March 21, 2018 05:05 PM

When Chris Janson arrived in Nashville 13 years ago, he had only two career goals: to hear his songs on the radio and to perform on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. But to actually become an Opry member? That was beyond his wildest dreams.

Yet on Tuesday night, the top-selling artist, who has performed over 100 times on the Opry, discovered even wildest dreams can come true when he was welcomed into country music’s most hallowed family circle.

Could it possibly get any better than that? Oh my, yes. His hero, country legend (and Opry member) Garth Brooks, was the one who joined Janson on the Grand Ole Opry House stage to induct him.

“This will be – no matter how many times you look back on it – the greatest night in your music career,” Brooks said, his voice trembling with emotion. “It was in mine.”

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Brooks’ appearance was a surprise to the sold-out crowd, but not to Janson, who’d held the secret for a week that the reigning CMA entertainer of the year had been tapped to do the honors. Last December, Janson was Brooks’ choice to help him close out his record-setting tour; the 31-year-old artist performed an opening set at Brooks’ final show, in Nashville.

Janson wept as Brooks, 56, draped an arm over the Opry’s newest member and recalled his own tearful induction in 1990. “All I know to do is just pass it down – what Johnny Russell said to me,” Brooks said of the country star who ushered him in. “He put his arm around me … and he said, ‘Enjoy it, son. Enjoy it.’”

Chris Janson and Garth Brooks.

With a vice grip on the Opry trophy that Brooks had just handed him, Janson soaked in the cheers. “How do you not cry during this?” he said, tears streaming down his face. “I don’t know.”

Earlier, Janson told reporters he had stayed up until 4 a.m. the night before, preparing for his moment by watching videos of every Opry invitation and induction he could find on the internet. Janson’s own invitation arrived in February when Opry member Keith Urban surprised him during Janson’s sold-out show at Ryman Auditorium.

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On the Opry House stage, Janson recalled his first days in Nashville playing four-hour shifts at Tootsie’s, the downtown honky-tonk that shares an alley with the legendary Ryman, which is still the Opry’s occasional home.

“I just remember Marty Stuart and multiple Opry stars going to the Ryman and thinking, dang, man, I just want to go there and I just want to do that,” he said. “And now to be a member is …”

For once, the singer’s vocal cords failed him. “This,” he finally said, “is my lifeblood. To know me is to know … I really, truly do love the Grand Ole Opry.”

Chris Janson.
Grand Ole Opry

Before Brooks’ arrival on stage, Janson had entertained the crowd with his raucous No. 1 hits, “Buy Me a Boat” and “Fix a Drink.” Taking a seat at the piano, he dialed it down with a cover of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and his poignant new single, “Drunk Girl.” After the induction, he chose to finish the set with the first song he performed at Tootsie’s, “Folsom Prison Blues,” telling the audience he “never would have gotten” to this pinnacle “without the sweet songs of Johnny Cash.”

Surely it wasn’t lost on Janson that he and that country icon were now in the same family.

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