If there was anything redeeming or realistic about the Gwyneth Paltrow film Country Strong, it was the scene in which Garrett Hedlund gets a crowd of drunk, rowdy country fans to shut the hell up by strumming the opening bars of “Friends in Low Places.” Few songs can focus a room’s attention as quickly as Garth Brooks‘ 1990 mega-hit, which updated the time-tested drinking-song template for a new decade. The song’s premise was dismal — a sad sack crashes his ex’s wedding, steals her husband’s champagne and makes plans to go get stoned after the groomsmen kick him out — but that didn’t really matter. What did matter was the way the drums paused for four beats during the chorus, prompting every country fan from Los Angeles to Lower Broadway to howl the “ooooooo-asis!” lyric at the top of their lungs.
Actually, what mattered most of all were the in-roads that “Friends in Low Places” bulldozed into the landscape of Nineties pop culture. It was a good decade for country music, an era of multi-platinum releases by the Dixie Chicks and crossover chart-toppers by Shania Twain. Before those ladies enjoyed success on both sides of the pop/country divide, though, Garth Brooks got there first… and, like a true Southern gentleman, he opened the door.
The 33rd Annual Grammy Awards were held on February 20, 1991, four months after “Friends in Low Places” first climbed to the top of the country charts. The song was already a hit, but for many mainstream music fans (and, by extension, a good chunk on the Grammys’ TV audience), Garth Brooks was just a random guy in a cowboy hat, someone whose songs could sell millions of copies below the Mason Dixon Line but couldn’t find their way onto pop radio anywhere else. With that in mind, Brooks turned his Grammy performance of “Friends in Low Places” — delivered during the middle of the ceremony, somewhere between MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love” — into a full-fledged country spectacle, with rotating set pieces, costumes and choreographed dance routines by actors who looked like extras from the set of Beverly Hills 90210.
Was he drawing a connection between the pretentiousness of the performance’s first “scene” — a high-class wedding in which he, dressed in street clothes and a black beaver Stetson, looked woefully out of place — and the holier-than-thou vibe of a music community that had yet to fully embrace his style of music? Maybe. Garth never hammered the point into the ground, though, choosing instead to focus on the delivery of a song that celebrated the simple, homespun things in life. He made more than a few friends that night, too — so much so that the next time he stepped onto the Grammy stage, it was to accept the 1992 “Best Country Vocal Performance” award for Ropin’ the Wind.