NORMAN — Garth Brooks stood triumphantly on what any other day he might have considered enemy territory: a massive stage on the south end of University of Oklahoma's football stadium.
“You know, I find it very interesting that the second something bad happens, all the sudden borders between states mean nothing. All the borders between cities mean nothing. All the sudden where you went to college means nothing. ... You've treated me like one of you guys tonight, so I will salute you with the only way I know how from where I'm from, with the cowboy salute of honor,” the Oklahoma State University graduate exclaimed, striding to all points of the stage to wave his white cowboy hat to the screaming crowd.
“God bless you Oklahoma! I love this place!” the country music superstar bellowed as his band played the final bars of an extended version of his smash ballad “The Dance.”
The Owasso resident wasn't the only superstar to express such unifying sentiments along with using his formidable musical talents to thrill the more than 60,000 fans Saturday at the Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert. Nor was the Country Music Hall of Famer the only one on the star-studded lineup to add “God bless Toby Keith” to his outpouring of support for the tornado-torn Sooner State.
“Toby Keith gets my vote for man of the year,” “Cabo Wabo” singer Sammy Hagar said as he closed his set with an inspirational request “Eagles Fly.”
“When Toby asked to be here there was no question. I dropped everything. I was supposed to be in Cabo, OK? Now, that's giving it up. That's OK. Cabo ain't going nowhere. I had to be here, right here, right now.”
The show Saturday set a record for the largest paid audience for a concert in the history of OU's stadium, exceeding attendance for previous monster musical draws Rolling Stones and U2, said Keith's publicist Elaine Schock. The concert is believed to be one of the biggest in state history.
Gov. Mary Fallin introduced Keith's closing performance, declaring “What a great day in Oklahoma.”
“May was a very tough month for our state, a very tough month for our people in our great state, and we have shown time and time again that when things are challenging in our state, our people come back and they come back Oklahoma strong. And we are proving that we are a resilient people,” Fallin said, thanking Keith and the other stars who put on the show.
In addition to closing the event, Keith, who was born in Clinton, raised in Moore and now lives in Norman, organized and hosted the sold-out charity show at OU's Gaylord Family — Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Net proceeds benefit the United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund.
“It was like herding cats. You've got a lot of managers, you've got a lot of artists, you've got a lot of folks ... that you've got to deal with to make everybody's happy. So we've had to go through all that,” Keith told media backstage Saturday afternoon shortly after his daughter, Krystal Keith, belted the national anthem to open the show.
“But everybody's here for the right reasons, and it's gonna be a big show for Oklahoma ... and it's gonna take care of some people for a long time.”
Brooks' wife and fellow Owasso resident Trisha Yearwood, former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn, Texas icon Willie Nelson, “Swinging” hit maker John Anderson and Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis also expressed their admiration for and condolences to the Sooner State in between playing their biggest hits.
“I'm a Georgia girl, but I've been an honorary Okie for the last 12 years. And I'm honored to be a part of this community. And we're so happy that we're here to have fun and start that healing process. You guys are amazing and you show the world how resilient that you are. God bless you. God bless you, Oklahoma,” Yearwood said before performing her emotional smash “How Do I Live” as a tribute to her adopted home state.
Carrie Underwood, who hails from Checotah, even beamed in via satellite from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., to dedicate her hit ballads “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “See You Again” to her native state.
Bethel Acres native Wade Hayes made a special appearance before Keith's set to play one song.
For Keith, Saturday's cause was particularly personal: His hometown of Moore was devastated by the May 20 EF5 tornado that killed 24 people and destroyed homes, businesses and schools.
“Cameras just can't quite capture ... the magnitude of how violent they are,” he said. “It's probably exactly what a war zone looks like.”
Dunn said he and his wife got too close for comfort to the May 19 Shawnee tornado while traveling on his tour bus from their home in Santa Fe, N.M., to Nashville, and then stopped overnight only to awaken to ominous skies and TV images of the Moore twister.
“We took off and started running east toward Nashville and ran parallel to the storm most of the way home and watched everything on CNN and the Weather Channel on the way in,” said Dunn, who regards Oklahoma “as much home to me as anyplace.” “I've been around them before but that's as close as I've come to anything that destructive and that big.”
Pat Petrossian, a die-hard 20-year fan of Keith and Dunn, came all the way from Carlsbad, Calif., to watch two of her favorite stars play as well as to lend her support to Oklahoma.
“I just wanted to come and see the devastation and then enjoy the concert and everyone coming together,” said Petrossian, 68, who estimated she has seen Keith in concert more than 100 times all over the country, including in the Oklahoma City area, where he hasn't played in almost a decade. “This has absolutely been wonderful. ... I think it's really good for the people of Oklahoma. I know everyone here knows who he is but I think it's good for them to see him as an entertainer.”
Watching from the front row as Nelson crooned “Good Hearted Woman,” Calvin Schwab, 22, of Norman said he weathered a scary close call May 19 when the tornado that went on to hit Shawnee originated about a mile from his house near Lake Thunderbird.
“This is freaking great. I love it,” he said of the star-studded show. “I'm glad I've had the opportunity to sit right here and see it.”
Backstage, Brooks said the show is benefiting Oklahoma tornado victims statewide.
“I think we're here to support human beings 'cause we can't forget about Shawnee, can't forget about El Reno, all those towns around here where we grew up,” said Brooks, who grew up in Yukon. “Everyone outside of Oklahoma, I'd like them to know that this is where resilience lives.”