Never underestimate the determination of dedicated country music fans, especially when the Holy Grail being sought is the signature of the best selling country artist of all time.
Two women from North Augusta fulfilled that goal the last day of the 26th International Country Music Fan Fair two weeks ago when they finally met Garth Brooks face-to-face outside the security gate of his Nashville area home.
Betty Nunamker and her daughter Linda Allen desperately had wanted to add Mr. Brooks' autograph to a guitar that Linda's 4-year-old son, B.J., had won in 1994 from WKXC-FM in a promotional contest.
"The first two stars we got to sign it were John Michael Montgomery and Sammy Kershaw at a Day in the Country festival," said Mrs. Nunamker, who manages a Smile gas station on Edgefield Road in North Augusta.
Visits to the annual International Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and concerts yielded signatures from Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, David Ball, Patty Loveless, Tracy Lawrence, Vince Gill and members of Shenandoah.
But the one signature that eluded them was that of Mr. Brooks.
They had tried at a Brooks concert in Columbia. Their attempt at a concert in Atlanta was even more heart-breaking.
"I got within a few feet of the stage with the guitar, and a security guard wouldn't let me hand it to him," Mrs. Allen said. "I just broke into tears. I was that close and couldn't get it to him."
By all rights, they should have failed two weeks ago at the 26th Fan Fair gathering.
First, there were 24,000 additional country fans in town from throughout the world that week; all wanting to shake hands with anybody famous. That means country stars usually lay lower than outdoor carpet when not scheduled at a Fan Fair-related function.
Second, Mr. Brooks wasn't supposed to be at any event that week, including his own record company-sponsored show at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. He was spending the week working on a new album due out in August.
But, the two North Augusta women were determined to stay in Music City U.S.A. until they caught their man.
It was a busy week.
Each morning at 6:15, the two women got a call at their motel from Chuck Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson morning radio team on WKXC. He put them on the air daily to tell listeners about their Fan Fair adventures.
It was their lucky week.
"Monday night at Little Texas' fan club party in the Opryland Hotel, I won a beach bag," Mrs. Nunamker said. "Then Tuesday at Martina McBride's fan club party, I won a CD player. Then Wednesday at Confederate Railroad's fan club breakfast, I won a guitar signed by them.
"And Wednesday night, we met Brooks and Dunn at their fan club party, although we had to stand in line until 3 a.m."
At a fan club party for the band Blackhawk, the two women latched onto a crucial piece of information: Mr. Brooks' address in the Nashville suburb of Goodlettsville.
"When Fan Fair closed at 3 p.m. on the last day, we decided to try to find Garth's house," Mrs. Allen said.
"We messed around and got there about 6 p.m.," she continued. "We hadn't stopped five minutes outside his security gate when the gate opened and out came a steel gray-colored Suburban. It pulled over right near us, and I said, `Oh my goodness, Momma, it's him!' We opened our doors and jumped out.
"Before we got a chance to go to him, Garth already was at our car with his hand extended to shake hands. He said, `Who are y'all ladies?' and he asked us our names."
For the monumental meeting, Mrs. Nunamker was wearing a Brooks & Dunn T-shirt and a Confederate Railroad badge.
Mr. Brooks was sweaty and was wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt. He apologized for his looks and told the women that he had been baling hay for his horses and that he was three hours late to a recording session.
Mrs. Allen gathered her wits enough to grab her video camera and start filming before switching to a still camera. They took photos separately with Mr. Brooks and then got a guard on the nearby security gate to take a photo of all three of them.
"There was nobody there but us," Mrs. Nunamker said. "He was real nice. He was just super."
They told Mr. Brooks about the gift guitar and the signatures for Mrs. Allen's son and about how they had missed their chances to meet him in Columbia and Atlanta.
"We told him about being from Augusta and doing the interviews each morning for Kicks 99," Mrs. Allen said. "He said, `Augusta, Georgia. I played there on the river at the amphitheater.' It just blew our minds that he remembered that.
"We looked all through my car for a Sharpie pen for him to sign the guitar, but we couldn't find one, and he looked but didn't have one in his car," Mrs. Allen said. "We borrowed a ballpoint pen from the security guard, and Garth signed the guitar. I didn't even attempt to give the pen back to the guard. I've got it in a plastic bag now. Garth was the last to use it."
With the guitar signed and pictures taken, it was time for the superstar to say goodbye and head for his recording session.
"When he was gone, the security guard told us how lucky we were," said Mrs. Allen. "He said some fans had sat there for hours all week and never saw him and that one girl waited 18 hours and never got to see him."
Before leaving for home the next day, Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Nunamker returned to the entrance of Mr. Brooks' driveway.
"I wrote him a nice little note thanking him," Mrs. Allen said, "and I left it attached to the gate."
Don Rhodes has written about country music for 26 years.