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The spirit of country-and-western

Jefferson Chase explains how you can't take the whisley out of country-and-western
By Jefferson Chase
To say that whiskey has influenced country-and-western is like saying that Catholicism influences the Pope. The list of country-and-western drinking songs runs from Cigareets, Whusky and Wild, Wild Women to Sick, Sober and Sorry. There’s an old joke: “What do you get when you play a country record backwards? Answer: You get your house back, you get your wife back, your momma gets out of prison and you get sober.” But alcohol – and specifically whiskey – is not just a song topic, but an integral part of the song writing process. So much so that the abbreviation C & W could also stand for ‘country and whiskey’.American whiskey and music evolved together. Whiskey had been produced in the United States since at least the 1770s, but the art of distilling took a leap forward in the mid-1800s with the arrival of waves of Scottish and Irish immigrants to the Appalachian mountains region. Rural, isolated and largely impoverished, the area had two chief forms of entertainment: home made spirits and home made music. The first country groups were literally jug bands, and if you’ve ever wondered why country vocalists sing so funny, the answer lies in the pentatonic scales of Scottish and Irish folk songs. Johnny Cash performs Mary of the Wild Moors on his most recent record, Solitary Man, and traditionals like Whiskey Before Breakfast remain standard in the country repertoire.Contrary to popular stereotypes, however, country isn’t just white folks’ music. The banjo is a variation of an African stringed-gourd instrument, and bluegrass, as the first recorded genre of country came to be known, follows the structure of the blues. Early recordings are correspondingly primitive, but most of the familiar elements are present. Dock Boggs’ Country Blues from 1927, for instance, features a wild woman, a stretch in jail, a prayer for salvation and a taste for grain alcohol: “Give me cornbread, when I’m hungry, good people / Give me corn whiskey, when I’m dry / Pretty women standing around me / Praise heaven, when I die.” The man walked it like he talked it: Boggs did his first recording sessions on a Sears & Roebuck Supertone banjo and a half-pint of white lightning. It wasn’t until the early 1940s that mandolin-player Bill Monroe would codify the classic bluegrass sound, but when he did, he established a musical genre as distinctively American as Jack Daniels.Monroe was a rather sober fellow, more archivist than party-hound, but the same cannot be said of Jimmie Rodgers, regarded by many as the father of country. Rodgers was a railroad brakeman who travelled throughout the South during the early 1920s, soaking up stories and musical ideas. Rodgers’ career on the rails ended in 1924, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, an affliction which killed him in 1933 and for which he was prescribed whiskey. That medication had its influence on songs such as Gambling Barroom Blues: “I headed on back to the barroom, stopping in at the car / There I met a policeman sitting in a motorcar / We kept drinking lots of liquor, that flat-footed cop and I / I thought he would never leave me. I knew he had todie.” That’s as close as Rodgers gets to mentioning whiskey directly in his songs: seemingly, specific terms like wine and even gin were used to refer generically to alcoholic beverages, and commercial musicians like Rodgers had to be careful during Prohibition to avoid ruining their careers. Rogers did record a song called Prohibition Has Done Me Wrong, but his widow gave the only existing copy, along with Rodgers’ guitar, to fellow musician and problem drinker Ernest Tubb, who managed to destroy it.“We play both types of music: country and western.” There’s more truth to that joke than the scriptwriters of the Blues Brothers realised. As Jimmie Rodgers was popularising country music in the South, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were inventing Texas Swing further out West. In contrast to country’s yodelling vocals and simple guitar rhythms, Texas Swing sounds like big band jazz with fiddles and drawls. Here, too, booze inspired the beat – Wills was fired from his first gig with the wonderfully named Light Crust Doughboys for showing up with whiskey on his breath, and he was a problem drinker until his death in 1975. So Wills tried to keep alcohol under wraps. Some of his collaborators, though, were more forthright. Tex Ritter recorded the traditional Rye Whiskey in 1933: “If you don’t give me rye whiskey, I surely will die.”And Floyd Tilman put a more rueful spin on things in 1946 with Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin: “My sweetheart is gone and I’m so lonely / She said she and I were through / So I started out drinking for a pastime / Drivin’ nails in my coffin over you.” All that was required for country to meet western was a songwriting genius. Enter Hank Williams. Williams’ brand of music, known as Honky Tonk, combined driving western rhythms with country vocal styles. Just as rock’n’roll and jazz were synonyms for sex, a honky tonk was a bar, and the verb ‘honky-tonking’ meant to go out and tie one on. Williams’ classic, Honky Tonk Blues, is about a hangover: “Well I went to the dance and I were out of my shoes / Woke up this morning, wishin’ I could lose / Them honky tonk blues.” But the music’s buoyancy, and the fact that it was meant for the barroom, inverted the message. Williams, anyway, was the last to heed cautionary advice, often performing drunk and dying an alcohol-related death in 1953 at the age of 30.Honky Tonk evolved into rockabilly in the ‘50s and then into Outlaw Country and Country Rock in the ‘60s and ‘70s. As it did, whiskey came out of the closet. While Johnny Cash warned against it, Willie Nelson praised its power to console and Hank Williams Junior celebrated getting joyously sloshed on it. It was in this period that the most famous country recordings were made. The irony, of course, was that while artists were singing with unprecedented candour about the pros and cons of heavy whiskey consumption, most of them were using far harder stuff. Cash was an amphetamine addict, and choirboy-faced George ‘No Show’ Jones had a drug intake that would have made Keith Richards blush. The strangest figure from this period is Lee Hazlewood, composer of These Boots Were Made For Walking, whose complexly arranged songs and faintly surreal lyrics conjure up ‘60s and ‘70s hedonism: “I see those empty whiskey bottles / And records scattered on the floor/ And from the next room I hear crying / Then I remember the night before.” Hazlewood is probably the only country musician to prefer single malts to bourbon, and certainly the only one to settle in Sweden. Nonetheless, his music retained a down-to-earth, country quality.As country music gained in popularity, it was also subjected to Nashville executives’ fondness for overblown production and big profits. Whiskey had become a country cliché, but most songs had nothing to do with rural existential crises and boisterous roadhouse benders. A revival was inevitable. Its surprising source was Gram Parsons, a Harvard-educated rock musician. In 1972, Parsons decided to make a record in the style of his idol, Merle Haggard. The results were two LPs (GP and Grievous Angel) of achingly melodic vignettes that were much more country than anything Nashville was churning out. Running through an imaginary dialogue with an absent wife, he warns her: “So don’t play this crazy game with me no longer / ’Cause I won’t be able to resist my rage / And the gun that’s hanging on the kitchen wall, dear / Is like a road sign pointing straight to Satan’s cage.” Like all country classics, Parsons’ songs are multifaceted, encompassing anger and regret, instinct and reason, damnation and salvation. And like many of country’s pioneers, Parsons died young: at the age of 27, in a motel room, after an orgy of intoxication and sex. But he founded the ‘trad country’ style that continues today, albeit without the wild excesses. More interesting than revivalism is alt country, the ‘alt’ standing here for alternative. As a hilariously obscene website by ‘Whiskey Rebel’ puts it, “country and western is the next level beyond punk rock,” and indeed the beginning was a record made by a punk band, The Mekons, from Leeds in 1985, called Fear and Whiskey. Similar developments were occurring on the other side of the Atlantic, where the music was louder and faster, but the melodies and sentiments were pure Hank Williams. The St Louis band Uncle Tupelo led the way. Their 1990 song Whiskey Bottle has the singer in a bar, contemplating the sound of “people chasin’ money and money getting’ away”: “A long way from happiness / In a
three-hour-away town / A whiskey bottle over Jesus / Not forever, but just for now.”That’s a good phrase to end on. It’s a cliché to praise things by calling them timeless. The opposite is the case. Country music and whiskey are great, when they are as ambiguous and compelling as a single moment in time. In that, too, country and whiskey are soul brothers.