Country music's sobering truths
ARLINGTON, Texas — As the temperature inched toward 92 degrees in the parking lots outside Kenny Chesney's concert in May, the beer cans were icy, the Jell-O shots were melting, and the T-shirts were direct: "Country Music and Beer, That's Why I'm Here." "Pour Me Something Tall and Strong." "Make America Drunk Again."
Brightly hued bottles of Blue Chair Bay Rum, the country superstar's popular beverage brand, lined the tables at tailgates around AT&T Stadium, where fans gathered hours before the first opening act went on at 5 p.m. When the crowd of about 46,000 started streaming into the venue, some friendly patrons near an entrance offered a beer bong funnel to passersby, and cheers erupted whenever anyone took on the challenge.
"Tequila, baby!" one man yelled nearby. Across the street, participants in a mother-daughter tailgate ticked off why summer Chesney concerts are so appealing: "Beer, songs, sunshine." That night, Chesney, who has found immense success in the past two decades selling the idea of island-style relaxation, would reference alcohol in 18 out of his 23 songs.
Although fans imbibe copiously at concerts of every genre, all of which boast songs about drinking, it's possible that no slice of American life has embraced alcohol with the enthusiasm of country music. The two have gone hand-in-hand for decades, thanks in part to the so-called "tear in your beer" songs that helped make the format famous.
But today, country music and alcohol are inextricably linked as never before. Not only has the genre become known (and sometimes mocked) for its sheer amount of drinking-themed songs, but an increasing number of country acts have created their own brands of booze, including Chesney's rum, Blake Shelton's Smithworks vodka, Miranda Lambert's Red 55 wine and Toby Keith's Wild Shot mezcal.
In June, Shelton and Jason Aldean opened bars in downtown Nashville. They join recent establishments from Florida Georgia Line, Alan Jackson and Dierks Bentley, each of whom has a musical catalogue that pairs naturally with a few drinks.
"I know what's going on at my shows. People are coming out to blow off steam and have a great time," said Bentley, whose current tour is sponsored by Twisted Tea. "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."
Every artist - even those who don't drink - knows the power of relating to audiences through drinking, even if it's in appearance only. Brad Paisley closed his 2012 concert tour set list with one of his biggest hits, "Alcohol," during which he would invite his opening acts back onstage. A makeshift bar was brought out, and drinks were poured - except, according to one opener's band member, the liquid was actually lemonade Vitamin Water.
However, when hearing "country music" and "alcohol" together, some people are reflexively defensive. Traditionally, the conjured image is not flattering, from the early-1900s "drunk hillbilly" stereotype to summer 2014, when country concerts saw a spate of intoxication-related hospital trips and arrests, and one death.
But that connection is changing, as the genre is skewing younger and wealthier than ever. According to the Country Music Association, fans of country music ages 18 to 24 have increased by 54 percent over the past decade, and the format has grown in popularity on the coasts - not just middle America, as many assume. The CMA also reported country music consumers have an average annual household income of $82,000, above the national average, and that amount is climbing.
Decades ago, when the country format was scorned as niche music of the working class, the prominence of alcohol fed into the cliche of drowning your sorrows at a honky-tonk. Now, it's the reverse. Modern country singers promote alcohol largely as an escape: partying with friends, having wild nights on the town or - for singers like Chesney who lean into the tropical, Jimmy Buffett vibe - sitting on the beach with a drink in hand.
"Alcohol no longer serves as a sign of the distance between country music listeners and the middle class culture," country music historian Diane Pecknold said, "but as a sign of the similarity."
The holy grail in country music can be summed up in one word: authenticity. And if there's one star who sums up authentic country music, it's Hank Williams, the singer who inspired generations of artists by writing hits such as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "I Saw the Light" and the classic drinking song "There's a Tear in My Beer."
In 1953, Williams died of a heart attack at age 29 after years of alcohol and prescription drug abuse, and his influence lived on in more ways than just as an artist. Bobby Bare, who launched his country career in the 1960s with "Detroit City" and released a song this year called "I Drink," about the effects of alcoholism, remembers that trying to trace Williams's path was a popular tactic in Nashville.
"Everybody I know wanted to be like Hank Williams. And everyone I know bought into the drinking," Bare said. "You figure if Hank did it, it must be OK."
The late Waylon Jennings, who long struggled with drug addiction, called it the "Hank Williams syndrome."
"I studied him. ... He was out of control, and that was the part I picked up, the bad part," Jennings told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. "I think a lot of people did that, because it looked really romantic to be crazy and wild and die young."
This thinking led to tragedy, such as Nashville crooner Keith Whitley dying at age 33 of alcohol poisoning.
"I thought everybody had to drink to be in this business," Whitley said in an interview not long before his death in 1989. "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."
Before Williams' time, country music had been associated with alcohol as far back as the early 1900s, when many acts hailed from Appalachia, known as moonshine territory. The connection grew and faded over the years, from the 1950s honky-tonk bar craze to the alcohol-heavy outlaw era, followed by the 1980s, when people became increasingly aware of the dangers of alcohol. Mothers Against Drunk Driving reportedly protested Gene Watson's "Drinkin' My Way Back Home" in 1983, and it stalled on the charts. Keith said his record label didn't want to release "You Ain't Much Fun" in 1995, about a guy who sobers up and suddenly can't stand his wife.
As country went mainstream in the 1990s and 2000s, the topic became more popular, and varied: Although hits including Gretchen Wilson's "All Jacked Up," Tracy Byrd's "Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo" and Keith's ubiquitous "Red Solo Cup" celebrated getting drunk, some warned about the downside, such as Billy Currington's "Walk a Little Straighter" and Chesney's hit "The Good Stuff."
Then, the past six years or so brought the rise of "bro country," and suddenly, it seemed every hit on the radio was a dude singing about drinking beer in his truck with a pretty girl by his side. From Luke Bryan's "Drunk on You" and Aldean's "My Kinda Party" to Cole Swindell's "Chillin' It" and Shelton's "Boys Round Here," the songs appealed to the new surge of younger listeners.
"I think that today, the consumer likes to be in the car, turn on the radio and hear something that's upbeat that they can sing along with and feel good," said Troy Tomlinson, president of Sony/ATV Music Publishing in Nashville. "That doesn't mean there won't be a serious ballad with pain. But for the younger country music consumer, alcohol in a celebratory manner is very relatable."
No matter the decade, country singers search for that elusive "authenticity," which experts say remains somewhat linked to Williams - and alcohol.
"Today, country singers will still throw out references to Hank," said Travis Stimeling, an associate professor of musicology at West Virginia University. "If you want to establish you're a real country musician ... you go back to same imagery and same symbolism."
At Chesney's Texas concert, Nichole Anderson of Arlington stood near a pickup truck, where a group of friends had beers in hand and explained why tailgating at a Chesney concert is almost as important as the show itself.
"He just makes you want to be part of a family, and this is what this family is," Anderson said. "The parking lot pre-party, hanging out."
The most boisterous tailgate was in Lot 12, and known as Lot 12 Nation; Chesney's fandom is called No Shoes Nation, a play on one of his biggest hits, "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems." ("The sun and the sand, and a drink in my hand with no bottom / And no shoes, no shirt and no problems.") Chesney songs and pop hits blasted on speakers as people played flip cup and cornhole, snacked on barbecue and kicked back in lawn chairs. A human-size flip-flop and an enormous inflatable bottle of Blue Chair Bay Rum were popular spots for selfies.
Natalie Bechard of Starkville, Mississippi, is a founder of Lot 12 Nation. About 2006, a small group met on a Chesney cruise to the Bahamas and decided to start tailgating together at his Dallas shows. Now, hundreds show up. At one point, the tailgate's DJ announced that Bechard's car got towed while she was helping set up - so he started a collection for her next to the funds they already raised for Chesney's charity.
It was a far cry from what some might imagine happens at country tailgates; Chesney concerts have made headlines in other cities, such as Pittsburgh and Foxborough, Massachusetts, for getting rowdy.
In Texas, though people had stories from previous years of some fans getting a bit out of control, the tailgating scene was fairly low key.
"You're always going to have a few that stick out," Bechard said. "But so far, everybody's been really great. It's just having fun, enjoying the great weather. We've become one big family celebrating Kenny and his music and the spirit of his music."
No country star sells escapism quite like Chesney, who has two hit songs on country radio this summer: "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," a duet with David Lee Murphy that encourages people to stop stressing out, and "Get Along," which encourages everyone in this crazy world to just, well, get along.
So it made sense when Chesney (who declined to comment for this article) decided to start selling rum, a drink that goes well with relaxation. The singer owns a home in St. John and told Forbes that he wanted his flavored versions "to try to capture my life in the islands." Now, his rum company sponsors his concert tours.
In 2016, Forbes reported Chesney's annual sales had almost tripled over three years, in a time when overall rum sales had dropped; according to Nielsen data, country fans outspend average music listeners by 12 percent when it comes to rum.
Someone at Chesney's level can earn millions through alcohol brands and sponsorships, which is why other country stars have had the same idea. Lambert, Little Big Town, Sara Evans, Zac Brown Band and Craig Morgan all have sold wine; Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn has his own vineyard outside of Nashville. There's also whiskey from Jake Owen and Darius Rucker, along with tequila from George Strait.
Florida Georgia Line, the duo of Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, burst onto the scene in 2012 with their smash "Cruise" and proved to Nashville there was an appetite for party songs. They were vocal about their love for Fireball whiskey and even mentioned it in their hit "Round Here."
"We reached out (to Fireball) and asked how it benefited them, and they said it was pretty drastic," Hubbard said. "That made us feel good. But also, it made us think, why don't we start our own brand?"
So they collaborated on Old Camp peach pecan whiskey, which combines the flavors of their home states mentioned in their band name. As the brand has taken off, they've named-dropped it in songs. In "Smooth," they sing about "young love buzzing off an Old Camp bottle by the moon." Morgan Wallen collaborated with the duo on "Up Down," which has the line, "Somebody pass that fifth of Camp this way."
Last year, they furthered their image as young guys who love to have a good time with the opening of FGL House in downtown Nashville, a restaurant and bar that has lines down the block on Saturday nights.
Endorsements are key, as well. Whereas advertisers once hesitated to partner with country stars, it's been proved that they can sell big-ticket items. Aldean replaced lyrics in "Take a Little Ride" because he signed a deal with Coors Light ("grab a couple Rocky Tops" instead of "a little Shiner Bock").
In Nashville, Budweiser has signs that say it's "the official beer of beer drinking songs." And while women have had difficulty getting alcohol sponsorships ("I love alcohol! You would think a beer company would sponsor me," Lambert told W Magazine in 2012), Maren Morris recently partnered with Corona Light.
Companies will even endorse groups who sing tunes that aren't so happy. Smithfield, the duo of Trey Smith and Jennifer Fiedler, broke out with the ballad "Hey Whiskey," about a woman who dreads when her ex drinks, because then he calls her. The duo has an endorsement deal with Rebecca Creek Distillery.
"It's kind of weird, because if you listen to the song, we always wonder, 'Why do we have a whiskey endorsement?' " Fiedler joked. "Because it's like, the whole song is about how whiskey ruins the girl's relationship - but hey, we're handing out whiskey."
Nashville, which some winkingly call "a drinking town with a music problem," has a well-established culture of alcohol: Writers say that grabbing a few beers is common after - or during - a songwriting session. This can make it difficult for the people in the industry who don't drink.
Some high-profile singer-songwriters are sober, though they don't advertise it. Others, such as Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, have spoken out about not drinking. Brantley Gilbert, who went to rehab in 2011, said that he relied on the guidance of Urban, who had gone through rehab five years earlier.
"I told him, I don't think I can do my job. I don't know if I can ever play a song at my shows without being (messed) up," Gilbert told the Tennessean last year. "Or writing, I was worried my songs wouldn't be the same, that I wouldn't be on everyone else's level. It's a drinking environment."
Gilbert still knows the appeal of drinking songs and sings about partying on tracks such as "The Weekend" and "Bottoms Up." He's not the only one: Chris Janson, not a frequent drinker, had a big hit with "Fix a Drink" and released a single called "Power of Positive Drinkin'." AJ McLean of the Backstreet Boys, who is sober, recently decided to embark on a country music career and assumed the best way in was a debut single called "Back Porch Bottle Service."
Ray Scott, known for "Sometimes the Bottle Hits You Back" and "Drinkin' Beer," has been sober for more than a year. Initially, he was concerned fans would be disappointed to learn he didn't drink.
"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," Scott said. "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."
Behind the scenes, despite the casual drinking, country music isn't necessarily the crazy party some might think.
Jason Fitz, a former fiddle player for the Band Perry, is now an ESPN radio host. The Band Perry opened for Paisley on tour in 2012, which is how he came to know that the cups from the onstage bar actually contained Vitamin Water. (Although Paisley is also known for not drinking, his publicist said the onstage bar now serves beer and has in the past, yet added that it's possible previous tours had water because he featured opening acts younger than 21.)
"I get asked so often, 'Tell me your craziest backstage story!' People think I'm joking when I say, 'There really aren't that many,' " Fitz said. "You get into the grind on the road - we were on the road for about 300 days. I don't care who you are, you can't party and survive that many days."
Even artists with a party-heavy playlist echo this attitude. "We like to have a good time but maybe drink a little bit less than we used to," said Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line. "As our manager says, if you're gonna party like a man at night, you've gotta work like a man in the morning."
Chesney is also a prime example. As his lyrics celebrate having a drink, from the "little umbrella-shaped margaritas" in "How Forever Feels" to a "cold drink chilling in my right hand" in "When the Sun Goes Down," he's also in killer shape. He didn't lose a second of intense energy in his nearly two-hour set.
"I probably don't drink as much as perceived. I'm too healthy," Chesney told Parade magazine in 2010. "But a lot of my songs were written with the idea of having a good time."
There's no doubt the audience appreciates this. And as Nashville continues to see dollar signs (a CMA study this spring found "country music consumers are spending more on alcohol" these days), artists will keep singing about it.
The mutual benefit is a marked difference from decades ago, when there was a negative connotation of even listening to drinking songs in country bars. Now, those establishments embrace the image. And even a Sirius XM satellite radio station proudly plays "music of country-themed bars and honky-tonks across America." It's called Red, White & Booze.