Country Music's Complicated Relationship With Alcohol

By David Konow 07/05/18

From songs about drowning heartache with whiskey to ones about partying with rum, country music's link to alcohol is almost as old as the genre itself.

musician playing the banjo

Country music has been associated with drinking practically since its incarnation, but in the age of recovery some think the relationship between the popular music genre and alcohol has become more complicated.

The Washington Post recently chronicled the long-running relationship between alcohol and country music.

Country musicians have a long tradition of writing songs about drinking and drowning your sorrows in alcohol, to the point where Nashville has even been jokingly called “a drinking town with a music problem.”

It’s also been a big part of the music’s culture since the days of Hank Williams, a hard-partying country star who was a bad influence on a lot of his peers. After a long battle with alcoholism and pill addiction, Williams died from a heart attack at the age of 29.  

Songwriter Bobby Bare, who recently wrote a song called "I Drink," told the Post, “Everybody I know wanted to be like Hank Williams. And everyone I know bought into the drinking. You figure if Hank did it, it must be OK.”

Late country icon Waylon Jennings called it "Hank Williams syndrome," according to the Post.

In a 1988 interview, rising country star Keith Whitley said, “I thought everybody had to drink to be in this business. Lefty Frizzell drank, Hank drank, George Jones was still drinking, and I had to. That’s just the way it was. You couldn’t put that soul in your singing if you weren’t about three sheets in the wind.”

Whitley died at 33 years old from alcohol poisoning in 1989.

But the modern country music scene has refocused its relationship with alcohol. Now, there are more songs about drinking and having a good time, á la Jimmy Buffett, and a lot of modern country musicians often have to keep up their party image, even when they’re sober.

It’s an image that’s being projected to a much younger audience. The Country Music Association reports that the 18-to-24 age group of country fans has increased by 54% in the last decade.

As the president of Sony/ATV Music Publishing in Nashville told the Post, “For the younger country consumer, alcohol in a celebratory manner is very relatable.”

Brad Paisley, who is sober, had a big hit with the song "Alcohol," and he brings out a bar onstage when he performs the tune, even though the drinks on tap are usually non–alcoholic.

Dierks Bentley told the Post that at his gigs, “People are coming out to blow off steam and have a great time. I’m kind of like the lead bartender: Jumping up on the bar table, drinking shots with you and singing ballads with you like at an old Irish pub somewhere.”

In today’s country music climate, some artists have been afraid to be openly sober. Ray Scott is one country artist in recovery who was concerned that fans would turn against him because he stopped partying.

He told Variety, “Some fans can kind of build you up to be this thing that they think you are, and a couple of these songs sort of painted a picture of who I was. I’ve been pleased that people take it for what it is. It’s just fun music; I don’t have to live the part.”

Today’s country scene is also strongly connected with alcohol companies who make a lot of money when artists namecheck their brands. Kenny Chesney launched a successful rum company that sponsors his tours, and the company’s sales have nearly tripled in the last three years.

The country group Smithfield has even pointed out the paradox of singing a sad drinking ballad, "Hey Whiskey," while they have an endorsement with Rebecca Creek Distillery.

As Smithfield singer Jennifer Fiedler confessed, “It’s kind of weird, because if you listen to the song, we always wonder, ‘Why do we have a whiskey endorsement?’ Because it’s like, the whole song is about how whiskey ruins [a] girl’s relationship—but hey, we’re handing out whiskey.” 

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.