By Kurt Wolff
In Country Clichés Unraveled, Radio.com takes a look at common subjects that have populated country songs for decades. This week the subject is drinking.
As long as we’ve been drinking, we’ve had songs about drinking. And nowhere have the two been a better match than in country music.
From the genre’s earliest recordings in the 1920s, right up to the present day, alcohol has been a hugely popular subject — approached from all angles. Country songs have let us experience the good times (hello, “Red Solo Cup”), but also taken us down into the wells of sadness that too-often results from its abuse. When George Jones, for instance, sang a song like “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” we could all see the darkness and feel his pain.
If the River Was Whiskey
One of the most colorful country performers in the early days of country music was Charlie Poole. Among his many rollicking recordings were such booze-soaked gems as “Take A Drink On Me,” “Goodbye Booze” and “If the River Was Whiskey” (which is not to be confused with a Spin Doctors song of the same name).
For Poole, life was a party and drinking helped fuel the fun, and he aimed to pass that attitude along in his music. “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck,” Poole sang joyfully, “I’d dive to the bottom and I’d never come up.”
Other artists at the time, though, warned against the problems of alcohol. And one of the more unusual of these songs was “Jake Leg Blues” by the Allen Brothers.
Recorded in 1930, the song refers to a drink called “jake,” shorthand for Jamaican ginger extract, which was developed to skirt Prohibition laws. Unfortunately, some of the Jamaican ginger drink available came to include a neurotoxin that damaged muscle control. This affected, among other things, the way people walked, and the resulting shuffle became known as “jake leg” or “jake walk.”
One of the earliest bluegrass recordings also spun a dark tale involving alcohol, in this case the sort made from grapes. In song “Little Glass of Wine,” the Stanley Brothers tell the story of a jealous man who kills his “one true lover” (and himself) by adding poison to their drinks.
Tears & Beers
During the honky-tonk era, the darkness of drinking turned inward. Dour souls nursed their drinks at lonesome roadside taverns, while twangy voices and the newly invented pedal-steel guitar emphasized the sadness that was already permeating the air.
Then Hank Williams famously rhymed ‘tear’ with ‘beer,’ and the barroom weeper became a full-blown country standard.
Many others followed, including folks like Carl Smith, Hank Thompson and George Jones. Jones’ career included numerous drinking songs, but among his earliest recordings were the mournful “Cup of Loneliness” and the wild and wicked “White Lightning.”
One of the most successful artists of that era was Webb Pierce, who in 1953 held the No. 1 spot on the country charts for an astounding 12 weeks with “There Stands the Glass.” The focus of Pierce’s sad-sack ballad is that first drink of the day, the one that, as he sings, will “ease all my pain” and “settle my brain.”
Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound
The popularity of drinking songs didn’t slow down in the decades ahead. During the 1960s, artists like Jerry Lee Lewis continued the in the honky-tonk tradition with the self-deprecating “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” while new star Merle Haggard famously sang about “Swinging Doors” and how, despite frequent attempts to sober up, “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
By the time of the outlaw era in the 1970s, things got grittier. Whiskey was apparently a drink of choice for many, including Gary Stewart, who sang of taking a “Whiskey Trip” (“whiskey, you’re a friend of mine/You can blow away my mind”). Willie Nelson echoed that sentiment in “Whiskey River,” In a song that quickly became one of his signatures. David Allan Coe asked for “Jack Daniels, If You Please,” while Hank Williams, Jr. made no apologies and simply stated he aimed to get “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.”
It was another of the era’s rising stars, though, Kris Kristofferson, who added a new layer of quiet introspection to the average country song. One of his best remains “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a song ostensibly about battling a hangover with cigarettes and beer for breakfast. This, however, leads to a Sunday morning stroll, and it’s listening to kids playing and church bells ringing that hints at redemption (even though he is “wishing Lord that I was stoned”).
During the 1980s, George Strait sang of having a taste for honky-tonks and bourbon in “Friday Night Fever,” while the wife in David Frizzell’s song “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home” aimed to keep her man at home by making it look like his favorite tavern.
A decade later, Travis Tritt complained that “The Whiskey Ain’t Working,” but at the same time, Garth Brooks famously turned a bad situation encounter at an uptight wedding into joyful barroom camaraderie with “Friend in Low Places.” The latter proved that not all drinking songs needed to be downers — which, coupled with songs like Brooks and Dunn’s “Beer Thirty” and Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” set a trend for the modern party song that’s still going strong today.
I Love This Bar
Today’s country artists sing about alcohol probably more than during even Hank Williams’ day. The difference is, though, it’s all about a good time. The characters in the songs aren’t using booze as a means to forget their troubles the way Hank, Merle and Webb Pierce were doing, they’re looking to fire things up. They’re downing beers (or tequila) with friends at a tailgate party on a Friday night, or maybe a little later in the evening, sipping Southern Comfort with their romantic partner as they wait for the “Night Train” to roll on by.
And, of course, they’re doing much of this drinking out of the now-infamous “Red Solo Cup.”
Beyond that Toby Keith anthem (and many more in his arsenal, including “Beer for My Horses” and “I Love This Bar”), the 21st century country landscape is riddled with songs about the happy marriage between party-people and alcohol.
Brad Paisley got straight to the point with his 2005 hit “Alcohol,” and Joe Nichols didn’t aim for subtlety, either, when he revealed that “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.” Gretchen Wilson brought a rowdy female perspective to songs like “All Jacked Up” and “Here for the Party,” while Kenny Chesney made having a “Beer in Mexico” feel like the perfect getaway.
Drinking is a regular part of hits by current superstars like Blake Shelton (“Boys Round Here,” “Some Beach” and of course “Drink on It”) and Luke Bryan (“All My Friends Say,” “That’s My Kind of Night”). Bryan did dip into sadness with his recent single “Drink a Beer,” but the beer in question wasn’t being used as a crutch — it served as a tribute to a lost friend.
Don’t get me wrong — troubles are still a part of today’s country landscape. Kip Moore, for instance, lost his job in “Beer Money.” At the same time, that didn’t stop him from cutting loose with his friends as a way to ease his mind and remember that life doesn’t need to stand still.
Same goes for Dierks Bentley‘s character in one of his more underrated songs, “Tip It on Back.” He and his family may be facing hardships (“I see Main Street closing” and “them fields ain’t growing”), but the “sweet release of a Friday night” offers a much-deserved break, when “for a couple of hours we can run this town ’til it runs dry.”
While both songs are basically about ‘drinking to forget,’ they offer a more positive spin on that familiar narrative than the drinking songs that dominated country music half-a-century ago. For these guys, drinking is just a way to let off steam — kind of the way the blue-collar guy did a few decades back in Merle Haggard’s hit “Working Man’s Blues” (“Might drink a little beer at a tavern, sing a little bit of them workin’ man blues”).
A similar attitude drives “Bartender,” the brand-new single from Lady Antebellum. In that song, a woman goes out on the town with friends as a way to get over a bad breakup. Sure, she drinks to get the guy off her mind (“Go until they cut me off/Wanna get a little lost”), but it’s a release.
And maybe that’s the key. In today’s country songs, the characters aren’t so much moping about, feeling like losers and crying into their cocktails. They face hardships, sure — who doesn’t? — but rather than turning into the sort of people lining the bar in George Jones’s “Bartenders Blues,” they’re aiming in the direction of resiliency. And that, at least, feels like a healthy step forward.
Read about more Country Cliches on Radio.com:
- Country Clichés Unraveled: The Generation Gap
- Country Clichés Unraveled: Tailgate Parties
- Country Clichés Unraveled: Nostalgia and The Good Ol’ Days
- Country Clichés Unraveled: Drinking Songs
- Country Clichés Unraveled: ‘Mama Tried’