Pat Alger ("The Thunder Rolls", "Unanswered Prayers")

by Dan MacIntosh

Pat Alger is best known for songs he wrote with Garth Brooks. In fact, some of Brooks' most popular recordings have Alger's name attached to them, including "The Thunder Rolls" and "Unanswered Prayers." This former architecture student from LaGrange, GA also has folk music roots, which made him a curiosity when he arrived in Nashville. In addition to his work with Brooks, Alger also played a significant role in Nanci Griffith's success, co-writing "Once in a Very Blue Moon" and "Lone Star State of Mind."

With good reason, Alger was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010, where Brooks performed in his honor.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): This is for, and we like to talk about songs and songwriting. And that's something that you know a little bit about. So you make a perfect candidate.

Pat Alger: I think a little bit is a good description. I'm not sure I know as much as I thought I did, actually. But yeah, I've been doing it long enough, I should know something anyway, let's put it that way.

Songfacts: Well, I want to start with perhaps your most famous song, "Unanswered Prayers." You wrote that with Garth Brooks.

Alger: And there's another guy on there named Larry Bastian, who wasn't in the room when we wrote the song, but he was part of the inspiration for the song.

Songfacts: The first question I wanted to ask you was it's such a great song title. Who came up with the title?

Alger: Garth and Larry came up with that. They were having a conversation about something and out of that conversation came that title. It's actually not an uncommon title. I think the title had appeared before in other songs. I actually had a friend that had used it many, many years ago. It's kind of a Protestant concept, I guess you'd call it. But in terms of using it as the jumping off place for this song, it was strictly between Garth and Larry. When Garth brought the idea to me, we were having a writing session, and at the time I didn't even know who Larry Bastian was. So his name didn't really come up until after the fact. But certainly, in retrospect, without him, I don't think we'd have the song we ended up having.

Both Garth and I, there's a pretty good age difference between us, I think about 14 years. But we seem to have similar experiences in our youthful lives that we called on several times in songs, and this was the first one where we had a similar experience. His happened at a football game; mine was similar, but just didn't happen at a football game. I ran into my old high school girlfriend about 10 years after the fact and was quite pleased with the way things had turned out. And that's really the essence of the song, you wish for things and then sometimes you're really glad the Lord wasn't listening. Or, as they say, he was listening and decided not to play ball with you for whatever reason.

Songfacts: But that concept only makes sense in retrospect.

Alger: True enough. But in retrospect, you're supposed to use that lesson to relate to the rest of your future life. That's the point of it. That's the sermon, I guess you'd say. Over the years, I've talked to a lot of pastors who've used that as a jumping off place for a sermon.

Songfacts: That's pretty amazing, to think that here you write this country song, and pastors use it in sermons.

Alger: When you're writing a song, you're in the moment. You're not really thinking about it as anything other than the thing we're doing at the moment. When we finished that song, it was probably the first time in my career where I really was sure that we had written something special. Garth was supposed to play an Oklahoma songwriters thing at the local place called the Bluebird here, so he asked me if I would come down and play and he'd sing it. That usually doesn't happen. Usually, I like to live with the song for a little while and tweak it up and there's always some lyric that needs a little tightening and a melody line that needs tweaking. But we decided to go down and do it that night at the Bluebird. And right after the chorus, everybody started applauding. So I guess we had a little bit of a validation there.

It's an interesting song in technical ways, too.

Songfacts: How so?

Alger: It only repeats the chorus twice, and it goes to the bridge before the second chorus is repeated. I'd like to find another popular song that does that. I never have heard of another song that does that.

One of my pet peeves in songwriting is that I hate – hate is probably too strong a word – I don't like songs where the chorus just keeps on repeating over and over. It just drives me insane. I think the chorus is a nice vehicle to make it into a song, and it's a vehicle to make it into a popular song. But if I have to repeat the chorus more than 2 or 3 times in a song, I feel like I haven't written a very good song. So this was especially the parsimonious use of the chorus. So we only used it twice. And one of the reasons was we thought in a sense it's a joke. In fact, early, before it was recorded, I would play it out, people always laughed at the first chorus. Chuckled, not guffawed. But they chuckled in the sense that you recognize yourself in the picture, kind of chuckle. So I always thought if you have something like that, you can't just repeat it ad infinitum. Obviously the joke will go stale. So I thought, for whatever brilliant reason, we only repeated it twice. And it retrospect, it also sounds like I'm proclaiming that I was a genius and had that idea at the time, but I think we only realized it after the fact that that's what we'd done. That's an interesting thing to pay attention to.

Songfacts: Tell me a little bit about Garth Brooks the songwriter.

Alger: He's an excellent songwriter. Written songs by himself. He's obviously someone who knows what he wants to say in a song and certainly can sing almost any kind of melody and he knows what he's looking for musically. We really only worked together for about a year and part of that time was before he was Garth Brooks. He was just a guy named Garth that came from Oklahoma when I knew him. And we were trying to get other people to record these songs when we first started writing together. I met him through Allen Reynolds who is a friend of mine, who ended up being his producer. But at the time that I met him, Allen wasn't his producer; he was just someone who was thinking of him as a potential artist. And I think Garth was probably still shopping around to see what he wanted to do. This was kind of early on in the situation when I met him.

So we were really writing as a team to try to write songs for other people, and a couple of our songs got recorded before Garth recorded them. In fact, I think his first songs that he recorded were a couple of ours. Tanya Tucker cut "The Thunder Rolls" before it was released by Garth, and Crystal Gayle cut "What She's Doing Now" as "What He's Doing Now" before he recorded it, also.

Songfacts: When you first started working with Garth, did you sense that there was something special there?

Alger: Yeah. A lot of people had the opportunity to work with him. But like I say, he was just a guy from Oklahoma. The day that I met him, he was playing a show on his own at some place, it was the dive-iest place that I'd ever been in Nashville, actually. I didn't really want to go down there, because I didn't like that side of town at night, but I decided to go down and watch it and watch his show just to see what it's all about. It's always enlightening to do that instead of listen to tapes of people's songs. I think you get a better idea of who somebody is by listening to them perform, and he really delivered. He had a couple of songs in the show that he'd written and a couple he didn't, and the ones that he wrote I thought were good. I saw that look in his eye and felt the hunger in his belly and thought we'd be a good match. And it was one of my smarter moves, it turns out.

Songfacts: Is he easy to work with as a songwriter?

Alger: Yeah. We're different as hell. We didn't continue our collaboration for many reasons, but mainly that I just went on to other things, and he went on and became Garth Brooks. That distraction in his life affects the way you work. But yeah, he always was a great contributor both lyrically and musically. When you collaborate, part of the art of collaboration, really, is trying to figure out how to become a single voice, where it doesn't sound like to two guys - a guy from New Jersey and a guy from Atlanta who cobbled something together. When it's successful - and I think "Unanswered Prayers" is a good example - the lyric just sounds seamlessly written. It's not me doing all of this and him doing all of that. That's one of the interesting things about collaboration in Nashville; the long tradition of co-writing is words and music by two people, one who did the words and one did the music. Here, everybody does music and lyrics. I occasionally run into somebody who only is a lyricist. But here mostly everybody does both.

Songfacts: That's interesting, I didn't know that.

Alger: That's been my experience, anyway. I've always contributed lyrics to every song we've ever written, and I've written songs by myself, as well. And like I say, he has, too. He's written songs by himself. He's a complete songwriter. And those are the people you really want to gravitate towards. You're going to have a better chance of coming up with that what I call the "single voice" that makes the song sound authentic. Especially on a story song, which is what my whole career has been based on, you want to have it sound authentic. And it can only sound authentic if it doesn't sound like it's cobbled together with one guy's good line stuck in the middle of somebody else's great lyric.

Did you know that Bernie Taupin wrote a third verse for "Daniel" that Elton John edited out? It turns out Daniel is a Vietnam Vet who couldn't find peace after the war. "The Thunder Rolls" is another song with an extra verse edited out. In some live versions of the song, you can hear Garth Brooks sing the extra section, where the woman gets a gun to kill her husband. Pat and Garth wrote this part at the request of Tanya Tucker's producer, who wanted her to record the song but thought it didn't sound finished.
Songfacts: Were you excited about "The Thunder Rolls"?

Alger: Yeah, that was based on a song I'd written with another guy. I'd written a song with Mark Sanders, who's a great songwriter, and he's a good friend. We'd written a song called "Like a Hurricane" that Kathy Mattea had recorded. It was the B-side of "18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses." There's a line about thunder rolling in the song. Garth had been listening to that song - he'd been listening to stuff that Allen Reynolds had given him. He came in and said, "What if we write a song about somebody who's cheating on his wife, and every time he does it, the thunder rolls." And I kind of laughed.

Songfacts: That sounds like a joke.

Alger: I thought it was kind of a joke. And as most of my co-writing goes, we sat and talked a while about it. And then we started to develop a scenario and it became less of a joke and more of a cool thing. Because, again, here's a song that has a repeating thing right outside the verses, "and the thunder rolls, the thunder rolls." That thing is sort of on its own. And then you go to the chorus. And I thought, Wow, that's interesting, too. And when we wrote it, I really did think it was kind of different. And of course we were trying to pitch that song immediately. We were trying to get Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker to record that.

Songfacts: Why do you think Reba said no?

Alger: She didn't say no. She just got there second place. She just said yes, but in this town, the person that calls you back first is the person that gets to put it on hold. And then Tanya did go ahead and record it - the last verse there that wasn't originally on the record was written for her.

As luck would have it, she was doing a greatest hits record and she decided she was going to save that for the next record, instead of putting it on the greatest hits album. And luckily by that time Garth was on his way and he asked for the song back. And thank goodness for that. Although Tanya Tucker's version is really cool.

Songfacts: So Reba never recorded it?

Alger: No.

Songfacts: I could totally hear her singing that, though.

Alger: Yeah, sure. She loves those minor key things, "Fancy" and those story-songs that are real gritty. But that's the way things work. It would have been great to have her record it, but yet on the other hand, Garth sold 60 million copies of it. So these are the kind of disappointments we can live with. (Laughing)

Songfacts: That's a good point. Another person that you've written quite a bit with is Nanci Griffith, but very different kinds of things.

Alger: I didn't write with her, I wrote for her. We wrote one song together. I think it's called "The Power Lines." I met her early on and she heard me – I think it was literally in one of the first nights here in Nashville. I played a writer's night and I played a couple of songs that she really liked. One was called "Once in a Very Blue Moon," which she recorded and became Blue Moon Orchestra. And she recorded it a couple of times. She did it live on the first record. And then there was another song called "Goin' Gone" and she recorded before Kathy Mattea recorded it, and "Lone Star State of Mind." That was kind of written for her.

Songfacts: You had her in mind when you wrote it?

Alger: Kind of did, yeah. I met her by then, so I knew she was from Texas, and that was my title. I always liked the Billy Joel song "New York State of Mind," but I always thought it's not the New York State, it's the Empire State.

Songfacts: That's true.

Alger: I always thought that was a wrong – it's the only thing I didn't like about the song.

Songfacts: Was your song kind of an answer song to Billy Joel's song?

Alger: No. Not really. I was really trying to get the essence of what I thought Texas was all about. I really didn't know anything about Texas. I had never even been to Texas at the time. I was just trying to get across what my impression of Texas was without having been there. And I even called a friend of mine from Texas to make sure Corpus Christi was on the coast and all that stuff.

Songfacts: Get your facts right.

Alger: Make sure I had my facts right. And it turned out to have something which I really like in a song; it's kind of a sad song with a happy melody. And she really responded to that. And it ended up I actually played guitar on that record. I played guitar on all of her records there for a while.

Songfacts: Do people think you're an expert about Texas because of that song?

Alger: Well, I wrote another song called "She Came from Forth Worth" for Kathy Mattea. So for a while I did see my name listed as a Texas songwriter. And I don't think either time I had actually been to Texas at that time. In fact, they have this big festival called the Kerrville, and I got asked to come down and judge the songwriting contest. I think they thought I was a Texas songwriter. But the person that won that contest, coincidentally, was a guy I wound up having a lot of success with, too. A guy named Hal Ketchum.

Songfacts: He had a hit with "Small Town Saturday Night," right?

Alger: Yeah. We co-wrote a couple three four other songs that he recorded, as well. In fact, the very first song he ever co-wrote, he wrote with me. And he didn't tell me that till afterwards. He kind of said, "Boy, I'm glad that's over." I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "Well, I've never co-written a song before." I says, "Well, I'm glad you didn't tell me before."

Songfacts: In retrospect, could you tell?

Alger: No. I obviously thought he was a great songwriter, because he won the contest. And when I came to Nashville, I wrote all my songs by myself, too. Learning how to co-write is something I explored on my own and luckily did, because I wouldn't have written nearly the number of really good songs that I've written without my co-writers.

Songfacts: You toured with the Everly Brothers.

Alger: Yeah, I did. First week I was in Nashville, I met Don Everly. Just by coincidence. He was the friend of a friend. He was a friend of the only guy I knew when I came to Nashville. I was a lifelong fan of theirs. In fact, one of the first songs I ever learned to play was "Cathy's Clown" on the guitar. But I guess one of the reasons we became friends is I never once asked him about the Everly Brothers. Unfortunately, people of that stature, people become their friend because of who they are sometimes, and drive them crazy. But I liked him as a guy and he liked me, we just hung out. We went to lunch and talked about lots of other things. He's interested in art and cooking and all kinds of things that I'm also interested in, and we became fast friends. He had a group called The Dead Cowboys, which was a pretty crazy name, but a good group. And they played every Tuesday night. And they asked me if I wanted to come down and open the shows, because he'd heard some of my songs, so I went down there and started doing that with him. And next thing I know they're getting back together.

At the time, I'd had some success, but I just had a child and I wasn't making enough money, and I was really, really toying with the idea of quitting. And out of the blue, he called me up and said, "Hey, Phil and I are getting back together, and we just lost our opening act, who was a comedian." And he said, "I think you can do this. Would you like to come out and try it?" And I did it for about 400 shows.

Songfacts: So they were getting along, then, right?

Alger: Oh yeah, they were getting along as good as they ever did, I guess. They're both good friends and they've unfortunately had to spend their whole life together singing music. And that has its advantages and disadvantages.

Songfacts: They just sing so well together.

Alger: They're great guys, you know. You'd love either one of them. I owe them a lot. I literally think they saved my career. They recorded a couple of my songs, too.

Songfacts: I got a chance to see them, gosh, you weren't opening when I saw them. I think it was around that time, though.

Alger: I did all the shows in '84 and '85, and then after that I decided if I was going to get back into songwriting here, I was going to have to be in Nashville a little bit more often than I was. So I only did part of the tours after that, till about '90.

Songfacts: I think when I saw them, Rita Coolidge opened for them in Southern California.

Alger: Uh-huh. She was good friends with them. And yeah, Nanci Griffith actually took my place on one tour, Katy Moffatt took my place on another one. But I did a couple of weeks every year through '90 with them. And it was a great experience. When I got inducted into the Hall of Fame, Phil came and brought me a picture of the last gig I did with them. That was kind of cool.

Songfacts: Is it ever a frustration for you that you've been so successful as a songwriter, but not as successful as a performing artist?

Alger: No, it hasn't, actually. Early on, I saw what the price of that was. I enjoy performing and I think I'm a pretty good performer. I think I'm a natural performer. But you have to have a certain kind of ego that demands attention, if you know what I mean, and I don't have it. I just don't have it, and I wouldn't want to learn it. I've made some albums and it's fun to do and everybody keeps wanting me to make another one - all the 12 people that bought the other records keep asking me for a record. But I'm not falsely modest. I know what my strengths are and I guess I should just leave it at that: I know what my strengths are, and I'm a great writer and a great musician, I'm pretty confident about my abilities there. But I just don't need the fame. I could use the fortune, but I don't need the fame, because I haven't seen anything really great come out of fame.

Songfacts: One of the people I didn't realize you'd worked with early on and somebody I had a chance to talk to one time is Maria Muldaur.

Alger: Yeah. Sure. I lived in Woodstock for a while, and I was in a group called the Woodstock Mountains Revue, which was a bunch of people like Maria that lived up there, and we made 3 or 4 albums for Rounder Records, and toured around Europe and the US. My first recorded song was on one of those records. She's a great singer and a great, funny lady.

Songfacts: She's an interesting lady. She can do so many things so well, so many different styles.

Alger: Yeah. She's a real musician. She's a singer, but she's a musician who uses her voice. She can hang in there with anybody.

Songfacts: But she's more associated, I think, with folk music. Was that what you were doing then?

Alger: Yeah. I definitely started out as a folkie, and I would still say that that's what I am. I think when I was surprised is when I came to Nashville; I think "Unanswered Prayers" and then "The Thunder Rolls," they're kind of folk-y songs. The way I do them, they are. Fortunately, I had a guy from Oklahoma named Garth Brooks who knew how to deliver the pop influence to them. But my first hit was a pop hit with a guy named Livingston Taylor who again is kind of a folky, but he, again, made it into a kind of a pop-folk-y thing. And my first cut was on Rounder Records, an artist for Rounder Records did my song. And yes, I guess I am definitely a folky. That's what I started out as in the '60s. I was playing folk music in Atlanta clubs and then I started playing around the South and I met two guys named Artie and Happy Traum in Vermont one winter. I was playing a festival and decided to move to Woodstock. And in Woodstock, I met people like John Sebastian and Eric Anderson and John Harold and Jim Rooney and Paul Butterfield. We had a crazy group that we made records with and we toured the Northeast and went to Europe one time and had great fun. We never made any money, but we always had a good time.

Songfacts: Now, were people suspicious of you when you came to Nashville, knowing you had been a part of the whole '60s thing?

Alger: I don't know if they were or not. I can't say. That's an interesting concept. (Laughing) No, the good thing about Nashville, it's still true today, is I would say they're curious about me. I don't think they were suspicious, they were curious. Here I was, coming to Nashville, I didn't have a publishing deal, but I had a hit record. I had a little truck full of songs. I could play the guitar real good and I could sing and I just stuck my neck out and got out among the folks. They were interested in what I was doing and I played some songs for them. They didn't use the songs, but they liked the songs. And then I met Jack Clement, and he let me do some studio work over there. I played on some albums and kept having these songs recorded without a publishing deal. It was kind of interesting, the Everly Brothers and Peter, Paul and Mary, and Jerry Jeff Walker and all these people were cutting my songs, but I couldn't get a publishing deal. So I was mystified, but also very lucky, because when I really started making money, I didn't have a publishing deal in place.

Songfacts: Kind of a blessing in disguise.

Alger: I was very fortunate to land here when I did. The Urban Cowboy year had just ended and the country music scene was kind of looking for itself again. And in a sense, I was part of that new thing that happened in the '80s. Don Williams was one of my heroes when I moved here and I had a hit with Don Williams. And he was part of that sound that Garth ended up leading the charts with.

Songfacts: What do you think about Nashville these days?

Alger: Well, it's always good stuff that comes out of here. You've got that group like the Civil Wars, completely unique, they make records and it's only two people on the record. Where else could that happen? Some of the pop-y music, I can't say that I'm a fan of. But I could have said that 30 years ago when I came here. There's always good stuff. The only thing I don't like is that the music business – and I won't even say this has anything to do with Nashville, really, it's just the music business has turned into a blockbuster hits-oriented business like it was, say, in the '50s. Back in the '50s, if you made an LP, it only consisted of your ten singles and the B-sides. Now it's all about what your hit is, and people only download the hit. Some of Garth Brooks' best songs were never singles. He had songs on some the first four albums that were incredible songs that were never singles. But if all you did was download the single, you'd never know it. So that's the only thing I don't like about it. But I do occasionally still hear songs that I wish I'd written. If somebody put me in charge, I'd probably do it a little different, but I don't have any ax to grind. The music business has been good to me. Or, as they used to say, whoever that baseball player was, "Baseball been very good to me."

Songfacts: Doesn't quite fit for you, but –

Alger: Well, I had a great career. I couldn't have designed it that way and I sincerely wouldn't want to go back and try and re-design it.

Songfacts: If you were put on the spot to name what you're most proud of, of what you've written, what comes to mind?

Alger: I don't know. That means you'd have to pick a song that you think is better than your others, which sort of implies that your other songs weren't as good. (laughs) What I guess I'm proud of is I did write a lot of songs that were just good songs, but luckily nobody ever recorded any of them. So I think the songs that got recorded, I was always proud to say I was one of the writers, or I was the writer of. I didn't get any of my kind of junky songs – I didn't make any money off my three-legged horses, let's put it that way.

Songfacts: Did you ever write anything that you would now honestly consider a novelty song?

Alger: No, not really.

Songfacts: Good.

Alger: I used to play with a guy named Artie Traum, I don't know if you know who he is. He's a great folk singer and a great guitarist who also was a jazz artist. He and I ware in a duo and we both played really flashy guitar. And occasionally we would write what I would call an entertaining song. But we never expected anyone to help record them. (Laughing) We were big fans of Mose Allison – and I still am – I played an album the other night by Mose, and that style of writing, which I would guess you could consider novelty in some ways, I consider more clever.

Songfacts: Oh, he's so smart. My goodness.

Alger: Clever commentary songs.

Songfacts: One of my greatest memories is that I went to see Van Morrison, and he was the unannounced opening act. And I was thrilled, because I love Van Morrison, but Mose Allison I just think is fantastic.

Alger: I feel the same about Van Morrison. I think he's an incredible talent. Not always the greatest entertainer in the world. But Mose Allison, he does what he does, and he's been doing it the same way for 50 years. And he's still going at it, evidently. I think his daughter might live here. He plays here every so often. People like that, they were storytellers who were singers. But their songs all have some kind of a narrative to them, and that's the kind of songs I've always admired.

Songfacts: Well, Pat, it's been just a treat to talk to you. It's nice to get to know the man behind more than just the hits.

Alger: Yeah. A dozen songs sort of ends up defining your career, but I've had a lot more than that recorded, and I certainly have written I have no idea how many songs by now. And I'm still writing them. I'm writing with a guy named Jimmy Wayne, who's a great, great country singer.

Songfacts: Yes, he is.

Alger: I just wrote an entire project with him. And you might want to look him up a little bit. He's a former foster child who is trying to raise awareness to what happens to foster children when they get to be 18. He walked from Nashville to Phoenix, Arizona, in 2010. Pretty remarkable story. So he and I spent the past year writing the story of that, and that'll be the next thing I have coming out, I hope. It'll be a movie and a record, I hope.
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Comments: 1

  • L.russell Brown from Nashville TnPat Alger has the god given ability to touch the hearts of millions of people with his poignant songs. I am one of them. I personally feel the number one rule when it comes to songwriting is, there are no rules. While the great standard Moonlight in Vermont never has a rhyme, the great religious song Amen, only has one word. Pat's unique style of composing in my opinion,
    is based on tugging on the listener's heartstrings.
    And WOW does he ever do that.
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