Garth Brooks’ giant concert at Neyland Stadium on the 16th promises to be one of the largest concerts in Knoxville history. He’s one of the most popular country-music performers in America, playing at one of the largest stadiums in America.
If you’d been here 30 years ago, though, you could have seen him a lot cheaper, and with a lot less traffic.
Garth is from Oklahoma, but he played in Knoxville several times in his early days. In fact, he performed here at least three times, in three very different venues, when he was a slim 27-year-old working hard to sell a new album nobody had ever heard of.
The location of his very first show is sure to stump even the most serious Garth fans. On Monday, March 27, 1989, at 7:00, he played a public show here, at $5 a ticket. Can you guess where?
If you guessed First Lutheran School on Broadway, you deserve a front-row ticket at Neyland. He was a guest of the Knoxville Songwriters club.
He must have liked Knoxville, because he was back three months later, when he was a little better known. He had a single, his first, climbing the charts: “Much Too Young (Too Feel This Damn Old).” On June 30, he played at the Village Barn, an unusual sort of nightclub out on Asheville Highway, a blue-collar place known for western-style dancing. It was a place so well-known to regulars it didn’t have to advertise much.
He was still in town two days later when he played a show in a very different sort of club. Ella Guru’s, a basement joint in the Old City, was best known for fringe rock’n’roll, avant-garde jazz, and legendary old blues singers. John Lee Hooker, Sun Ra, Bela Fleck, Brian Eno, Wynton Marsalis all played there. Occasionally there’d be a country act, like Emmylou Harris or John Prine. It wasn’t a big place, just room for a few dozen seats, and attendees would often dine while they watched.
On July 2, 1989, Ella Guru’s welcomed a “country newcomer” named Garth Brooks. Tickets were $8—a big investment, compared to the First Lutheran show earlier that year. We understand it wasn’t a sellout. Click here for a photo of the July 1989 show calendar.
But that Sunday night impressed Garth Brooks. A few years later, he remembered it in a song called “The Old Stuff.” It’s on his platinum album, Fresh Horses. “Back when the old stuff was new / Hats off to the KC Opry and Ella Guru’s / It was one big party.”
About two weeks after his show at Ella’s, “Much Too Young” peaked at #8 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart.
Ella Guru’s didn’t last, alas, and the space later became a fondue restaurant called the Melting Pot. However, its manager, Ashley Capps, did all right for himself. He founded AC Entertainment which plans several festivals, one of them called Bonnaroo, and books shows at several downtown venues, including the Tennessee, the Bijou, and the Mill and Mine.
Maybe Garth will be thinking about the Old Stuff when he comes back to town this month, and pop in at First Lutheran, or maybe head down to the Old City and try the fondue.
But next time you’re tempted to stay in and watch American Idol, remember there’s a talent show every night in the clubs of Knoxville. You never know who you’re missing.
Interested in learning more about Ella Guru’s and the Old City in 1980’s? You can purchase a copy of Knoxville’s Old City: A Short History on the KHP Online Store.
I was there for the gig at the Lutheran School, and later for the Ella Guru’s appearance (Garth wasn’t originally on the bill there–it was a “songwriter’s showcase” and AC added him to the bill. He started out sitting in the audience. I know that, because he sat at the front row table with me and my friend Kathy Williams. At the songwriters workshop at the Lutheran School we got to hear “If tomorrow never comes” (which he was thinking was too personal to record!) and the extra verses of “And the Thunder Rolls”. So many great concerts at Ella Guru’s over the years! Such a fantastic venue. I remember seeing Leon Redbone there too. David Keith used to hang out there a lot…saw him at many of the concerts.