If there’s one song in the alcohol-soaked history of country music that tells it how it is, it’s Merle Haggard’s 1966 hit, “Bottle Let Me Down.” The title describes the tragic moment when the alcoholic bottoms out and admits the booze just doesn’t work anymore.
Haggard, who died last month at 79 of causes unrelated to alcoholism, would be the first to admit he was drawing on his own experiences as a drunk. And although it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest Haggard had anything more in mind than a sad song when he sat down to write it, it’s still an excellent piece of songwriting.
In two simple verses and a repeated chorus, Haggard describes the tragedy of alcoholism. In his unmistakable Okie drawl—oft imitated yet never bested—Haggard laments the failure of his nightly drinking session to kill the pain of a lost love. He simply can’t drink enough to forget. As the verse lifts into the chorus, he repeats his sadness and he croons his belief that the one “true friend he’d found” couldn’t help squash the memory of his departed lover.
In the second chorus, he sings of his recent his uptick of the number of daytime drinking bouts. Again, alcohol fails to shield him from the tragedy of lost love. The wine, he says, has just stopped working.
These woozy laments have been around since cowboys started strumming tunes out on the range. But it’s interesting to note the change in attitudes to drinking in country music over the course of the last 30 years. Nobody’s singing about their heart broken in Nashville anymore, they’re singing about their hangovers.
Webb Pierce’s 1953 western swing classic, “There Stands the Glass”—written by Audrey Grisham, Mary Jean Shurtz, and Russ Hull—predates Haggard’s tune by a decade. It could easily be the prequel for the latter’s moments of clarity. In the Pierce tune, the narrator sits in front of his first drink of the day and explains how it’s all going to dull the memory of, you guessed it, a lost love.
You can’t really write about country music and alcoholism without mentioning Hank Williams. Himself a victim of alcoholism, he wrote many great gospel, country and country-blues songs. But it’s a song he never released that is his most curious. In 1950, the Alabama-born Williams wrote, but never recorded, the song “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” It was his son, Hank Williams Jr., who made the song a successful hit in 1989. It’s another song about a man drinking and crying over lost love. He sheds “a million tears” into his “last nine beers.” Through some wizardry in the recording studio, Hank Jr.—or Bocephus, as he is also known—recorded this song as a duet with his dead father. He sang his vocal parts around his father’s voice, making superb harmonies. He also managed to appear in the accompanying video with him as well!
It’s completely creepy, but the video mash-up that features father and son, still stands up today as clever piece of “video magic” (as they might have said in the 1990s). In the black-and-white footage, Hank Sr. is seen singing “Hey Good Lookin,'” but as Junior steps in from the 1980s, daddy’s lips are somehow singing along to a “There’s a Tear in My Beer,” a song, remember, that he never even recorded.
Garth Brooks’ witty 1990 song “Friends in Low Places” is a clear successor to the bleary-eyed laments of our honky-tonk heroes. Dewayne Blackwell and Earl Bud Lee’s layered story has the protagonist gatecrashing a “black tie affair” (perhaps the wedding of an ex?). After making a fool of himself, he slips off to the “oasis” to chase his blues away. Unlike Haggard and Pierce’s lonesome drinking, Brooks is not alone. Surrounded by friends, he convinces himself that he’ll be okay.
Contrast these sad songs with Gretchen Wilson’s 2005 tale of a chaotic night of drinking, where the only purpose seems to be to get absolutely shit-faced. In “All Jacked Up,” written by Wilson, John Rich and Vicky McGehee, Wilson describes a night of out of control drinking, including a bar fight, lost car keys, drunk driving (attempted) and a trip to the emergency room. Sure, it masquerades as a morality tale, but we all know it’s a salute to binge drinking.
Wilson flips the traditional country gender roles, and Lady Antebellum’s recent hit “Bartender” does, too. Written by Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Rodney Clawson, the song tells the tale of a heartbroken woman convinced to join her girlfriends for a night of shots and dancing. It has tragedy buried in the minor key of the chorus. She, too, has another motive—to forget her ex. The chorus is again a tribute to drowning your sorrows, but this time, the boozing has a more modern feel to it, with dancing and flirting with strangers that never goes too far.
Gretchen Wilson’s roller coaster ride is a typical—if much better written—early indicator of the change in tone of country music in the 2000s. For example, Blackjack Billy’s inane celebration of drinking, 2013’s “The Booze Cruise,” includes the recipe for the redneck martini. This is, apparently, straight tequila:
Sadly, people loved “The Booze Cruise.” It became the biggest selling iTunes download for a band without a major record label deal that year. There’s perhaps an argument that it could be the bastard son of a Hank Williams Jr. drinking song, like “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” This simple, mainstream 1984 song is probably only interesting because Nashville legend George Jones appears as a cameo in the video and arrives on a tractor. It’s certainly a brilliant setup for his song “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down,” which Williams released a few years later.
“All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down” is maudlin tale. Admitting his wilder years are behind him and hangovers are getting worse, Bocephus bemoans the fact that all his hardcore partying buddies from the earlier song have not only disappeared, but settled down. Even the tractor-driving George Jones has sobered up.
This song really is worth a listen. It’s the voice of a confused alcoholic slowly realizing his hostage-taking days are over. Highly confessional, it name-checks his fellow country music hell-raisers like Kris Kristofferson, who has moved to LA, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, who have settled down with their respective spouses. He doesn’t miss a beat when he mentions his father’s song “Lost Highway,” and muses that perhaps, that may well be his destination. Hank Williams Jr. never penned a more elegant song.
On the other hand, Jerrod Niemann’s horrible recent smash, “Drink To That All Night,” is about as far from country as you can get. It’s garbage with a banjo thrown in for credibility. I recommend you watch just to remember how good Haggard really was.