Weekend Listening: No Fences by Garth Brooks
Album: No Fences by Garth Brooks
Released: 27 August 1990 from Capitol Nashville
Recommended if you like: Garth Brooks; songs with strong storytelling; country music; Garth fucking Brooks
Notable Tracks: “The Thunder Rolls”, “Two Of A Kind, Workin’ On A Full House”, “Friends in Low Places”, “Unanswered Prayers”
Yep, we’re gonna fuckin’ do this.
I grew up in Kentucky, so my love of country music is basically inescapable (and I don’t want to escape it anymore, although I sure as hell tried for years). I grew up in Kentucky in the ’90s, so my love of Garth Brooks was inescapable. Still, I tried to put on a front for the past ten years or so–acting like I’d outgrown Garth, like moving to a big city made me too cosmopolitan to listen to his music. Even when I started listening to country again, I eschewed Garth for the most part, focusing instead on artists Reba, Brooks & Dunn, and Diamond Rio.
I don’t know why my teenhood passion for Garth Brooks embarrassed me. There was that one song he did, “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association,” that talks about being pissed off that your taxes go to those “standing in the welfare line”; stuff like that smacks of redneck Toby Keith-esque Gods-Guns-and-USA kind of country music. Then I re-listened to “Friends in Low Places” at some point and thought, “wow, the protagonist of this song is actually kind of a menacing dick” instead of feeling the sense of camaraderie most country fans feel when they hear it.
I felt conflicted in that way that most people I know who grew up southern feel conflicted when we look back at our culture from the outside: are the things we used to love things that we should continue to love? I listened to Garth seldom, only when home alone, sneakily, headphones in (but singing along).
In my embarrassment, I neglected to remember that Garth’s music mostly doesn’t have Tea Partier overtones in it. (He didn’t even write that song. Also, he loves President Obama.) As far as “Friends in Low Places” goes–well, hell, nobody ever said that all of his songs are about upstanding citizens. The album opener, “The Thunder Rolls,” sure as hell isn’t. I think these were all excuses, really: I was finding reasons to be critical because, well, loving Garth Brooks was so damn obvious. It wasn’t in the dominion of this person I had become, the girl who listens to ’80s post-punk and goes to see New Order in concert. I let hipsterish tendencies crowd out my genuine enjoyment of his music.
Then Garth came out of retirement and went on a world tour. A world tour with several dates in Columbus, Ohio, where I live. And the 13-year-old obsessed fangirl inside me grabbed me by the ear and said, “Listen up: we are going to fucking see Garth Brooks and I’m not taking no for an answer, goddamn it.” (I really did talk like that when I was 13. I started reading Stephen King at 11; you do the math.)
The dam opened and my unabashed love for Garth came pouring out. I still have most of my old CDs and I’ve been listening to them on repeat for weeks now. No Fences is special to me because it was the first Garth album I ever bought, probably in fourth grade because that’s the year I had a crush on this smart asshole in my class who loved Garth Brooks. Other than “The Dance” on his eponymous album, I think it also has one of the highest concentrations of songs that even non-fans have heard. It might be his best album, though I think Garth Brooks definitely contends for that spot. (Cue every Garth fan thrashing this out with their pick for best album. BRING IT.)
For a country album, No Fences has an interesting mix of sounds; a lot of his albums do, in fact, because Garth Brooks has musical influences all over the map. You’ll find rock influences like Billy Joel, KISS, and Queen in his background, and singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Jim Croce. It’s undeniably country, but there’s finger-pickin’ you could find in any classic art-rock song in “The Thunder Rolls” alongside ass-kicking electric guitar licks. In “New Way To Fly,” the bluesy-western piano kicks in and the ebb-and-flow rhythm sound more familiar to country fans. There are subtle, mournful gospel overtones in the chorus, when the music swells and singers kick in with harmonies. “Two Of A Kind, Workin’ On A Full House” is straight up modern country with wordplay and shout-outs to blue jeans and pickup trucks.
Every song has its own sound, but there are threads pulling them together–not the least of which is Garth Brooks’s honeyed voice and gentle Oklahoma drawl. Brooks also has a penchant for storytelling in his songs (or for working with other songwriters who tell stories; most of his albums, if not all of them, have at least one song about cowboys or rodeos, and the song “Wild Horses” on No Fences is one of my favorites. “Unanswered Prayers” explores another common Brooks theme, the “revisiting old loves” theme.
Brooks also did a couple of covers for the album, characteristically making them his own; “Mr. Blue” was a #1 hit for The Fleetwoods, and “Same Old Story” was written by Tony Arata (who also wrote “The Dance”). Fun fact: “Mr. Blue” was written by Dewayne Blackwell in or before 1959; the same Dewayne Blackwell co-wrote “Friends In Low Places” in 1989.
If Garth ever reads this (hahaha yeah right), I hope he knows I’m sorry from the bottom of my fangirl heart for neglecting him all this time. I have a lot of years of listening to Garth Brooks to catch up on. I highly recommend that you pop No Fences in and listen along with me. Blame it all on my roots, y’all.