1989 was a watershed year for country music when an unusually high number of artists enjoyed their commercial breakthroughs. Garth Brooks initially emerged as a member of the Class of 1989 and although from the beginning he was a solid performer, few would have guessed that he would soon emerge as the biggest star in music, regardless of genre. He began to break away from the pack with “The Dance”, which was the final single released from his debut album. By the time his 1990 sophomore disc No Fences was released, it was obvious that he was on his way to superstardom.
“Friends In Low Places”, written by DeWayne Blackwell and Earl Bud Lee, was the album’s first single. It took only eight weeks to reach #1, where it remained for four weeks. The delightfully rowdy drinking song went on to become Garth’s best known recording. It won the 1990 Single of the Year award from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. It may have been the album’s biggest hit, but it is not my favorite, perhaps partially due to the fact that it was overplayed by radio.
On several of its tracks, No Fences marked a subtle shift towards a softer, more middle-of-the-road sound, as opposed to Garth’s very traditional debut album. The album’s second single, the ballad “Unanswered Prayers” included a string arrangement which, though subtle and tastefully restrained, marked the beginning of a shift away from the ultra-traditional sound that had dominated country music during the last half of the 1980s. “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House”, on the other hand, was very traditional. The more contemporary and controversial “The Thunder Rolls” was the album’s final single. Written by Garth and Pat Alger, it tells the tale of a worried wife waiting during a thunder storm for her cheating husband to come home. It was originally recorded by Tanya Tucker but her version went unreleased until it was included on her 1994 boxed set. Garth’s version omits the final verse, in which the wife takes a gun and plans to kill her philandering spouse, leaving many who only knew Garth’s version to wonder what the controversy was about. Indeed, there really was no controversy at first, until the accompanying video with its graphic scenes of domestic violence, was released. It was the first but certainly not the last controversy of Garth’s career. TNN refused to play the video unless a disclaimer was included. CMT, which had initially played the clip, also pulled it. It nevertheless was awarded the Video of the Year Award by the CMA in 1991.
All of the aforementioned singles were #1 hits. A fifth single was eventually released more than a decade later, when “Wild Horses”, with a re-recorded vocal track was inexplicably sent to radio in between singles from Garth’s then-current Scarecrow album. It only reached #7 and isn’t one of Garth’s best remembered hits today, but it has always been one of my favorites.
Notable among the album cuts is “Victim of the Game”, a Garth co-write with Mark D. Sanders. Garth’s future wife Trisha Yearwood covered the song a year later on her debut album. The album’s most unusual track is Garth’s cover of the 1959 Fleetwoods hit “Mr. Blue”, which had been written by “Friends In Low Places” co-writer DeWayne Blackwell. The twang added to appeal to country fans is overdone and this track has to be considered a misstep on an otherwise very solid album.
While I don’t like No Fences as much as Garth’s first album, it sold more than 17 million copies and established him as an international superstar well beyond the usual confines of country music and for that reason alone it was a landmark album and a game changer. Garth’s rising tide lifted the boat of many other country stars and for a while country music, at least in North America, was outselling every other genre of music. Unfortunately, it set the bar high and none of Garth’s subsequent albums were ever able to match it. Most country fans, if they don’t already own a copy, have probably at least heard the album, but those who somehow managed to miss it won’t have any trouble tracking down a copy.