“Friends in Low Places” Songwriter Dewayne Blackwell Dies
There may not be a more recognizable song from the catalog of country music in the last 35 years than “Friends in Low Places” performed by Garth Brooks. Garth may have popularized it, but like so many of country music’s most legendary compositions, someone else wrote it. And that someone else was Dewayne Blackwell, who passed away on Sunday, May 23rd. He was 84.
“Friends in Low Places” was written after Dwayne and co-writer Earl Bud Lee went to lunch in Nashville, and Lee noticed after the check came that he’d forgotten his wallet. “Don’t worry. I have friends in low places. I know the cook,” Lee said. Blackwell picked up on the line, and the rest is history.
The remarkable thing about Dewayne Blackwell and “Friends in Low Places” is it came at the tail end of what had already been an illustrious career of songwriting in the country, rock, and pop realms. “Low Places” went on to spend four weeks at #1, win both the ACM and CMA Single of the Year in 1990, and of course made a superstar out of Garth Brooks. But you can trace the important and widely-recognizable songs penned by Dewayne Blackwell all the way back to the 50’s.
“Mr Blue” was written by Blackwell for The Fleetwoods in 1959, and became an American standard, later to be recorded and performed by Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Pat Boone, Bob Dylan, and Garth Brooks among many others. The success set off a flurry of Blackwell songs being recorded by big names, including “The Last One to Know” by the Fleetwoods in 1960, “The Ferris Wheel” by The Everly Brothers, and Bobby Vee’s “Hickory, Dick and Dock” in 1964. Roy Orbison, Little Richard, the surf group The Ventures, and many others recorded Dewayne Blackwell songs throughout the 60s.
It was in the 70s when the song catalog of Dewayne Blackwell made the transition to country after Johnny Darrell found chart success with the song “Mama Come’n Get Your Baby Boy” in 1970. Then by the 80’s, Blackwell was hitting his stride, contributing songs to a host of artists that would land him in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, including multiple tracks for David Frizzell, who scored a #1 and Grammy nomination with “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino” in 1982.
Blackwell also wrote the song “Honkytonk Man,” which became the centerpiece of the movie of the same name directed by and starring Clint Eastwood in 1982. Marty Robbins also played a role in the film, and recorded the definitive version of the song that became a Top 10 hit itself. Before Garth Brooks had his big hit with “Friends in Low Places,” he also recorded Dewayne Blackwell’s “Nobody Gets Off In This Town,” which became the B-side to “Low Places.”
Despite the big success with the song, Dewayne Blackwell didn’t score a big string of hits afterwards, but did land another notable Top 20 with Sammy Kershaw’s 1992 song “Yard Sale.”
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas on September 17, 1936, Blackwell migrated to California as a boy during The Depression and worked picking crops with his seven siblings. His father played fiddle and guitar at square dances, and Dewayne began performing himself at the age of fourteen, later playing in his family trio The Blackwells from 1958 to 1961. Despite finding some success and drawing the interest of legendary producer Phil Spector, the band broke up when Dwayne’s brother died in a motorcycle accident.
Dewayne Blackwell retired in 2003 according to Music Row, and moved to Central Mexico where he opened a restaurant named Senor Azul, a.k.a., Mr. Blue.
May 25, 2021 @ 6:24 pm
Is there much of a story behind Garth and Mark Chesnutt’s versions of “Friends in Low Places”? Both were recorded at the same time on albums released weeks apart. Chesnutt had his lead single (“Too Cold at Home”) sent to radio first. Seemed like Garth really rushed ‘No Fences’ only 3 weeks after FILP was at radio. No doubt, Garth’s version is more dynamic, but it’s one of the greatest “what if’s” in country music.
May 25, 2021 @ 6:47 pm
I don’t know off the top of my head but that would be a good topic to explore in-depth.
May 25, 2021 @ 8:36 pm
Chesnutt sang “Friends in Low Places” as a straight country song. When the singer intones “I’ve got friends in low places/ Where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases/ My blues away/ And I’ll be okay,” he’s lying (to himself and the listener)–he’s clearly not OK.
It’s the same standard country motif as when Georg Jones sings, “Just because I ask a friend about her/ Just because I spoke her name somewhere / Just because I rang her number by mistake today/ She thinks I still care.” The whole point of the song is that Jones is clearly lying when he goes on to insist that he doesn’t care about the woman anymore.
Garth kind of turned “Friends in Low Places” around. With the exuberant finish, replete with the chorus of bar denizens, he makes the listener think that maybe he really IS OK and DOESN’T care about the woman who dumped him, anymore.
(And that’s even without the final “Kiss my ass” verse that Garth throws into the live version.
May 25, 2021 @ 9:37 pm
It’s pretty incredible how those two young singers recorded the same song at right about the same time, yet a key shift (Mark Chesnutt’s version is tuned lower than Garth’s, E flat versus E standard, which makes a massive impact on the tone of the song) and the choice of which songs to send to radio as singles made a gigantic ripple effect on country music history.
If Chesnutt had released the song as a single first, would his rendition have become a massive hit instead? Who knows. I actually like his version much more, but while his performance is fantastic, it doesn’t have the same show-stopping “hit” quality that Garth stamped on his rendition. But it’s a neat “what-if” scenario for sure.
May 26, 2021 @ 7:32 am
You never know how it might have went, but one thing you can’t say is that Mark clearly made a bad decision. I was driving the other day and “Too Cold at Home” came on my playlist and man that is a great country song. Sometimes you forget how great a song was and remember again when you haven’t heard it in a while. I think it is an all time great song and often overlooked.
May 25, 2021 @ 6:44 pm
Co-Writer of Conway Twitty’s, “Saturday Night Special”. Great tune.
May 25, 2021 @ 6:50 pm
WOW. What a list of songs, and what a loss to the songwriting community.
May 25, 2021 @ 9:04 pm
Small correction, but the first Dewayne song that Garth cut was not called “Nobody Gets Out of This Town.” The song is “Nobody Gets OFF in This Town,” with a bit of a double-entendre in the lyric and the title.
The song was previously recorded only about a year before by Moe Bandy on his “No Regrets” LP, which is chiefly known for its centerpiece single, Moe’s last big hit, “Americana.”
I thought Bandy’s version of “Nobody Gets Off” was better than Garth’s.
It’s not listed as one of Moe’s singles, but his label paid to produced a pretty professional (for the time) video of the song.
May 26, 2021 @ 7:24 am
Someone mentioned Garth’s live version of “Friends in Low Places” earlier. That brings up something I always wondered. Is there really an actual third verse to the song, or is it something Garth came up with to amp up his live shows? If you really listen, the verse is nearly identical to verse two, except for the last four lines or so. I realize the line “kiss my ass” wasn’t really anything studios liked recording back then, but it just seems odd it’s nearly the same as the second verse. And Chesnutt’s version also doesn’t have a third verse. So was that something Garth did?🤔
May 26, 2021 @ 7:31 am
It’s just Garth being Garth.
December 25, 2021 @ 10:18 am
I met Dewayne while he was living in Ajijic, Mexico. My husband and Dewayne became buddies, because of a common love of music, and Dewayne told us the story about the 3rd version of “Friends”, Dewayne wrote it himself and Garth knew about it.
Years earlier Garth hosted a black tie affair in Nashville, to thank the songwriter who wrote the song and he sang the songs that the songwriters wrote, and the songwriter accompanied him . He started with his least selling hit and finished with Dewayne accompanying him on “friends”.
When Dewane got on stage he said to Garth “Pains ??” and Garth said YES.
Dewayne said there were 1500 people at the gathering and they were howling with laughter with the words of version 3.
Fortunately while in Mexico Dewayne recorded a CD of of himself singing all the songs that were songwriting hits for him, I am so thankful that I have a copy this CD.
May 26, 2021 @ 8:30 am
I got burned out on that song, but listened to it again a few months back, still a killer track.
That’s one of those songs people will be singing as long as they still sing country music in english.
May 27, 2021 @ 4:58 am
Hmmm. Freddy Fender was a great country star in the USA who didn’t always sing in English. Lots of Texas Spanish-American country artists.
Sir Adam the Great
May 26, 2021 @ 11:53 am
As many times as I had played the “No Fences” cassette in my youth, sitting in the family den reading the liner notes, I somehow never realized that he co-wrote TWO songs on that album so many years apart. I see now how he could retire so well.
Rickie Jon Connors
May 26, 2021 @ 2:30 pm
Great feature Trig. This is the kind of article SCM does better than anybody else.
May 26, 2021 @ 9:47 pm
There’s an album out there called, “In the Beginning: A Song Writer’s Tribute to Garth Brooks” where Dwayne parodies ‘Friends’ with with ‘Pains’ about the tribulations of eating Taco Bell. Good for a chuckle.
May 27, 2021 @ 8:28 am
Both Mark and Garth have shared the story behind the song in the last few years.
Marks version – This is an excerpt from a great interview from Write On Music:
Yeah, I did. I cut it and it was Garth singing on it—Garth Brooks did the demo. He did most of the demos that I listened to back when I was getting ready to record my first album, when I was listening to songs. In fact, for a lot of years in the ‘90s when we got song pitches it was Garth Brooks singing them because he did a lot of demo work before he took off. I had a lot of songs with him singing on [the demos]. That’s how I got “Friends in Low Places.” I liked it immediately, and I cut it because we knew we needed to finish the album. We were running out of time. So, the song was pitched to me, I loved it, I recorded it. They already had the singles picked before the album was even finished. It was gonna be “Too Cold at Home” and “Brother Jukebox.” They weren’t gonna release “Friends in Low Places.”
Garth Brooks heard about it and got pissed off because he had it on hold at the same time, and I didn’t know that or I wouldn’t have cut it. So, Garth got all pissed off and confronted my producer … and started cussing him out and saying, “I’ve got that song on hold. I’m cutting it tomorrow. That’s gonna be my new single.” [My producer] Mark Wright said, “I didn’t know anything about that. Chesnutt didn’t know anything about that.” So the next day he went in and cut it and they put it out real quick. I guess they thought I was a threat. I don’t know why in the world they would think I was any kind of threat to Garth Brooks because I have not been and I will never be a threat to Garth Brooks. [Laughs]
Garth was on Bobby Bones once and it falls into place…however, he doesn’t mention the cussing out the producer. Basically says that the song has to be his lead single. Mark shared the video clip on his Facebook page a few years ago.