Garth Brooks was a struggling songwriter when he got together with the Nashville writer Pat Alger and wrote this song. In a 2012 Songfacts interview with Pat Alger
, he said: "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 'Eighteen 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 (producer) 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.
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."
Tanya Tucker was the first to record this song. In the world of country music, songwriters are constantly pitching their songs to established artists in hopes of getting them recorded, and it's common practice for artists to claim a song by putting a "hold" on it, meaning no one else can record it. This is what Tucker did, but as is often the case, her version didn't make her album - she was working on a greatest hits album and decided to use "The Thunder Rolls" for her next one instead. By this time, Brooks was establishing himself as an artist, so he asked Tucker for the song back, and she obliged. Garth recorded it for his second album, No Fences, which went on to sell about 18 million copies.
Similar to "Friends In Low Places
," this song has an extra verse that Brooks would include in live performances. Unlike "Friends...," the extra verse in this case adds a darker tone to the song - the wronged woman goes to get a gun to kill her cheating husband. To make the song commercially viable, that verse was left out.
This extra verse was written for Tanya Tucker, and can be heard in her version of the song. When Brooks and Alger pitched it to Tucker's producer Jerry Crutchfield, he informed the two songwriters that he didn't consider their song finished. "Alger, as sweet as he could, looked across that desk and [said], 'What the hell you mean this ain't finished?'" Brooks recalled. "[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 sitting there going, 'Well, there goes my first cut out the window."
A version of the song with the missing third verse can be found on Brooks' live album, Double Live
Garth Brooks was focused on songwriting when he teamed up with Alger to write this, but he was playing small shows from time to time, which is where Alger saw him for the first time. Alger told us: "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."
After they had finished recording the song, Brooks suggested that they add the sound of thunder. Fortunately, Reynolds had that sound on hand already from a previous recording session. The song that the thunder originally appeared on was "Delta Rain" by the Memphis Boys.
When Pat Alger was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame on October 17, 2010, Brooks took the stage to pay tribute and recalled the day he sat down with him to write this song: Said Garth: "Pat [was] sitting with his pen and his paper, poised. I've got a little rubber ball that I'm bouncing off the wall right above his head, back and forth, crawling underneath the chairs and desk like you do when you're five years old - because that's what I do. Alger's sitting there about ready to kill me, coming up with all these wonderful lines, thousands of 'em that you never use.
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 saying, not even if it does get done. The cool thing is just to capture that moment. And that's what Pat Alger does.
It's the first time I was ever in a record label. I was scared to death. Pat was kind of like my mentor/buddy - who was scared to death, too, if the truth be known."
This was Brooks' sixth #1 on the Country chart.
The song's music video alludes to the third verse by including the theme of domestic violence. Both TNN and CMT banned the video, with a CMT representative commentating that the network was "in business to entertain, not to promote or condone gratuitous violence or social issues." However VH1, which generally aired pop videos, began playing it and women's shelters thanked the record company for raising awareness of domestic violence. On October 2, 1991, the clip was awarded the CMA Video of the Year award.
American heavy metal band All That Remains covered this for their 2017 Madness
album. They shot a video
for their version of the song, which cuts between footage of the band performing in the studio and images of ominous storm clouds and galloping horses.
"We didn't want to seem like we're trying to step on the toes of the original [video] but at the same time we weren't trying to change the message of the song," frontman Phil Labonte told Billboard
magazine. "I felt like something less specific would work best."
Garth called the album No Fences because the songs were pushing the boundaries of country music by bringing in elements of '70s and '80s rock. "That's why No Fences was called No Fences, because the music was pushing out," he explained in his 2017 book, The Anthology Part 1: The First Five Years. "You couldn't put it in a box. 'The Thunder Rolls' threw everybody for a loop, but then 'New Way To Fly' brings you right back to that Merle Haggard influence."
Adding the thunder sounds to the track was not a complicated process: All it took was the click of a button. Brooks' producer, Allen Reynolds, recalled in The Anthology Part 1: "The day we were adding that, Garth was there, and we had put it all on a two-track tape so that we could dub it over to the multitrack, and we put Garth in charge of starting the tape. We thought we'd need to edit this in, fit the thunder in the spots we needed it. But when he pressed play, without us doing anything, the sounds lined up with the track, and I mean perfectly. We all sat there going like, Whoa, because everything was happening right where it was supposed to. One of those moments."