Country Music and Alcohol

My most popular post here was about country music getting happier, and there was a great article in the Washington Post recently with a specific case: alcohol in country songs was once about drowning your sorrows, now it’s about having a good time. How far would you get today with lyrics like this?

If I wait up at home I’ll only ask her questions
She’d probably tell the truth, so I don’t even ask
So I sit here on this bar stool feeling helpless
And I wonder just how long a man can last

The article quotes older singers talking about “Hank Williams Syndrome,” but of course the real predecessor of today’s “bro country” is Jimmy Buffett, who was a country singer himself until he found a better business model. He still had that bittersweet vibe in “Margaritaville,” maybe the happiest sad song ever recorded, but that album was “one of his last stands before plunging into a sea of parrotheads” — and meanwhile, Nashville was about to be taken over by the “country hunks” of the ’80s and ’90s like Randy Travis and George Strait, who sang mostly about how much they loved you and not as much about alcohol. When Buffett returned a couple decades later to join one of them for “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” the message was clear: country had finally caught up to him, and drinking was fun again.

Today’s country bros have to do the Randy Travis songs and the Jimmy Buffett ones, switching from devoted boyfriend to drunken frat boy from one song to the next. That can’t be easy! Who can blame them for cashing in with their own branded spirits while drinking Gatorade from fake bars on stage?

In all seriousness I have nothing against these guys, and the alt-country authenticity police (who I think of as “NPR country”) can be just as annoying. But there’s also no point in pretending that nothing has changed. And it’s not just the lyrical content, but a loss of ironic distance and self-awareness.

For a long time it seemed almost impossible to write a parody or pastiche of a country song, and every rocker who tried wrote a great country song in spite of themselves (Tom Waits, Fountains of Wayne, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen) that country singers were happy to cover. You can’t wink any harder at someone than they’re winking at themselves.

And when it comes to the old country drinking songs, you can’t wink any harder than “wine me up, turn me on and watch me cry for you” or “I’m the king of barstool mountain.” And conversely, you can’t cry any harder than “there stands the glass that will ease all my pain” or “whiskey river, take my mind.” But notice how little divides the first type from the second, and how these singers were able to straddle humor and pathos while they nursed their heartbreak at the bar, without giving in fully to either one. That smiling-through-the-tears effect is hard to define, but I think it’s what classic country fans are really missing when they look at what’s popular now.

Those lines at the beginning were sung by Gary Stewart, a mid-level star in the ’70s and one of the last great traditional honky-tonk singers, whose other hits included “She’s Acting Single, I’m Drinking Doubles” and “She’s Got a Drinking Problem (And It’s Me).” His career stalled in the ’80s, he struggled with addiction, and in 2003 he shot himself after his wife’s death. “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” was at the top of the charts.

Well, alcohol did Stewart no favors, but he had bigger problems, and it’s probably too easy to talk about someone like him “living their music.” Country has no shortage of troubled drinkers who died too young, but they weren’t all barroom honky-tonkers. One of the worst cases was Ira Louvin, who sang about Jesus and clean living, and addressed alcoholics in the third person as a pious scold. And of course there are other cautionary examples throughout popular music, with Avicii as just the most recent.

So if anything, what once set country music apart was not an obsession with alcohol, but the ability to show both sides of it in the same song. It‘s easy to laugh at lyrics like “the bottle won’t kill you, it’s the stuff inside,” but it’s also possible to take them too seriously. Either would be missing the point.