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Why Drinking Is King in Country Music, Even for Sober Artists

Booze is as much a staple of the country music scene as boots and back roads, and a recent article in the Washington Post looked into that connection and the influence of alcohol on Nashville, whom some cheekily refer to as “a drinking town with a music problem.”

According country musicians interviewed, having the appearance of using booze as pleasure or to drown sorrows is a major factor in being considered “authentic” in the Nashville scene. This is a holdover from the days of Hank Williams, a country idol who died at age 29 of a heart attack after a life of alcohol and substance abuse. As the Post points out, this view has led to the death of several country music stars.

“I thought everybody had to drink to be in this business,” country singer Keith Whitley said in an interview not long before his death at the age of 33 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.”

However, alcohol also plays a key role in drawing brand sponsorship dollars to the Nashville music business. When writer Emily Yahr asked Florida Georgia Line about their music’s relationship to alcohol, and name-checking Fireball whiskey in their hit “Round Here,” GFL member Tyler Hubbard said, “We reached out [to Fireball] and asked how it benefited them, and they said it was pretty drastic. That made us feel good. But also, it made us think, why don’t we start our own brand?”

He added, “We like to have a good time, but maybe drink a little bit less than we used to. As our manager says, if you’re gonna party like a man at night, you’ve gotta work like a man in the morning.”

This led to the group branding a peach-pecan whiskey brand, and they aren’t alone. As Yahr writes, companies will even reach out to sponsor artists who write about the dark side of alcohol, such as Trey Smith and Jennifer Fiedler, whose single “Hey Whiskey,” a song about the breakdown of a relationship due to alcohol addiction, prompted an endorsement from Rebecca Creek Distillery.

At the same time, Nashville is home to many who are in recovery, and songwriters contend that grabbing a few beers is common after — or during — a session. This can make it difficult for the people in the industry who don’t drink.

Yahr points to Keith Urban, Brantley Gilbert, and Tim McGraw as examples of artists who speak about sobriety, despite how often booze pops up in some of their songs (Brad Paisley, who doesn’t drink, wrote “Alcohol,” which reached number four on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts and peaked at number 28 overall on the Hot 100).

Ray Scott is an example of an artist who feared pressure from his fans after he gave up drinking and became sober. Yahr wrote, “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.”

The country music industry is as intertwined with the distillery and brewery industries as it can get, and that won’t change anytime soon, according to Yahr.

“There’s no doubt the audience appreciates this,” she writes. “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.”

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