1990, Music

No Fences (1990) by Garth Brooks

I honestly thought Garth Brooks was a songwriter. I have a memory of channel-surfing and finding a show on which he and some other country songwriters were discussing songs they wrote. So I just assumed he wrote all or most of his material. Going by this album, his breakout hit, he doesn’t. (He co-writes 4 of the 10 tracks, and half of those are co-writes with two others.)

Why does it matter who wrote the material? Well, of the 5 singles here, Brooks co-wrote 2 of them. The song from this album that literally everyone alive at the time knows – the one about drunkenly interrupting a wedding (or something) to sing about your friends in bars – wasn’t written by Brooks. I just assumed it was and I would assume most of us would. Country’s a weird genre when it comes to this stuff but it’s worth thinking about how little of this material is Brooks’ own when thinking about other things about this record. (I.e. if it’s the material that saves it for you, think about that.)

This is, of course, one of the biggest country albums of all time. It might have been the biggest ever when it was released (I don’t know), going 18 times platinum (!!!) in the US, 7 times in Canada, 5 times in Ireland (what the fuck?!?!) ane even platinum in Australia. Is this due to Brooks’ charisma? Sure, in part. It’s certainly not due to his songwriting on its own. But there’s something else going on.

Speaking of Brooks – I didn’t realize his accent was so strong, nor did I expect as many traditional country touches on this record. When he speaks, he sure doesn’t sound like this. I get why he might sing like this on a song like “Two of Kind” because I assume the original has that accent too. But it’s interesting to hear such a strong country twang with fiddle and peddle steel on some songs, and then hear what’s going on in some of the other arrangements.

Because what’s going on is, to the best of my knowledge, the birth of Arena Country. Maybe it existed before this record but songs like “The Thunder Rolls”, “Victim of the Game” and “Unanswered Prayers” take pretty conventional country songs and add a hell of a lot of pop rock accoutrements, particularly in the drums (and the strings, when they show up). These arrangements are quite betrayals of the genre quite yet – as some have suggested – but they are certainly on the way there. If I hadn’t grown up hearing this stuff I would think there’s something very strange about putting this kind of false drama in a country song, a form that usually doesn’t lack for emotional pull.

Still, much of this record is more country than I was expecting, which is too its credit.  So I find myself torn between the part of me that wants to shit on it for contributing to ’90s country’s polish, and another part that still views it as country, if very slick country.

And there’s no denying the record’s influence (or success). People heard this and thought “This is a formula we can replicate: country enough for the demographic but much bigger”. And here we are 30 years later, where most commercial country is not recognizable as country compared to, say, Hank Williams.


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