Clearing space for sober stories in country music

Clearing Space for Sober Stories in Country Music

January 20, 2021 8:00 am GMT
Last Edited November 17, 2023 4:58 pm GMT

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It looks like country music has a drinking problem – songs have become saturated with references and metaphors to alcohol. Although country has long relied on the theme of drinking, balancing Saturday night parties with Sunday morning atonement, a growing number of contemporary songs avoid that complexity, bringing up alcohol so frequently that it feels more opportunistic than honest. That trend fails to reflect shifting societal attitudes about drinking, and in turn to broaden the stories that could be told.

Despite the presence of alcohol at nearly every imaginable activity (drunk yoga, paint and sip, boozy book clubs), generational shifts regarding alcohol consumption are slowly but surely changing. Millennials - the age group responsible for fueling much of country’s growth over the past decade - are drinking less than previous generations, and Gen Z seem poised to bring that number even lower.

But, stepping back from the generations, the reality is that most people in the U.S. don’t drink much. According to a study released in 2014, only30% of consumers drink moderately or heavily. Alcohol companies know this and have started offering more non-alcoholic products, sales of which have been increasing while beer sales stagnate.

For some, moderation has become an increasingly appealing choice - an answer to all of the social events that now involve alcohol. “Many Millennials - and especially the urban, college-educated consumers prized by marketers - might just be tired of drinking so much,” writes The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull. For others, the “sober curious” movement offers a way to abstain, without taking part in often stigmatized recovery or 12-step programs. Either way, drinking doesn’t seem to hold the appeal it once did.

But contemporary country paints a different picture. A study out of Northwestern University found that 36% of country music lyrics mention alcohol, and recent songs point to that trend continuing. Lady A’s ‘Champagne Night’ tops Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” as of writing, while Morgan Wallen’s new sophomore album contains six songs with alcohol or alcohol-related language in the title (‘Wasted On You’, ‘Your Bartender’).

Even songs that don’t detail the act of drinking still rely on alcohol-related euphemisms. Carrie Underwood’s ‘Wine After Whiskey’ applies the title phrase to explain how a less exciting relationship feels after the heady ‘whiskey’ romance she lost, while Maren Morris’ ‘Drunk Girls Don’t Cry’ uses that quip to pull a “Girl, please” moment while counseling a friend about a guy who’s supposedly changed. “That’s like saying ‘drunk girls don’t cry,” she sings.

All of those songs about drinking leads to a “rather bland listening experience,” according to Grady Smith. Nadine Hubbs, professor of music and gender studies at University of Michigan, and author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, puts it another way: “They’re thinning the sauce.”

Alcohol has a storied history with country music, dating back to the hillbilly and blues songs that influenced the budding genre. “Alcohol became a liquid agent of lots of different impulses,” explains Hubbs. It provided a framework to sing about “carousing and partying and hard living and misery,” which eventually metered out into the division that became Saturday night’s thrills or Sunday morning’s regrets. Those two themes went “running in a river of alcohol through the entire history of country music,” says Hubbs. “A big, strong river with powerful currents.”

In recent years, however, that river increasingly sounds like it churns to the tune of the market. Singing about alcohol is big business. A growing number of artists own or lend their name to an alcohol brand, including Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown, Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, and Miranda Lambert; many, such as Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley and Florida Georgia Line, own bars in downtown Nashville. On the note of Lambert, it’s worth mentioning that women have historically been kept from participating in a lot of barroom songs, which traditionally privilege masculinity. female and LGBTQ artists have rightfully been reclaiming that space, but that’s another matter for exploration.

Singing about alcohol, then, isn’t so much about the honesty of earlier tunes as it is a money-making venture that, one could argue, borders on product placement. Though not every song goes so far, it’s getting harder to tell the difference.

Given the seemingly alcohol-soaked environment, sobriety may seem out of place in country, but a growing number of contemporary artists have chosen to abstain, including Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, and Brantley Gilbert, who celebrated nine years of sobriety in December. The importance of their representation in country - first as sober artists, and next as sober storytellers - cannot be understated. Representation is a crucial gesture, a way to add texture to the overall tapestry of country, and offer listeners a variety of perspectives. Songs grow repetitive when limited to detailing the thrill of drinking or the way it eases heartbreak. “It narrows the range of emotions and meanings that are possible,” Hubbs says.

Clearing space for other stories, especially stories about addiction, recovery, and sobriety, makes room at the table for other experiences. Jacob Bryant’s 2014 song “This Side of Sober” and Dan + Shay’s 2016 song “How Not To” helped achieve just that. The latter’s moving video opens on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, following two people - a man and woman - who are beholden to their addictions.

Country adjacent Singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly opened up about his struggle with drug addiction on his 2020 album Shape & Destroy. On ‘Mid-Morning Lament’, he sings, “I wanna spike my coffee but I know where that leads / And it ain't the safest feeling / When the angel on your shoulder falls asleep.” In the wake of his sobriety, any substance could be a dangerous road. Later in the song, he circles back to the craving, which tugs harder this time, so much so that he begins questioning the point of staying clean: “And so what I spike my coffee?/ Maybe I’ll never learn.”

Kelly’s honest lyricism adds nuance to the conversation about alcohol in contemporary country and its surrounding genres, nodding to the ways in which early country and honky-tonk artists sang about the sauce. For all of his carousing songs, Jimmie Rodgers also charted with ‘A Drunkard’s Child’, illustrating the fallout from drinking, while Webb Pierce’s popular hit ‘There Stands the Glass’ showcased dependency. “There stands the glass that will ease all my pain / That will settle my brain, it's my first one today,” Pierce sings.

Kelly is part of a growing group of sober artists who don’t play strict country but work within the influence of the genre. Katie Crutchfield’s latest album as Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud, was influenced by Lucinda Williams and dealt with her new sobriety, while Jason Isbell documented his relationship with alcohol in 2013’s standout Southeastern and across subsequent albums, and has been publicly open about his sobriety. For listeners who chart a different course than regular or heavy drinking, hearing songs that don’t reinforce alcohol as a pleasurable choice - or as the only choice - brings them into the picture; for those new to recovery, it’s endlessly helpful to be represented in a larger cultural way - knowing you’re not alone is powerful.

While writing songs about addiction and sobriety may not have the same radio impact as the many alcohol-laden songs topping the charts, making space for those stories paves an important path for sober artists as well. In 2017, Gilbert shared his fears about remaining successful after giving up alcohol, telling mentor Keith Urban, “I don’t think I can do my job. I don’t know if I can ever play a song at my shows without being (messed) up. Or writing, I was worried my songs wouldn’t be the same, that I wouldn’t be on everyone else’s level. It’s a drinking environment". There can and should be room for both sides.

No one is saying to put the bottle down. Metaphorically, alcohol services a story well, encompassing life’s highs and cradling its lows. But it’s grown tired from overuse. As country reckons with its need for greater diversity - across gender, race, and sexuality - the same goes for its storytelling. It’s time for new tales about alcohol and its aftermath.

Written by Amanda Wicks