The last time Garth Brooks stood on a stage in South Florida, he paused, early in the show, cowboy hat in hand, for a moment of contrition.
"My apologies for not coming down here a hell of a lot sooner," he told the crowd at the first of three sold-out concerts.
It was an April night in 1996 at the late Miami Arena, and the singer's remorse acknowledged the fact he then had not performed in South Florida since his local debut in 1990, when he played third fiddle to Eddie Rabbit and Miss Chili Pepper on the undercard at the Chili Cookoff in Pembroke Pines' C.B. Smith Park.
He returned a superstar: All the 46,000 tickets for the three Miami Arena concerts, priced at $19, were sold in 48 minutes, a record for the venue.
After waiting nearly 20 years, South Florida country-music fans are still in a forgiving mood. Tickets for Brooks' concerts scheduled for Jan. 15-16 at the BB&T Center in Sunrise moved so quickly when they went on sale in November that a third show was added for Thursday, Jan. 14. Tickets remain for the Thursday concert, with the Jan. 15-16 shows virtually sold out.
The performances are part of a world tour, with Brooks accompanied by his wife, singer and Food Network star Trisha Yearwood, in support of "Man Against Machine," a well-reviewed collection of his typical country-pop dalliances, homespun earnestness and good humor. It's Brooks' first studio album since "Scarecrow" in 2001.
When Brooks performed at the Chili Cookoff in 1990, we didn't know that we were hearing the singer who would dominate country music, heck, popular music, for the next decade. His eponymous debut LP was out, and selling well, but so were albums by Clint Black and Steve Wariner.
The album's cover was suspicious, depicting Brooks in the woods as a dandified, Stetson-topped frat boy (the striped shirt would become a trendsetting look. The turtleneck not so much). And he had yet to release the album's signature single, "The Dance," which would go on to be named the Academy of Country Music's 1990 Song of the Year.
Later that year came "No Fences," the album that christened Brooks a crossover star, too, at No. 3 on Billboard's pop albums chart.
The Oklahoma native made no effort to conceal his rock and pop impulses, and if his reach has sometimes exceeded his grasp (anyone remember Chris Gaines?), even hardcore country fans acknowledge that "No Fences" provided a song for the ages, one that would be right at home on an album by Waylon, Willie and the boys: "Friends in Low Places."
Paula Tolly, of the Boca Raton-based country-rock band 33 Years, is a fan of Brooks' "classic storytelling."
"He's up there as one of the top singers of all time. He's definitely going to go down in history as one of the great ones," she says. "I'm super excited about what he's going to be doing, because he's been off the radar screen for quite a while now, and country music has changed dramatically. There are so many other influences now."
Tolly says the audience for her band's covers of such songwriters as Lucinda Williams and Johnny Cash shows special enthusiasm when 33 Years breaks out "Low Places."
"Everybody knows it. There's folks that just come out of the woodwork, and they know all the lyrics," says Tolly, who can be heard with 33 Years on Saturday at the West Palm Beach Green Market (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) and at the Deerfield Beach restaurant Tip A Roo and Crazy Larry Too (8 p.m.-midnight), and Jan. 17 at the South Florida Horse Expo at the Bergeron Rodeo Grounds in Davie.
For all the crossover success of Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and other modern country crooners who have adopted many of the arena-rock flourishes that initially made him so controversial, Brooks stands apart. "Man Against Machine," a November, 2014, release certified platinum, joins a discography that ranks Brooks the top-selling U.S. solo artist of all time with 136 million albums sold.
Brooks' tour, which began in 2014 and has included a six-show run in Boston, seven in Dallas and 11 in Chicago, picks up where he left off when he retired from the road in 2000. According to a reviewer for the urbane CultureMap in Houston (eight shows in four nights), Brooks is all about giving the people what they want at these shows, telling the audience, "When I come to a concert, I want to hear the old stuff."
He has been opening his set with "Man Against Machine" and later offering the new album's "All American Kid," but otherwise leans on the tried-and-true hits stretching all the way back to "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)." As you might expect, he's been fooling around with a few covers of songs by artists such as George Strait ("Amarillo by Morning"), Billy Joel ("Piano Man"), Bob Seger ("Night Moves") and Bob Dylan ("Make You Feel My Love"). One might think a version of 1992's "We Shall Be Free" would be appropriate these days.
A country star in her own right, Yearwood has been joining her husband onstage for a duet on their 1998 hit "In Another's Eyes," which introduces a five-song Yearwood solo set, before Brooks returns.
Reviews have been uniformly positive, both in the Facebook peanut gallery and from grizzled critics. Music writer Chuck Yarborough of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland (four shows in two nights), put Brooks' show at No. 1 on his list of last year's favorite concerts: "This wasn't just the best concert of 2015; this was one of the best concerts I've seen in 10 years. Brooks has every bit of energy and charisma today that he had two decades ago."
Garth Brooks will perform 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14 and 7 p.m. Jan. 15-16 at the BB&T Center, 2555 Panther Parkway, in Sunrise. He will be joined onstage by his wife, singer Trisha Yearwood. Tickets cost $60.83, plus fees. Call 954-835-7000 or go to TheBBTCenter.com.