has a seating capacity of 102,000 and all those seats were filled.
Brooks is known for the energy put into his performance as he scrambles back and forth across a stage. Some of his songs are country classics, including “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places,” perhaps an anthem to his chicken wire days, or the heart wrenching “The Dance” (more on that later) and one that sends Tiger Stadium in a tizzy every time it is played at football games, “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” Its opening line “I spent last night in the arms of a girl in Louisiana” presumably has little to do with football, at least not that we are aware of, but the echo of those words backed by Brooks’ band sends the crowd chanting, “L-S-U, L-S-U.” (An LSU seismologist would report that the crowd noise when Brooks sang that song equaled a small earthquake.) Brooks says that “Callin’” is his favorite of the repertoire. The crowd obviously feels the same way.
Then there is “The Dance,” which made its debut in 1989. It is a soft, thoughtful leaf of poetry that I suspect has guided many fans through tough moments. Brown, for example, has had a great career. He was secretary of state, insurance commissioner and a state senator. But there were some bumps. A run for governor fell short and then there was a federal case, which many say was unfair, that sent him away for six months.
When asked if all that he went through in his 28 years as a public official was worth it, Brown frequently quotes his favorite line from “The Dance:”
“Our lives are better left to chance. I could’ve missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”
Plus, he has made friends—in both low and high places.