Does Country Music Need An Alcohol Intervention?

Dierks Bentley
John Russell/CMA

Dierks Bentley performs at LP Field on Thursday, June 5 during the 2014 CMA Music Festival in downtown Nashville.

The stewardess in Dierks Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane" is "leanin', pourin' Coke and whiskey." The woman in Lady Antebellum's "Bartender" is ordering a double shot of Crown. The guy in Brad Paisley's "River Bank" is hauling a six-pack but dreaming of tequila shots.

Does country music need to enroll in a 12-step program?

"No. 1, first step, is admitting we have a problem," says WCTK Providence, R.I., PD Bob Walker with a laugh.

Some consumers apparently think the business has one. WCTK got the message loud and clear when Walker recently asked listeners in the station database what they would want him to relay to Nashville.

"The most common theme was, 'What's up with all the drinkin' songs?'" he says. "We sat here, my staff and I, looking at it and thinking, 'This is weird.' We know it's kind of an issue, but [drinking has] always been country's thing. That'd be like, 'Hey, what's up with all the saxophones on the smooth jazz station?'"

Country certainly has a history with the bottle, though the whiskey has rarely flowed so freely. Seven of the 60 songs on Hot Country Songs contain a drinking reference in the title: "Drunk on a Plane," "Bartender," Eric Church's "Cold One," Frankie Ballard's "Sunshine & Whiskey," Little Big Town's "Day Drinking," The Brothers Osborne's "Rum" and Jerrod Niemann's "Buzz Back Girl." If Tyler Farr's "Whiskey in My Water" had stayed on the chart an extra week, the total would be eight.

By comparison, the chart had only three alcohol-related titles one year ago: Kenny Chesney's "When I See This Bar," Toby Keith's "Drinks After Work" and Eli Young Band's "Drunk Last Night."

"It's symbolic of the good-time party aspect of what's working for country," says radio consultant Joel Raab of this year's total.

It may not be such a good time, though, to introduce a new song with a drinking theme. Programmers routinely code their music scheduling systems to identify songs with alcoholic content, and many purposely keep at least a 20- or 30-minute window between those titles. As the number of liquor-coded titles goes up, so does the possibility that a song about beer will lose a spin here or there as the scheduling software skips over it.

Or, in Walker's case, he simply puts drinking songs on hold until the established titles burn sufficiently. This spring, he waited a few weeks to even listen to "Drunk on a Plane," since the station playlist was already hopped up on alcohol. More recently, "Day Drinking" faced the same delay.

"I won't add a song knowing [it might lose spins] because then it will never develop," Walker says. "I would wait until I have the hole to add it. That's more important than putting on a Dierks song and going, 'Well, Dierks is only gonna get three spins a day.' It's gonna constantly keep getting knocked out."

The obvious drinking titles are just a tipsy tip of the iceberg, though. Many songs are now featuring a line or two about alcohol in passing, usually to play up the party spirit. Joe Nichols' "Yeah" references a fruity concoction, Billy Currington's "We Are Tonight" houses two 12-packs in the truck bed, Tim McGraw's "Meanwhile Back at Mama's" has beer in the fridge, Chesney's "American Kids" threads a Jack Daniels reference into the second line, and Dustin Lynch's "Where It's At (Yep, Yep)" incorporates Pabst Blue Ribbon in the second verse. Added to the Bentley, Lady A and Paisley singles, that makes eight songs in the current top 10 with some reference to spirits.

"Like anything, you keep pushing the boundaries and seeing what you can get away with," says Broken Bow Records Music Group executive vp Jon Loba. "And with the whole bro-country movement and the party themes, [drinking is] going to be there."

Country of course has a lengthy history related to alcohol, though the relationship has changed dramatically. Such classic country titles as Merle Haggard's "Misery and Gin," Gary Stewart's "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)," George Jones' "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" and Eddie Rabbitt's "Drinkin' My Baby (Off My Mind)" typified the mind-set of the times those songs were released.

"The old guys were regretfully drunk," says songwriter Adam Wright, whose current Lee Ann Womack single, "The Way I'm Livin'," embodies the same attitude. "The new guys are proud to be drunk. There's a little bit of a different spin."

Attitudes toward alcohol changed in the 1980s. Gene Watson has long held that the rise of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1980s killed his single "Drinkin' My Way Back Home" prematurely in 1984. Perhaps coincidentally, as country began to focus more on the female half of its audience over the next 15 years, alcohol became less prevalent in the format. There were still drinking titles and references, to be sure - Highway 101's "Whiskey, If You Were a Woman," Garth Brooks' "Two Pina Coladas" and the "pyramid of cans" in Alan Jackson's "Chattahoochee," to cite a few -- though the volume pales in comparison with 2014.

The '90s also saw several Alcoholics Anonymous tales that represented the change in attitude: Chesney's "That's Why I'm Here," Diamond Rio's "You're Gone" and Collin Raye's "Little Rock."

Luke Bryan's producer, Jeff Stevens, remembers agonizing with co-writer Steve Bogard over the whiskey reference in the opening line to the 1996 George Strait single "Carried Away" that they wrote together. The lyric ultimately worked.

"It was actually a surprise," says Stevens, "because people hadn't heard anything about drinking for a long time."

Country's creative community is already imbibing a little less, though it may not be apparent yet on the airwaves. Bryan's current single, "Roller Coaster," employs "Bacardi on her lips" to describe a love interest. Cole Swindell and Michael Carter wrote it three years ago, before country's drinking got out of control, and Swindell hints that they might have addressed that line a little differently were they writing it now.

"A lot of stuff you write doesn't come out for a little while, and by that time stuff is overplayed," he says.

Loba has seen Music Row's songwriters cut back in the last year in apparent anticipation of a beer backlash.

"A year ago it seemed like 75 percent of the songs that were pitched -- and it didn't matter the artist -- had some kind of bro-country, drinking, party theme to it," says Loba. "It just became white noise. I would say within the last six months, there's been more balance, and it's been driven by that awareness. It's not special if everybody's doing it."

If the fans follow the lyrics' lead, then those who are lamenting the overuse of alcohol will likely put an end to the trend. Alcohol-fueled behavior at a July 26 Keith Urban concert in Mansfield, Mass., created 46 emergencies with 22 people sent to the hospital, according to The Boston Herald. A reporter with The Plain-Dealer debated in print whether or not he wanted to go to another stadium show after the Jason Aldean/Miranda Lambert gig at Cleveland's Progressive Field, where he witnessed intoxicated fights and vomiting.

WKLB's Walker indicated that after the Urban concert, he'll keep his teen daughter at his side when they attend Bryan's show at Gillette Stadium. It's a good bet that all of those concerns -- the growing staleness of the alcohol references, the music-scheduling problems and the perceived safety issues at shows -- will force country to reassess its alcohol content.

"I always feel like this stuff rights itself," observes Raab. "It goes too far in one direction, and then we swing back."

"There's one thing that I know for a fact: Things are gonna change," agrees Stevens. "When they do, we'll move on to something else, and two years from then, we won't want to hear as much of [that]. But now is an excellent time to be coming out with something different."