Thirty years ago, Garth Brooks released his breakthrough album No Fences. Powered by instant classics such as “Friends in Low Places,” “The Thunder Rolls,” and “Unanswered Prayers,” the record would ultimately sell 18 million copies. In the process, it transformed Brooks into a stadium-filling phenomenon and redefined the parameters for success in country music. The album is a quintessential piece of what we now call ’90s County, a hybrid of neo-traditional country twang mixed with ’70s-style acoustic rock and pop balladry.
Listening to No Fences with three decades of hindsight, it’s clear Brooks is more than a singer. He’s an epic storyteller. Whether he’s singing about bank foreclosures, religious epiphanies at high school football games or going to that place where “the whiskey drowns, and the beer chases” one’s blues away, he delivers every line as if he’s trying to convey some deep universal truth. Like many a country star before and after him, Brooks is a master of interpreting other people’s words. Though he co-wrote several of the songs, he sings every track as if it’s his own.
The origin stories behind many of the songs are a bit more complicated. In Nashville, where songwriting and performing are often separate professions, the notion of what’s an original and what’s a cover is sometimes murky. A songwriter will write a tune and multiple singers will record it until it becomes a hit. As a result, often you’ll have numerous versions of a song released in a very short span by different artists.
No Fences is no exception to this rule. Many of the songs were recorded multiple times before Brooks included them on the album. Of the ten tracks, three songs are cover songs in the traditional sense of the word, in that Brooks was not the first person to record or release them. “The Thunder Rolls” was first recorded by Tanya Tucker, though she did not release it until several years later. In the case of “Friends in Low Places,” the origin story is even more convoluted as at least three artists, including Brooks, have been credited with the first recording. So, as we explore covers of every single song on this record, we’ll highlight some of these other versions of the tracks.
Strangely, given the album’s genre-defining success, there are not too many officially recorded covers. One could say the same for Brooks’ whole catalog. According to Secondhandsongs.com, his most-covered tune is “If Tomorrow Never Comes” from his 1989 self-titled debut, which has 32 covers. Not exactly huge numbers for one of the best-selling solo artists of all time. To pick up the slack, plenty of guys and gals with guitars have taken to YouTube to pay homage to Brooks and occasionally add something new.
Now, without further ado, “Blame it all on my roots …”
Dead Season – The Thunder Rolls – (Garth Brooks cover)
Of all the tracks on No Fences, “The Thunder Rolls” has inspired the most cross-genre covers, specifically heavy metal covers. It is a cheating song co-written by Brooks and first recorded by Tanya Tucker in 1989 (though she did not release it until 1995). The song was Brooks’ first single to break away from the traditional country sound and into hard rock territory. Dead Season’s cover pushes the song into full hardcore mode. Lead vocalist Ian Truman sings the intro and early verses in a menacing tone. He then utters a series of barbaric yowls as he screams out “the thunder rolls and the lighting strikes.”
Jacob Bitterly – New Way To Fly (Garth Brooks cover)
Anyone who thought Brooks had forsaken country for hard rock on “The Thunder Rolls,” must have been surprised to hear “New Way To Fly.” On the album’s second track, Brooks’ shifted back into the George Strait/Randy Travis-style neo-traditional country that defined his debut. Secondhandsongs.com lists just one official cover of this country slow dancer. Among the many YouTube versions, Jacob Bitterly delivers a heartfelt rendition after describing how he first got a copy of No Fences on cassette for his birthday as a kid.
Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks – Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House (Dennis Robbins cover)
In the ‘80s, before joining the Allman Brothers Band, Warren Haynes was starting to make a name for himself in Nashville, playing guitar in country outlaw David Allan Coe’s band. Around this time, Haynes, along with Bobby Boyd and country singer Dennis Robbins, penned “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House.” Robbins’ subsequent single made it to number 71 on the country charts in 1987. It subsequently went to number one when Brooks covered it on No Fences. The upbeat country rocker uses card playing and crop rearing imagery as metaphors for marriage and family. Haynes has taken to performing the song live in recent years, turning it into a rowdy piece of roadhouse country blues. Here’s a version of him playing it alongside fellow Allman Brother Derek Trucks in 2018.
Trisha Yearwood – Victim of the Game (Garth Brooks cover)
The story of Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood’s working relationship turned romance is now part of Nashville legend. Long before they married, she sang backup for him on his early records, including No Fences, before becoming a star herself. On her 1991 self-titled debut, she repurposed “Victim of the Game,” a song co-written by Brooks. She does not change much about the breakup ballad, proving that she was just as adept a vocalist as her future spouse.
Mark Chesnutt – Friends in Low Places (Originally recorded by …)
There is no consensus on who did the original version of “Friends in Low Places.” The official origin story is that Brooks recorded a demo of the track on behalf of songwriters Earl Bud Lee and Dewayne Blackwell just before his self-titled debut came out in 1989. Brooks was so enamored with the song he asked them not to give it to any other artists so he could record it for his second album and they agreed. He subsequently released it as a single in August 1990 and it went on to become a country classic.
However, several websites credit the first official release to David Chamberlain in 1989. Additionally, before Brooks could record it, country singer Mark Chesnutt cut a version for his 1990 debut album Too Cold at Home, which came out just two weeks after No Fences. There’s no question Brooks’ version is the definitive. Chesnutt’s rendition of “Friends in Low Places,” is a more somber, drown-in-your-sorrows drinking song than Brooks’ rowdy sing-along. Still, it’s fascinating to listen and compare the two.
Ganey Arsement – Wild Horses (Garth Brooks cover)
Not to be confused with the Rolling Stones’ song of the same name. This is a neo-traditional country song about love and the rodeo. There are not many official covers, so once again we’ll have to go to the YouTube recordings. Ganey Arsement’s take is the standout. Unlike so many YouTubers, he does not sound like he’s trying to channel Brooks. With an acoustic guitar in hand, he sings the song with the quiet thoughtfulness of a singer/songwriter.
Marcus Words – Unanswered Prayers (Garth Brooks cover)
“Unanswered Prayers” tells the story of a married man attending a high school football game, running into his ex-girlfriend and subsequently thanking God for, well, “Unanswered Prayers.” Whenever Brooks’ performs the track live, the crowd typically sings every line to the song. In this striking cover, Marcus Words drops the country twang and sings it as a piece of folk-gospel. When he hits the final chorus, his voice is so powerful it feels like it could fill a stadium, too.
Tanya Tucker – Same Old Story (Tony Arata cover)
Before Tony Arata wrote Brooks’ breakthrough hit “The Dance,” he recorded and released an album called Changes on an independent label in 1986. The album included his song “Same Old Story,” a song the label released as a single, but which failed to chart. Tanya Tucker recorded it in 1987. As with “The Thunder Rolls” she did not release the song then, but later included it on her 1995 box set. “Same Old Story” is a breakup song that tells about “One heart holding on, one letting go.” Tucker’s version has more of a glossy pop feel, with a heavy emphasis on the keyboards. Her voice keeps it country as she sings it in her signature raspy style, capturing the song’s inherent sadness.
David Bromberg – Mr. Blue (The Fleetwoods cover)
“Mr. Blue” was originally recorded by the doo-wop group the Fleetwoods in 1959. It was written by DeWayne Blackwell, who decades later co-wrote “Friends in Low Places.” I’ve always speculated that Brooks included “Mr. Blue” as a way of upping Blackwell songwriter’s percentage for album sales. Listening to the many different covers of the song, it’s very possible that Brooks may have been inspired by David Bromberg’s 1975 rendition. The singer and multi-instrumentalist included it on his album Midnight on the Water, which Eagles’ founding member Bernie Leadon co-produced. Bromberg imbues the song with an acoustic storyteller groove, a sound Brooks would channel throughout much of his career.
Wendel Adkins – Wolves (Garth Brooks cover)
“Wolves” is No Fences’ most existential track. The song is a slow-moving ballad about a cowboy who contemplates his place in the universe after hearing that the bank foreclosed on a friend’s farm. Wendel Adkins is a country outlaw who released several albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but whose music never quite broke through to the mainstream. He recorded this cover for his 2010 album Born With the Blues. With a voice highly reminiscent of Waylon Jennings, he gave the song a ‘70s country feel, highlighting its timelessness.