“I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home”
Written by Dewayne Blackwell
The story lines from 1999’s season one of “Family Guy” ranged from Peter Griffin battling his television addiction to Lois almost instantaneously developing her own bad habit while making an emergency rest-stop at a Native American-run casino to Peter punching out an androgynous pregnant woman at his son’s soccer game.
The vulgar humor of this then-new comedy was powered by offensive non sequiturs. It depended largely on obscene and insensitive characters living impulsively and consequence-free despite their outrageous and hurtful actions. A perfect example of this played out in episode four titled “Mind Over Murder” when Peter was placed under house arrest.
Rather than repent for the pain he inflicted, Peter worried about how the house arrest would punish him. The show’s writing staff created a solution to Peter’s dilemma every bit as selfish as it was appalling; anxious his friends will no longer have a reason to visit him, Peter builds a bar in his own basement.
Seventeen years earlier, however, Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame inductee Dewayne Blackwell conceived of a similarly outrageous solution to the problem of a home-wrecking alcoholic husband routinely drinking away his paycheck at the local bar.
Blackwell mixed the answer to his character’s boozy bind with a creative twist. In the song, an exhausted wife succumbs to the old maxim, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” and commits to her own absurd home renovation to keep the marital check book balanced.
A perfectly improbable overture to the rest of the story, the song title says it all: “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home.”
The single was a number one Billboard hit in 1982 for B-list country star David Frizzell, the younger brother of country music legend and vocal pioneer Lefty Frizzell. The song was also a massive cross-over hit in Canada.
It was David Frizzell’s only solo number one country hit. He had previously reached number one the year before singing with Shelly West in a duet titled “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.”
That smash was from the soundtrack to Clint Eastwood’s 1980 film Every Which Way You Can which, incidentally, provides a pretty good peak into a Hollywood version of bar life from that era.
In many ways “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home” is as culturally insensitive to the disease of alcoholism, and its larger societal implications, as is Peter Griffin’s response to social anxiety and his own lack of remorse for his reprehensible actions.
On the other hand, the conceit of the joke floats in the comedic ether where the world-as-it-should-be and the world-as-it-is blur. Garth Brooks offers a generous perspective on this fuzzy middle ground in a 2021 Billboard magazine interview discussing Blackwell’s 1982 hit. Brooks said, “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.”
Brooks is no stranger to Blackwell’s song writing. Blackwell wrote his 1990 genre defining, mega-smash hit “Friends in Low Places” with Earl Bud Lee. Additionally, Brooks covered Blackwell’s “Nobody Gets Off in This Town” on his eponymous debut and “Mr. Blue” on his second album No Fences.
The common thread running throughout these tangled cultural touch points and tangents is inappropriateness, so please bear with me.
Now, there is mention of something in the lyrics of ‘I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home” as equally familiar to me from my Minnesota upbringing as was the community of drinking men to Brooks’ Oklahoma raising.
It just wasn’t as loud or obvious as room full of drunks. Rather, the easily missed detail of the song tickles the skin like a gentle breeze across “rippling waters” with an inviting “call to cool enchantment.”
I am talking about Hamms’ beer.
What more inappropriate place to begin analyzing this classic country single than looking at the classic premium lager originally brewed in St. Paul, Minnesota. It nurtured generations of loyal, under-aged beer drinkers across the country with other breweries in Los Angeles, Baltimore, San Francisco and Houston.
In the golden age of television, Hamms ran a series of beer ads from the late 50’s right up into the early eighties featuring adorable cartoon characters playing sports. A culturally appropriated indigenous tom-tom drumbeat played behind the madcap wildlife scenes. The TV commercials ended with the chanted Minnesota-centric jingle “From the land of sky-blue waters, from the land of pines, lofty balsams, comes the beer refreshing, Hamm’s, the beer refreshing.”
What’s more, I am pretty sure those Hamms ads aired early on Saturday afternoons when kids like me were watching yet. How wrong is it I still have a hard time teasing apart the allure of the Hamms’ beer commercials from the similarly animated educational School House Rocks shorts that aired Saturdays as well?
From “Conjunction Junction” to “hints of lakes” and “sparkling and dancing sunset breezes,” addictive cartoons poured into my thirsty imagination, going straight to, what no doubt was, my perfectly foamy head.
In Blackwell’s song, the Hamm’s bear had the blurry attention of the bar patrons for a different reason. The iconic bear on the clock had the unfortunate burden of announcing closing time.
At the peak of its popularity as the fifth largest brewery in the United States, the Hamms bear had a hold on the entire nation’s imagination. Commercials featuring the bear were so well known that newspapers purportedly printed the television broadcast schedule so fans could watch them. Said to be sketched by a creative director for an advertising firm on a napkin in a Minneapolis restaurant in 1952, the bear was one of the most recognizable brand mascots of its generation.
Popular enough that Blackwell felt including a clock featuring the bear would make the newly built bar sound as familiar as the Monday Night football playing on the TV above it. Product placement and cultural context never felt so cozy.
And as Brooks pointed out earlier, this song is all about familiarity.
Blackwell described the wino-inspired decor in recognizable detail, from the sawdust on the floors to the payphone on the wall to the neon sign pointing to the bathroom down the hall. The once exasperated housewife is relieved, she doesn’t have to cook anymore because now she can get away serving hard-boiled eggs and pretzels.
This new home-bar is a full-service male sanctuary. Family quarrels have become testosterone-soaked barroom brawls. The faithful wife even goes out of her way to placate his rising machismo by keeping in stock soft aluminum cans he can crush “like a man.” Unfortunately, the man cave comes complete with Neanderthals and a pre-historic attitude to sexual boundaries.
If the appropriateness of this song was only hanging on by a thread at this point, it gets cut “clear to here.”
As if she hadn’t already done enough for her roaming husband, his better-half surrenders her domestic dreams so he can feel even more at ease by bring some of the bedroom into the barroom. She puts on something sexy, which she cuts-off even further, to offer some eye candy for his work friends, eliciting looks from them Peter Griffin would later describe as “eye-humping”.
Even in our imagination this bar must be in Quahog, Rhode Island because at so many points in the song, the listener is left to wonder where the cut-off point is for these characters.
Wherever that line is drawn, the drunken lout stumbles across it.
In a horrible reminder of just how “handsy” an entire generation of men were, the scantily clad bar-wife invites her husband to “slap her bottom every time he tells a joke.” She will endure the sexual abuse and workplace gender discrimination so longs as he keeps on tipping. She commits to letting the behavior run its course until he is broke.
Hopefully, it’s because she knows the joke is ultimately on him. She is the resilient wife who, not only gave up her home so her husband wouldn’t have to crawl home each night, but also lets him sleep off his bender the next morning. The catch is, this savvy spouse, interior designer, and server will be busy depositing his folding money into their bank account while he does.
That’s the rub to our modern sensibilities. She stays, and from her perspective the loony solutions to a serious drinking problem are a success. Money saved. Problem solved. Marriage saved.
Alcoholism be damned.
What keeps us from groaning with discomfort when we hear this story with modern ears is what Garth Brooks reminded us; the song is funny.
We need to remember in 2022 that the song was intended to be silly forty years ago as well.
Nobody ever built either a bar or a marriage with this song as an instruction manual.
The song, however, is an excellent example of song writing. It is fantastically well written. Blackwell’s trademark perfect rhyme scheme is on full, crisp display. The characters, though not real, are immanently relatable and familiar. Despite being aware of all its baggage, the song still makes me laugh and smile as memories of listening to it play out alongside the Hamms’ bear in my imagination.
If Hamms is still the beer refreshing, “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home” is still the song outlandish.