When Toby Keith records a song titled “Weed With Willie,” we get the joke immediately. Willie Nelson’s marijuana usage is, by now, both legendary and widely viewed as kind of a quirkily adorable habit for an 80-year-old country singer whose own titles include “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.”
Lately, however, drug references of all kinds have been creeping into country songs, several of which have become radio hits in a genre long held to more stringent family friendly guidelines than other formats. This suggests the famed “contemporary community standards” by which radio programmers base content decisions may be shifting.
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Even while some country stations are still deleting the word “cocaine” from Kid Rock’s 2002 single “Picture,” and a radio version of Eric Church’s 2012 top 10 single “Creepin’” replaces the word cocaine with “nicotine,” similar language in other singles is getting a free pass.
The Band Perry’s recent No. 1, “Better Dig Two,” references meth. In his own recent No. 1, “Wagon Wheel,” Darius Rucker sings about having “a nice, long toke.” Kacey Musgraves sang about “mary jane” in her debut single, “Merry Go Round,” and Chris Janson got “buck wild, hell bent and stoned” in his recent single, “Better I Don’t.”
While ambiguous enough that it could be a reference to either drugs or booze, Luke Bryan sings, “I got that real good, feel good stuff/Up under the seat of my big black jacked up truck” in the opening line of his current hit, “That’s My Kind Of Night.”
Church’s 2009 single “Smoke A Little Smoke” (as well as album cuts “I’m Getting Stoned” and the “grass”-referencing “These Boots”) have set the tone for that singer’s emerging image as a devotee of Nelson’s most notorious habit. In fact, some of the T-shirts Church sells on tour and on his website feature pot leaves in their design.
In an interview with Playboy, Church spoke about the reaction to “Smoke A Little Smoke.” He told the magazine, “Everyone said, ‘You’re crazy. It’s an openly pro-pot song. Radio’s not gonna play it.” But radio did. The single peaked at No. 16. Playboy went on to note that “there have been plenty of weed anthems in country—by artists including Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Randy Houser and Toby Keith—but they are rarely released as singles.”
That appears to be changing. Warner Music Nashville’s newly released radio single from Ashley Monroe is “Weed Instead of Roses,” in which she asks her lover to bring her ganja instead of the more traditional token of love. And according to songwriter Shane McAnally, the third single from Mercury artist Musgraves will be the fearless and feisty “Follow Your Arrow,” in which she invites listeners to “roll up a joint, or don’t.” McAnally wrote the song with Musgraves and Brandy Clark.
On albums cuts, the drug references are numerous. Pistol Annies (of which Monroe is a member) sing about “tokin’” in the song “Hush Hush.” In “Mexicoma,” Tim McGraw sings, “I’m sitting here stoned.”
So, have contemporary community standards changed to the point where such references are no longer controversial or concerning from a programming perspective?
“Community standards have indeed changed—particularly with the recent influx of younger listeners [and] a heavily shared audience between country and pop stations,” says Bob Barnett, operations manager for Entercom’s Rochester, N.Y., radio cluster. But that doesn’t meant the tide has shifted entirely.
“Based on what we’re seeing at WBEE, the numerous drug references remain somewhat of an issue with the older end of the country audience,” Barnett says. “While they may not be considered controversial, it doesn’t mean that they are accepted or embraced. Far from it.”
For JVC Broadcasting director of country programming Phathead, the use of drug references “depends on the context, how it’s said and where in the song it’s used. Is it repeated over and over? Is it used just once as a throwaway line? These subtle things make it either appropriate or inappropriate.”
“Listener feedback leads me to believe that the increase in references to getting high is barely tolerated by those with more traditional values,” says Barnett. “It still boils down to the family friendly nature of the format. Parents are concerned with the message being sent to children/teens via the music. Country has been a bit of a musical safe haven over the years (with the exception of drinking songs) and that appears to be slowly changing . . . We still do receive complaints and comments about the changing nature of country music.”
But that may vary from market to market. Don Gosselin, operations manager for Clear Channel’s New Orleans cluster, including country WNOE, reports, “We have never had a listener comment about a drug reference in a song. But keep in mind, this IS New Orleans!” Still, he says, “We are always very cautious to make sure any song we play would not make a parent driving their kids to school uncomfortable.”
Adds Phathead, “The one thing I would hate to see is the floodgates open up and these words are thrown around with no thought . . . We need to make sure it doesn’t become a habit!”