Hearing Garth Brooks' No Fences for the Very First Time
Have you seen this man?
Twenty-two years ago this week, Garth Brooks' second album, No Fences entered the charts and made itself comfortable. It was a titanic, monumental record for country music, eventually going platinum 17 times over on its way to becoming a global smash.
No Fences is often credited with ushering in a new era of commercialized country with crossover appeal, and it played a major role in making Brooks virtually inescapable on the radio dial in Texas for years.
Until this week, I had never heard it.
In the small Texas towns in which I grew up, country music was practically a religion, and in the early '90s Garth Brooks was its pope. Any refusal to unabashedly love "Friends in Low Places" was seen by my classmates as a bizarre apostasy only slightly less insulting than spitting on the cross.
Brooks' dumb cowboy hat and super-duper popularity made him a convenient symbol of the white-trash conformity and shit-kicking ignorance that I perceived all around me, and I avoided his music like the wrong side of town. He was just so... not Metallica.
For a good while there, Garth was playing concerts in Central Park and hosting Saturday Night Live. I figured he'd be around forever. But then he was gone: Retired, I heard. I found new music to passionately hate without ever hearing it, and I forgot about No Fences until I read about this week's anniversary.
Suddenly, I was intrigued. What might a grown man with an open mind think about those songs my adolescent self rejected without consideration? What would No Fences sound like to country-virgin ears, decades after its release?
To find out, I'd have to locate a copy. I realized very quickly that No Fences was not available on any of my usual streaming services, including Spotify and YouTube. It wasn't up for download at the iTunes Store or Amazon, either. Calls placed to two large record stores, a Best Buy and even a Walmart proved fruitless. Shockingly, none of my friends owned up to owning a copy.
How could one of the biggest-selling albums of all time be so hard to get? Even the Beatles are on iTunes now! Hey, I've downloaded a torrent or two in my time, but Garth Brooks is the first artist that literally forced me to steal his music if I wanted to hear it.
No Fences starts out on a familiar note. "The Thunder Rolls" was one of the omnipresent hits that made Garth, Garth in the early '90s. It still sounds like a hit today, deploying bombastic rock flourishes to electrify Brooks' soft, country crooning. It's got just enough lyrical pathos, anthemic melody and bangin' backbeat to be known even to me - the very definition of a crossover success, I'd say. Let's call it a success and move on.
After "The Thunder Rolls," No Fences slows down in a hurry. The twanged-out country gospel of "New Way to Fly" reminded me of junior-high dances and the odd, side-to-side shuffling that passes for slow-dancing for feckless white kids. Brooks' voice sounds fine, but this kind of thing has been done so very much better by others.
I can't be sure, but I think "Victim of the Game" is probably the kind of song the haters grouse about when they're bitching Garth out for not being "real country." It's easy to see where those people are coming from. There's a hint of lap steel in the mix, sure, but this could have been a Neil Diamond song.
"Wild Horses" sounds more like the Eagles than Clint Black, and the synthy, pillowy R&B of "Same Old Story" wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Lionel Richie album. "Mr. Blue" sounds like something Paul Simon wrote.
There's no denying that traditional country music is only one of a few inspirations jockeying for supremacy on No Fences. It's no surprise this disc was a crossover hit, with all the soft-rock, pop, folk and even loud guitar riffs that are present, fused together by Brooks' soft and pleasant voice. But the best bits here are his big hooks, not the stories he's telling.
Not all of it holds up. The ballad "Unanswered Prayers," with its gigantic drums and faux strings on the chorus, sounds like a '80s relic best forgotten. I can't say I'm hoping to hear the dull ballad "Wolves" again anytime soon, either. But the terrific "Friends In Low Places" manages to strike the perfect balance between country singalong, rock stomp and pop songcraft, and you can dance to it, to boot. Not that I plan on it.
Interested as I was in the unfamiliar "deep cuts" from No Fences, it's the huge choruses of "Friends" and "The Thunder Rolls" that remain this album's legacy. The fact that they're two of the only songs played on country radio that a country-hater like me knew growing up is no coincidence. They were bigger, slicker and more fun to sing along to than Paula Abdul and the other pop oddities on the charts in 1990.
So is No Fences a forgotten classic that's increasingly hard to find, or is it a relic best left behind in the pre-Clinton '90s? I didn't find it to be either, exactly.
The dated pop production of much of the material gives it high degree of disposability, but when all the elements come together as they do on "Friends" - Garth's gentle croon, foot-stompin' fiddling, and unforgettable choruses -- it's not so easy to dismiss as brainless.
More than anything, No Fences served as something of a time capsule, a window into an era of country music that I built up barricades against in forming an adolescent identity. Stripped of its context, the album was mostly a curiosity that served as a handy carrying case for a couple of tunes I remember hearing on the rides at the county fair as a kid.
The only difference is, a time capsule would have been easier to dig up.
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