Before reviewing this latest release from Oklahoma crooner Garth Brooks, I'd like to review the history of modern country music.
Don't worry, it will only take a couple of paragraphs.In the '50s, when the TV show "Your Hit Parade" was a hit, middle-of-the-road music lovers couldn't get enough of Patty Page and Sinatra.
Then Elvis crashed the party. And after Elvis, the Top 40 belonged totally to the teens. Easygoing adults searched in vain for the old Tin Pan Alley tunes. They spurned the "twang" of country, the "grit" of the blues. About all that remained were show tunes and fond memories.
Country music producers saw this great untapped market and began to fill the void with "twang-less" Crystal Gayle, "lounge-lizard" Conway Twitty and saloon singers like Kenny Rogers.
Aging "Hit Parade" fans couldn't get enough.
Now easy-listening middle-class country music is big business and bucks.
And the latest winner is a young javelin thrower from the University of Oklahoma: Garth Brooks.
Ignore the hat. It's not real. When Brooks cranks up hits like "The Dance" and "If Tomorrow Never Comes" you soon hear he has more in common with Nat King Cole than any coal miner's daughter. For aging baby boomers, he's Snooky Lanson all over again.
Brooks is riding high these days. He's a shy but clever interview on programs such as "Good Morning America." His stage shows are pumped up and popular. He aims to please - at times to the point of pandering.
"No Fences" is his second al-bum/CD/tape. Good luck finding it in the stores. It seems to be constantly sold out in Salt Lake City.
The album was shipped "gold."
Of course, cynics might say Homer Simpson could sing a hit song given the strength of the tunes Brooks has been offered here. It's true, songs such as "Friends in Low Places" don't come along every day. But Brooks does get the most out of his material. He's almost perfected the broken-voiced sob used by Merle Haggard and George Strait. In fact, his constant "emotional yodel" is now his signature.
When Garth Brooks sings, there's a teardrop in every bar.
Apart from his recent single, "Friends in Low Places," a bluesy, barrel-house tune where even the guitars sound sleazy, several cuts make an impression here. "A New Way to Fly" is a hard, waltz-time anthem that may have the makings of a single itself.
"Wild Horses" has George Strait charm about it.
"Unanswered Prayers" will mist up a few listeners.
But it's the mainstream material - songs like "Mr. Blue" and "The Thunder Rolls" - that gives the game away. "The Thunder Rolls" - like the singer - is a '60s, cafe-crowd folk song that's been sculpted to look country.
In the end, about all you can see by Garth's outfit is he'd like to be a cowboy.
He was never country when country wasn't cool.
If you want the real stuff I'm afraid you'll just have to put up with that bratty little delinquent, Dwight Yoakam.
He's a pain, but he's real.