No Fences

Garth Brooks

Liberty Records, 1990

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


There has been a resurgence of Garth Brooks as of late. Since coming back into music after taking several years off at the peak of his fame in the early 2000s, he has made new music and held numerous sold out shows. He is a consummate performer, and having been to a couple of his live shows, I can highly recommend going and seeing why he is the biggest selling artist in recorded music history But within the last few months, he has been awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library Of Congress with a live concert taping made for PBS (which I was fortunate enough to attend in person) and released a biographical documentary on Netflix.

So now is a good time to go back 30 years and take a look at the 1990 album No Fences

First, a little history. Brooks had been making, as he says, “700 dollars a week” playing gigs around his hometown in Oklahoma. Thinking he’d make it big with that kind of following, he loaded up and went to Nashville to meet a friend of a friend in who worked at the music performance and royalty association ASCAP. While there, he encountered musician who had come to pick up a check for some of his hits. That check was only for a few hundred dollars, which surprised Brooks. He said he’d been making $700 a week back home, and his ASCAP contact told him if he was making that much then he ought to go back to doing that. So in the space of 24 hours he was back in Oklahoma.

Fortunately for music history, he tried again, and eventually found his way into a studio with producer Allen Reynolds and a contract with Capitol Records to make his 1989 Garth Brooks album. Following on the success of that debut, he released No Fences, which became his biggest selling studio album. And it landed him not only at number one on the country charts but also up to number three on the Billboard 200, where few country artists had trod by that point.

Brooks can be considered an innovator in country music. But it’s important to remember that country in the early ‘90s was still very much country music. It was firmly held in the traditions of earlier country Western and folk that had begun back in the 1920s when country was pretty much the only popular music there was. Therefore, this album is steeped in the themes of home, love, drinking, and heartbreak. But the songs used, some written by Brooks and his writing friends as well as other songwriters, are absolutely superb and a glorious example of not just songwriting but song-my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 smithing. These tracks are finely crafted to maximize the story they tell and the emotions they convey.

“The Thunder Rolls” opens the album dramatically with the stereo sound of rolling thunder and an arpeggiated D minor chord. The story unfolds of a man carrying on affair, about which his wife finds out. The thunder that had earlier been a part of the storm brewing outside becomes the emotions of a tumultuous marriage. A fourth verse had been written and was eliminated from this studio version but is a part of the live performance of this song, which sees the wronged wife going for a pistol in bedroom and leaving us with the final picture of her looking in the mirror knowing “tonight will be the last time she’ll wonder where he’s been / And the thunder rolls... “

Leaving this scene of distress and unstated murder, we find ourselves in a bar, with spurned lovers lined up like birds on a wire finding “A New Way To Fly.” Here, Brooks comes across with a rich baritone reminiscent of his contemporary Randy Travis. This tragedy of love scene replays itself through other songs on the album “Victim Of The Game” and “Same Old Story. “

But it’s not all tragic love and alcoholic depression. “Two Of A Kind, Working On A Full House” is actually one of the best written paeans to marriage and family you’ll ever find. Full of expressions of devotion and double entendre suggesting further martial activities, there is not a word out of place in this story.

Same goes for “Friends In Low Places,” which was actually a song Brooks recorded as a demo for its writers while he was still scraping by in Nashville and just about to record his first album. The highlight of a drinking anthem, it is sung word for word by audiences of thousands when he performs it live.

In a classic nod to the traditions of country where songs of murderous distress and alcoholic despair are paired with songs of faith, Brooks comes in with “Unanswered Prayers.” Here he recounts the all too familiar story of unrequited teenage love in which he is out with his wife and runs into his old high school flame. The first half of the song is reminiscent, smoothly and poetically remembering how he prayed that God would see them together But the second half of the song notes that “she wasn’t quite the angel that I remembered way back then, “ and he looks at his wife and is thankful for God not answering that prayer because after all He knows what He’s doing. A version recorded on Garth Brooks Live has the audience basically singing the song for him, and that is still the case at concerts thirty years on.

Unlike many albums we encounter, there really are no tracks that make you hit the forward button to skip ahead. The weakest is probably “Mr. Blue” which leans a little too much to the “honky-tonk” side of country, but it is still a very listenable track. The album ends with another reference to God in “Wolves.“ Here, a lamentable trend in rural American life, with rising costs and poverty, make its presence felt in a plea to remember and help “the ones the wolves pull down. A powerful closing track that still has a lot of resonance today if not more so.

Country music began making its change in the 1990s into a more pop-oriented genre either in answer to musical trends or possibly in response to the wider music industry taking note through Brooks’ worldwide success that country music was indeed an extremely popular form. Now the most popular artists in the genre have been so influenced by pop and other forms of music that it is really divided between that sound and the more traditional. Music evolves. But it is highly recommended that you get hold of No Fences and catch Brooks at the start of a very wild ride of popularity.

Rating: A

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