Drinking: The Backbone of Country
Ever have those weeks where everything you see reminds you of one particular topic?
For me this week, that topic is drinking.
Or rather, not drinking. Not one of my favourite topics.
Recently, after reading articles about people drinking less, discussions of getting healthy, etc., I saw that my friend posted that he was embarking on his annual “Juiceless January”, so I thought to myself, ‘ok, don’t make plans with him until February.’ I mean, it would be fine…we’ve seen each other like twice before and had non-alcoholic drinks, but our conversations are definitely more fun when they’re lubricated.
Then this week, because of recent health problems, I realized that I had to really, completely give up drinking for awhile. Kind of heartbreaking, because there’s a half bottle of good wine still kicking around, but I absolutely can’t do it. I know it’s temporary. No big deal. But the result of it is that now I am avoiding friends because we can’t do our usual form of socializing, and rather than explain why I’m not drinking with them, it’s easier to say I’m too busy and we’ll catch up soon.
Not drinking is a popular subject this week, as people detox from the holidays, make new year’s resolutions, and anyway, are sick of socializing and don’t feel the same social pressure to drink as they did last month. I’m not a resolutions type (why would January be any different from the other months? I’m on a constant quest-and-failure cycle of self-improvement…aaah ha ha), so I’m not on that bandwagon, but I do sympathize. A couple times a year, I pull myself together and stop buying alcohol, and work out a little harder, and as a result sleep better, feel better, and fit into my pants better. It never lasts long, and if one thing brings my habit back, it’s marking season. I once collected a couple hundred essays, left work, and crossed the street to go into the liquor store. In front of me in line were several boys from my class. “Pssst…” said one, “Our prof is behind us!” and they all turned around in wonder. I knew what they were thinking as they laughed nervously: “Miss! You drink?!”
Now, look, I don’t get drunk before I grade (though some students are probably happy to argue that I do), but I might face that enormous pile of grammatical infractions with one drink by my side, as a sort of reward as I work. I’m not alone; a running joke in my office is how our lives run in cycles: the drinking season begins at week 6 in the term, when midterms come in.
I certainly don’t drink like I used to. Age and early morning responsibility have made hangovers highly unappealing. I used to bounce out of bed after 12 tequila shots the night before and head out to my job scanning losing lottery tickets, but I’m not physically capable of those things anymore. Last month, I promised myself at a party that I would only have two glasses of wine; that turned into a bottle and me cornering my friend’s boyfriend in the bathroom line-up to talk about Metallica, and a really awful hangover the next day. I’m too old. And besides, that behaviour is just stupid, and can lead to dangerous – or at least undesirable – situations. When my friends and I were at the height of partying in our 20s, we made some rules: never leave until we’ve found everyone to go home together; always take a cab; and never take boys home (no matter how cute they are). In fact, the one time we half broke our rule by letting two visiting British Air Force guys share our cab on a snowy night in July (no, not a typo), we were ironically hit by a drunk driver (I don’t mean “hit in an ironic way”, btw), and pulled out of the car with the jaws of life, and we ended up spending the night with them anyway in the emergency room.
The problem is, in my line of work, you kind of have to drink. I’m not making excuses, nor am I trying to be that “cool girl”, the one that protagonist Amy hilariously complains about in Gillian Flynn’s book Gone Girl. It’s pretty hard to go out and see country shows, or meet musicians afterward for interviews, and not drink. It just makes everyone more comfortable when you agree to do it, and you feel like you’re part of the community when you participate the same way everyone else does. I’m just as bad as my friends in exerting the gentle social pressure of drinking on others, not wanting to be the only one in a group.
I’m not saying that when you go to a reggae show or a rock concert that you’re not going to be drinking, even if that “drinking” is carefully parcelling out sips of your $15 stadium beer over the course of three hours, but I do think that country music rewards the act of drinking more so than other genres.
I don’t think anyone who has listened to a few country songs would disagree. Other genres might reference other substances, instead of, or in addition to, drinking:
And country sometimes gets on board:
No question other genres, like early blues, have lyrics that centre around drinking and the “activities” that result from too much booze; I’m not saying that country is entirely special in this regard. But drinking is a subject that is accepted – no, expected – in country, probably because much of its repertoire developed in bars or at community gatherings rather than in nice concert halls. Probably also because drinking has generally escaped as a legal form of self-numbing; something that was socially acceptable even in conservative sites rich with country music like the South. Or Alberta. Honky tonk was a name for a kind of bar before it was a kind of music, as such, one would expect the lyrics focus on the reason the music became popular. And with cheating, divorce, fighting, being at the centre of many country songs, it only stands to reason that those things usually don’t start happening when people are sober, so drinking operates as a silent foundation to countless other tunes not specifically about liquor.
That might explain why Proper Records was able to release a four-CD set of mostly country songs about drinking, and that set doesn’t really include any recent material.
So in celebration of my unwanted but necessary Juiceless January, I intend to listen to songs about drinking in lieu of (sob) what I’d like to do.
There are the classics:
Then there are the new drinking songs, like this Justin Rutledge tune performed by Rutledge, NQ Arbuckle, and Carolyn Mark:
Finally, there are the new generation of classics, either in the form of covers, or new compositions in an old style:
Cheers, everybody. Or…not. 🙁