Does country have an alcohol problem? It has definitely created a problem for songwriters committed to staying fresh.
"It is getting harder to write those songs, and I think it should be," suggests Burgess. "You can wear something out, and you know, there's certain lifestyles you can only keep up with for so long. Ironically, drinking is one of them."
Getting drunk is such a stereotypical activity in the genre that it was listed among the elements of the "perfect country and western song" in David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name," but alcohol has not always been prominent. When Randy Travis reenergized traditional country in the mid-1980s while mostly avoiding adult beverages as a topic, the thirst for liquor dwindled. The trend turned around so strongly that three hits in the late-1990s — Collin Raye's "Little Rock," Diamond Rio's "You're Gone" and Kenny Chesney's "That's Why I'm Here" — took on 12-step recovery themes.
Drinking became prominent again in the mid-2000s, thanks in great part to a string of Toby Keith titles, such as "Whiskey Girl," "I Love This Bar" and "Beer for My Horses." By the time of the "bro-country" era around 2013, Music Row uncorked a round of songs about small-town field parties, and the genre has kept its buzz going ever since.
"Even 10 years ago," says songwriter Josh Osborne ("Sangria," "Drinkin' Problem"), "when you would sneak alcohol into a song, it felt a little more risky or a little more taboo or whatever. But people have a love/hate relationship with [booze], and I think that makes it interesting."
Still, keeping it interesting is more challenging than ever. Certain phrases — "Take a sip," "Jack Daniel's," "Fill your cup up" — are pretty much cliché. That doesn't mean a songwriter can't use them, but the context is significant.
"There are clichés that come up in songwriting for country music a lot, and I think people like hearing [some of them], too," says songwriter Jesse Frasure ("Sun Daze," "Whiskey and Rain"). "We're just trying to find fresh ways to do it. I worry more about putting trucks in songs than I do alcohol. At least there's a lot of different ways we can spin the alcohol thing, but man, we run out of Silverado and F150 references pretty quickly."
The artist's context plays a role in just how much alcohol writers can pour into a song. Brett Young, who set "Catch" in a bar, is willing to use adult beverages to establish the scene. But he avoids characters that overindulge.
"I'm always reminding people, ‘Hey, my brand is PG-13,' " he says. "So you can talk about drinking, but we're not going to talk about getting wasted."
Thanks to cultural double standards, women have to know their limits, too. It's one of the reasons that men flourished when heavy drinking became prominent in the bro-country era and women did not.
"As a listener, I don't really want to hear it from a woman, but somehow it's kind of acceptable for a guy," says "Hide the Wine" singer Carly Pearce. "Stupid, and stupid that I would even feel that way. But I think as women, we want to hold ourselves to [having] some sort of class."
Country may have also overserved beer and wine to its listeners thanks to a pair of clubs, Winners and Losers Bar & Grill, at the edge of Music Row in Nashville. Plenty of songwriters have spent time at the bar before a late-night writing session or in an afternoon break from writing, and when they get back into the room, ideas from those rounds of drinking have found their way into such modern successes as Maren Morris' "I Could Use a Love Song" and Cole Swindell's "Break Up in the End."
"It truly is the watering hole, and I think one of the heart and souls of this town," says Burgess of Winners and Losers, noting that COVID-19 has reduced trips to the bar in 2020. "I'm really not wanting it to go away. As much as the hangovers started hurting a little more, the older I get, I really want to see live music in these bars. Come back, man, as quickly as possible."
Ultimately, the current flood of alcohol references is cyclical. But since songs usually take 18-36 months to hit the radio after they're written, it's tough for writers to predict what alcoholic terms will be in vogue by the time a tune reaches programmers' earbuds. Thus, writers do their best not to get swayed too much by current playlists and simply write the song at hand on a particular day. "The idea is the idea, and if you get an idea that pertains to alcohol, you write it the best way you can," says Old Dominion's Matthew Ramsey. "No matter what subject that we are writing, we're trying to avoid the cliché — or exploit the cliché — as much as we can. It's no different with alcohol than with a breakup song or a love song. It just happens to be a tangible and popular subject."
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