When it was announced on Monday that Garth Brooks would be performing during the Joe Biden inauguration, the superstar immediately acknowledged the elephant in the room — literally, if we’re talking about his political affiliation. “I might be the only Republican at this place,” he joked in an interview, “but it’s about reaching across and loving one another.”
It shouldn’t have been that surprising that Brooks agreed to play for the incoming Democratic administration: With the exception of Ronald Reagan, he’s performed at one time or another for every American president since Jimmy Carter. Talking about the importance of bridging partisan divides by agreeing to the Biden gig, Brooks noted, “In our household, this is not a political statement, this is a statement of unity.”
It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from an artist who’s built an empire out of being a populist — a strategy that’s resulted in him selling more albums than anybody other than the Beatles. In that same interview, he discussed the recent Capitol riot, and although his point was fairly muddled, this comment was a dead-on description of his unique skill set: “I deal in music. I deal in raw emotion. That is what music is all about.” Indeed, it’s possible no musician of the last 30 years has done as good a job as Garth Brooks at zeroing in on the emotional truth of his material. Garth Brooks’ songs aren’t subtle or nuanced — they’re as big as all outdoors, their hearts bleeding all over their sleeves. Other artists wish they could match his mastery of corny.
As of yesterday afternoon, Brooks hadn’t revealed what hits he’ll play at the inauguration, but if he’s serious about unity, it would be silly not to pick the song that made him massive — not just in country but in the pop world. Roll your eyes all you want — denigrate it as just one more dopey song about drinking — but, seriously, it’s hard to deny the power of “Friends in Low Places.”
The man born Troyal Garth Brooks had already established himself as a country star with his 1989 self-titled album, which showed off his gift for full-throttled love songs. Garth Brooks ended with “The Dance,” penned by songwriter Tony Arata, which soon became one of Brooks’ most adored anthems — a seeming look back at a romance that didn’t last. But Brooks never saw it in such simple terms — for him, the ballad was far more profound and grandiose. “To a lot of people, I guess ‘The Dance’ is a love-gone-bad song,” he once said. “Which, you know, that it is. But to me it’s always been a song about life. Or maybe the loss of those people that have given the ultimate sacrifice for a dream that they believed in, like the John F. Kennedys or the Martin Luther Kings, John Waynes or the Keith Whitleys. And if they could come back, I think they would say to us what the lyrics of ‘The Dance’ say.”
“The Dance” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes” became his first No. 1 hits on the country charts, but his next album would have four. If Garth Brooks introduced him to the world, No Fences made him a superstar, perfecting the types of gut-bustingly emphatic songs that would become his trademark. “Unanswered Prayers” was a weepy tune about former high school sweethearts who run into one another. “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House” is a honky-tonk salute to domesticity. “The Thunder Rolls” was a moody, cinematic ballad about a bad marriage. Then there was “Friends in Low Places,” the first single, which told the story of a regular joe who “showed up in boots” at his snooty old girlfriend’s “black-tie affair.” (Sure sounds like he crashed her wedding.) After saying bon voyage and staring down her new beau, he takes off to get wasted at a bar with his buddies.
The appeal of “Friends in Low Places” was obvious: As Brooks put it at the time, “[E]verybody has wanted to tell an old ex to kiss off.” But it was more than that. “Friends in Low Places” encapsulated the essence of being dumped, of being heartbroken, of feeling like you weren’t good enough for her — and knowing that someone with more money and status than you was going to come along and claim her. But the song wasn’t a funeral — it was a rowdy wake. With his big, everyman voice, Brooks embodied the narrator’s “to hell with her anyway” spirit, even though he didn’t write “Friends in Low Places.” That was Dewayne Blackwell and Earl Bud Lee, who were inspired not by a breakup but by a bar tab.
In her 2009 book, The Garth Factor: The Career Behind Country’s Big Boom, the late country journalist Patsi Bale Cox explained the backstory:
“Bud Lee was a well-liked, immensely talented character around [Nashville’s Music Row], but prone to drinking too much and running up his tab. One afternoon following a wealth of alcoholic riches, Blackwell asked Lee how he planned on paying his share of the tab.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Lee laughed. ‘I’ve got friends in low places.’
It was a hook made in hillbilly heaven, and even before they wrote it, the two knew they had a hit on their hands.”
But they had to find someone to record it. As luck would have it, they had known Brooks since he had moved to Nashville in the late 1980s as a nobody trying to make it big. Back then, he was still a shoe salesman singing demos on the side when they approached him about “Friends in Low Places,” which he immediately took a shine to. But by the time Brooks planned to record the song for No Fences, another country artist, Mark Chesnutt, had already done a version of it for his 1990 album Too Cold at Home.
Chesnutt, though, gave the song an easy-going, sad-eyed treatment — it was almost passive-aggressive, with the narrator trying to make his ex feel bad by insisting he’d be fine without her. Brooks turned it into a rollicking singalong, filling the studio with folks who added backup vocals. “The mastering people called and said, ‘You’ve got a real bad glitch on ‘Friends in Low Places,’” Brooks said in The Garth Factor. “We almost died …. [but] when we listened, we realized that what they were hearing was either [fiddle player] Rob Hajacos or [author] Steve Morley popping a beer can right by the microphone.” (Later, Morley confirmed Brooks’ suspicion: “When I entered [the studio], they gave me a beer and asked me to join. So I took it and started singing ‘I got friends in low places…’ During the chorus, I noticed that there was a place where nothing was happening. So I decided to pop my beer tap right there.”) The so-called glitches were exactly the warm, booze-soaked atmosphere that “Friends in Low Places” needed.
When the song was released in August 1990, it went to No. 1 on country radio, helping to propel No Fences to the top of the country album charts. But No Fences quickly crossed over, peaking at No. 3 on the pop chart. Soon, Brooks was a sensation, courting audiences that usually turned their nose up at the twang and sentiment of country music. “It’s a lot easier to cash my checks at the grocery store now,” Brooks said in a Los Angeles Times interview at the end of that year. “But as far as being a star, that’s pretty much a four-letter word in my book. I’m just a guy who plays country music and happens to love what he does.”
Brooks could try the humble-dude routine all he wanted, but he was well on his way to becoming a phenomenon. Audiences couldn’t get enough of his simple authenticity and cranked-to-11 hooks, which blurred the line between roadhouse and Top 40. No Fences was 1991’s second-highest-selling record, behind only Mariah Carey’s self-titled debut. The following year, he had two albums in the year-end Top 10, with No Fences at No. 6 and its follow-up, Ropin’ the Wind, in the top spot.
For as much as music journalists talked at the time about Nirvana usurping Michael Jackson’s position as the biggest thing in pop music — remember that Nevermind famously booted Jacko’s Dangerous from the No. 1 spot on the sales chart — Garth Brooks was the real King of Pop of the early 1990s. When Ropin’ the Wind debuted at No. 1, it was the first time a country album had ever achieved that feat, paving the way for other crossover acts like Billy Ray Cyrus, Shania Twain and the Chicks. Just as the 1990s saw a proliferation of grunge bands who emerged in the wake of Kurt Cobain, Brooks’ influence helped define that decade’s country-pop sound, with even classic-rock acts like the Eagles finding renewed interest because of newer country artists’ love of the laidback L.A. group.
“[I]f the Eagles came out today with some of their early ’70s stuff … what format would they be in?” Brooks asked in 1993. “I think it might be country. I’ll compare country radio today with ’70s rock ’n’ roll radio. Country radio is saying: ‘All those who want to play music, come to me, no matter what the music is, no matter what you look like. And we’ll play it. If people like it, we’ll keep it. If they don’t, it goes along the wayside.’”
Truth is, Brooks was probably the 1990s’ most popular, most unabashed rock star. (Please, no Chris Gaines jokes.) His epic, spectacle-heavy arena shows drew more from Kiss and Bruce Springsteen than your typical country hoedown. In fact, music commentator Chuck Klosterman traced Brooks’ ascension to the Boss’ decline. “For roughly a decade, Springsteen stopped being Springsteen; he released a couple introspective albums, but he was not the man Americans knew,” Klosterman wrote in Eating the Dinosaur. “Garth filled the void by selling over a hundred million records. He created the Era of Garth. … ‘Friends in Low Places’ was as effective as pop music ever gets: It’s a depressing song that makes you feel better. Singing along with that song was like drunkenly laughing at a rich person and knowing you were right. … Garth told stories about blue-collar people who felt good about what their bad life symbolized, which is the same reason Born to Run will never seem unimportant.”
If that description makes you wince, well, Springsteen probably makes you wince, too. But both men essentially do the same thing, writing about ordinary guys in a way that actual ordinary guys believe. That’s especially true of “Friends in Low Places,” which spits in the eye of the fancy rich dude who’s marrying the narrator’s girl. For all its drunken fun, the song hints at a class resentment that’s often been successful in pop music. (Billy Joel, another of Brooks’ heroes, has made a living singing songs about working-class stiffs with a chip on their shoulder.) When the L.A. Times asked Brooks about this undercurrent in “Friends in Low Places” being the secret to its popularity, the singer replied, “I don’t know if [listeners] want to see [the upper crust be shown up], or the opposite: They want to see the underdog pull it off.”
When Brooks stormed the gates of pop music with his early-1990s material, he was the quintessential underdog, working in an unfashionable genre that was nonetheless beloved by a whole slew of folks. “Friends in Low Places” was their anthem — their way of thumbing their nose at the snooty types who were “too good” for country. The hooting and hollering you hear at the end of the song might as well be everyone in the audience who understood the narrator’s point-of-view.
But nobody’s pop reign lasts forever, not even Garth Brooks’. After a string of mega-selling albums, he announced his retirement, then came back. He kept touring, remaining one of music’s biggest concert draws. He’s still incredibly popular, although not quite the industry behemoth he once was. (And he can still make news, famously refusing to put his albums on Spotify and Apple Music — and good luck finding his stuff on YouTube in any official capacity.) When he puts out new material, it just doesn’t have the same seismic importance as his 1990s work. Recently, he did a new version of “Friends in Low Places” with George Strait, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. There was even more hooting and hollering on the remake, but this “Friends” was the sound of a guy who had long since stopped being an underdog.
Brooks has attempted other drinking songs, like “Two Piña Coladas,” but he was never able to repeat the unbridled me-and-my-buddies-against-the-world gusto of “Friends in Low Places.” Country music is filled with songs about getting smashed — usually because of a woman who did you wrong — and for all their bravado, they’re often about very vulnerable emotions. They’re about trying to process the pain of being dumped — or, more accurately, trying to delay that pain as long as you can with beer. “Friends in Low Places” never shows its hand regarding that delicate, awkward truth. It just wants the night — and the singalong — to go on forever.
I’ve got friends in low places
Where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases
My blues away
And I’ll be okay
I’m not big on social graces
Think I’ll slip on down to the oasis
Oh, I’ve got friends in low places
When Brooks recorded the demo for Blackwell and Lee all those years ago, he knew “Friends in Low Places” had something. “[F]or the next two weeks the chorus to this song kept running through my head,” Brooks later wrote. No wonder: It speaks to a universal sentiment, one that’s been expressed a million times before, but never quite this way. As down as the narrator is, he knows he’s going to be okay. When you’ve got buds and brews, nothing can hurt you.
It’s unlikely Brooks is going to sing “Friends in Low Places” at the inauguration. Probably wouldn’t be the right setting. (If anything, the event would be more in keeping with the black-tie affair the narrator ruins by crashing at the song’s start.) But it would be awfully charming if it showed up on the playlist.
“There’s a common theme in every presidential election,” Brooks said this week. “New beginnings. New starts. We’re all together in this one, but truly I think the word unity, the word love, the word that we belong to each other. … We can’t just take extreme left and extreme right, because there’s a silent majority in the middle. It’s going to dwarf both of those.”
That’s the populist in him talking — the careful, perhaps cynical pragmatist who fears pissing off anybody. (How does he actually feel about the outgoing president? Brooks has been cagey about his opinions on 45, but in response to the assumption that he must be a Trump guy, he said late last year, “[Y]ou walk in with a cowboy hat, and immediately, you’re put in this kind of category that might not be who you are.”) But despite his limitations, he definitely knows how to bring a room together.
Many this week have made the easy joke that, clearly, Brooks has some friends in rather high places if he gets invited to such cushy gigs. Indeed, he hasn’t been that struggling shoe salesman for quite some time. But that’s the trick to a song like “Friends in Low Places”: No matter how high you get, you remember what it was like to feel low and be kicked around. Everybody’s been dumped, everybody’s wanted to drink to forget their woes. Everybody recognizes being the guy in that song. That shared recognition may be the only thing people in this country have left in common.