Some 20 years ago, Garth Brooks had the No. 1 country album in the nation with No Fences, which would go on to sell 17 million copies and win Album of the Year from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.
The opening song on that CD was “The Thunder Rolls,” which Garth performed Sunday for a select crowd of music-industry insiders when his co-writer, Pat Alger, was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“I can’t imagine my career without this song,” Garth said.
Then he looked directly at Pat’s table and added, “I can’t imagine my career without you, Pat.”
Even harder to imagine is the actual writing session for “The Thunder Rolls.” When “the lightning flashes in her eyes” in the song’s lyrics, it could well be a reflection of Pat’s pent-up anger the day they composed it because — to hear Garth tell it — he’s not an easy guy to work with.
“Pat is sitting with his pen and his paper, poised,” Garth said, recounting their typical writing sessions. “I’ve got a little rubber ball that I’m bouncin’ off the wall right above his head, back and forth, crawlin’ underneath the chairs and desk like you do when you’re five years old. ‘Cause that’s what I do.”
At the time they wrote “Thunder,” Garth wasn’t the superstar he is today. In fact, he didn’t even have a recording deal, so a lot of patience was likely required of Pat.
“Alger’s sitting there about ready to kill me, coming up with all these wonderful lines, thousands of ‘em that you never use,” Garth said, continuing his description of their typical sessions. “But that’s Alger’s thing. Alger understands the craft. That’s what I love about Pat Alger. Pat Alger doesn’t care how or when it gets done — I might go as far as sayin’ not even if it does get done… The cool thing is just to capture that moment. And that’s what Pat Alger does.”
They thought they had a pretty cool moment when they finished “Thunder,” and after they put together a demo of the song, they went in for a meeting with record producer Jerry Crutchfield, who was interested in recording it with Tanya Tucker.
“It’s the first time I was ever in a record label,” Garth noted. “I was scared to death. Pat was kind of like my mentor/buddy — who was scared to death, too, if the truth be known.”
Jerry told them that as much as he liked “Thunder,” it wasn’t really finished.
“Alger, as sweet as he could, looked across that desk,” Garth recalled, “and [said], ‘What the hell you mean this ain’t finished?’ [Jerry] said, ‘I wanna know how it ends.’ Alger looked at him and goes, ‘No, you don’t.’ They had a great rapport with each other. I’m mortified. I’m sittin’ there goin’, ‘Well, there goes my first cut out the window.’”
Not really. Garth and Pat acquiesced and wrote another, morbid verse. Tanya cut the song but ended up not releasing it. Garth got his recording deal — with Capitol, the same label that handled Tanya at the time — and he recorded “Thunder” without the extra verse, though it’s now become a staple of his live performances.
Pat meanwhile became one of Nashville’s flagship songwriters. In addition to “Thunder,” he co-wrote Garth’s hits “That Summer,” “Unanswered Prayers” and “What She’s Doing Now.” He also wrote Don Williams’ “True Love,” Kathy Mattea’s “Goin’ Gone” and Hal Ketchum’s “Small Town Saturday Night.”