Songwriter Dewayne Blackwell, who, with Earl Bud Lee, wrote “Friends in Low Places,” the rowdy standard that catapulted Garth Brooks to stardom 30 years ago, died Sunday (May 23), Mark Ford, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, confirmed to Billboard. The Hall inducted Blackwell, 84, in 2017 for penning “Friends,” as well as pop hit “Mr. Blue,” which The Fleetwoods took to No. 1 in 1959, and country staples “Honkytonk Man” by Marty Robbins and David Frizzell’s “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home.” Acts ranging from Roy Orbison to Bobby Vinton, The Everly Brothers and Conway Twitty cut Blackwell’s songs.
“Friends in Low Places” was the first single from Brooks’ 1990 album, No Fences, which has been certified by the RIAA for sales of 18 million units in the U.S. But “Friends” wasn’t the first Blackwell song Brooks released. That would be the sly “Nobody Gets Off In This Town,” an album track co-written with Larry Bastian on Brooks’ 1989 self-titled debut. Brooks also covered “Mr. Blue” on No Fences.
Brooks shares with Billboard how “Friends” changed his life, and remembers Blackwell’s unique writing style.
Dewayne Blackwell changed my life because the first time I heard “I’m Gonna to Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home,” I thought, “Holy cow, what a funny, fantastic song.” I’m telling you, that’s every guy my dad grew up with or that we grew up around in Oklahoma.
The first time I ever heard “Mr. Blue” by the Fleetwoods, I thought, “Holy Cow.” So this guy has touched our lives in so many ways that we don’t even know.
What we lost when we lost Dewayne Blackwell was someone who truly was a craftsman, not a settler. He would not settle. If everything lined up, it would take you five minutes to write a song; if things didn’t, it could take you five years to write a song. He was not one of those guys that would let anything pass. He did it for the sake of the song and for the sake of entertainment. He understood that.
“Friends in Low Places,” I [sang] the demo for that. They were pitching it to [George] Strait and all I know was I did demos sometimes five, nine, a day, and this was the one I couldn’t get out of my head for months. It just kept circling back in. I never [could] believe that me as an artist would take that song on. And now I can’t imagine being the artist that I’ve got to be without that song.
While I [was] forming my writing habits as a young writer, [manager] Bob Doyle teamed me with Larry Bastian and Dewayne Blackwell. Both are pure rhymists, and they won’t allow a non-pure rhyme in. So the crazy thing to think about is the next time you’’re hammered and you’re doing karaoke and you’re singing what could possibly be the most sung party song on the planet, know that “Friends in Low Places” has pure rhyme 100% through it. Isn’t it amazing? The song that’s probably the most slurred is a pure rhyme. That’s crazy. [laughs]
I didn’t write “Nobody Gets Off in This Town” with them, but I was there when they were writing it. Dewayne Blackwell grew up in a town like “Nobody Gets Off in this Town” and what he did was brought real-life America forward in music. Like some people did it in film, he did it in lyrics and music. Dewayne was just a real life portrayer of the arts, but he did it with lyrics instead of with paint.
— As told to Melinda Newman