It would be disingenuous to say that country music and alcohol don't have a long and complicated history together. Like midnight and cigarette smoke, country music has a close relationship with intoxicating spirits of all kinds.
Although drinking songs are plentiful on the airwaves today, it's not a new phenomenon. You could go back Roger Miller's 1964 hit "Chug-a-Lug," or travel even further to 1959 and enjoy some "White Lightning" with George Jones. In fact, being drunk is such a common theme in the country genre that David Allen Coe parodied it in the last verse of his 1975 classic "You Never Even Called Me By My Name." But there's a difference between singing about drinking, and singing about drinking while (or just before) driving.
And that's sort of where the trouble begins. With the advent of the bro-country subgenre we are seeing a lot more musings about drinking while driving. Currently sitting at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart is Florida Georgia Line's "Confession." Released in November last year, the track is the last single to hit country radio from the bro country duo's 2014 album Anything Goes. The thoughtful, mid-tempo song is, like most of their work, admittedly catchy. However, the subject matter is potentially problematic, because "Confession" makes multiple references to drinking while driving.
The video, however, doesn't portray the actions described in the lyrics, with the whole video taking place inside an abandoned church rather than a pickup as the words suggest.
From the first verse:
I'm rolling through the open wide
Searching for a song to drink beer to
From the chorus:
I take a sip and say a prayer
Wait for a shooting star and stare
Off at the headlights on the highway
That guy in the windshield looking back looks just like me
But there's a crack in the reflection
This is just a moonlight soaked, ring of smoke
Right hand on a cold one confession
It's impossible not to notice modern country music's fascination with getting drunk. In fact, there have been so many pasture party/drinking songs in the past few years that it prompted Billboard to question in a 2014 article whether country music might need an intervention. The article's author, Tom Roland, noted that seven out of the 60 songs on the Hot Country Songs chart had alcohol references in the titles, and even more songs referenced booze in the lyrics. They weren't the only ones who noticed, either. Rolling Stone published an article in December of the same year entitled, "Why Country Music Was Drunk All Year in 2014," that covered not just the lyrics, but the behavior of country singers and fans alike.
When examining country music's love of booze, a few trends emerge. For example, where country musicians like to drink. The most popular drinking locale, classically, has been the bar. There are so many songs about lovesick men sitting at bars crying into their drink of choice that it would be impossible to list them here. Country music has made hits out of songs about drinking in bars while happy, sad, jealous, angry and pretty much any other emotion under the sun. No matter what you're feeling, there's a country song about feeling it while drinking in a bar. What about when they leave the bar, though?
There are also a plethora of songs about drinking in other locations. The beach, for example, has been a favorite binge drinking setting for country musicians since Jimmy Buffet's 1977 hit "Margaritaville." Sometimes country music gets drunk at home, but possibly the most popular non-bar place to drink is in the middle of a pasture or out on a back road somewhere with a bunch of friends, or sometimes, just with your girlfriend. And like FGL's "Confession," sometimes the aimless driving through the back roads on the way to the pasture party includes alcohol.
Although the lyrics may seem somewhat bold, "Confession" is not the worst or even the first DWI song to come out of country radio. Country radio golden boy Cole Swindell topped the charts at number one with his 2013 hit "Chillin' It," singing about driving around with his girlfriend with the "Good stuff iced up in the back seat,", and this year Keith Urban released "Wasted Time," which includes the lyric, "Singing out the window, on the back roads, Sweet Child of Mine, sippin' on the Loko's, spark a light," referencing the now discontinued caffeinated alcoholic drink Four Loko.
Those are just some of the recent ones. In 1983, Gene Watson came under fire from the advocacy group MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) for his song, "Drinkin' My Way Back Home", in which he sang about waking up hungover in the bed of his pickup and continuing to drink while driving from Houston to Arkansas. You could also consider Hank Thompson's 1965 "Six Pack To Go," and George Jones' 1980 song, "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me," for reference in the country music drinking and driving mix.
It's important to note also, that there are other songs on the radio lately that do the opposite, referencing instead drinking responsibly, or the adverse effects of drinking and driving. Gary Allan's 1999 single "Don't Tell Mama" is the sordid tale of a man who encounters another a man dying on the side of the road from a car wreck where he implores the singer, "Don't tell mama I was drinkin'". Even though his hit "Dirt Road Anthem" references "Ice cold beer sitting in the console", in Jason Aldean's "My Kinda Party" the singer croons,
"If you wanna drink,
Go baby just do your thing
Give up your keys
Hell why drive when you can stay with me?
But both tracks are on the same album, which presents a confusing message, to say the least. And while the advisability of spending the night in the truck bed of a man you met at a pasture party might be just as questionable as drinking while driving, that's a whole other article. Late last year Luke Bryan and Karen Fairchild (of Little Big Town) released a duet that, despite its admittedly cringe-worthy, awkward revenge hook-up theme and the binge drinking depicted, contained the line, "But if you want we could grab a cab," indicating that the two lovelorn revenge plotters aren't planning to try driving home after consuming all their shots.
Notwithstanding this one line of good advice, Bryan himself has faced criticism from Saving Country Music blogger Kyle "The Triggerman" Coroneos when he made the connection between paparazzi photos of the singer behind the wheel while drinking on his own land in July of 2013, and photos Bryan himself posted to Twitter of his truck partially submerged in a pond (again on his own land) in September of that same year.
Those incidents, paired with lyrics from the bro country singer's hit single "That's My Kind of Night" where Bryan sings about alcohol under the seat of his truck, and encouraging the girl beside him to hand him "another beer", paint a picture of illegal drinking and driving. The exception would be if he's on his own land, where (as Coroneos points out) he's allowed to drunkenly drive his truck around without legal recourse, but that's not made clear in the song.
It's doubtful that any of these singers started out writing something to intentionally glorify what is a documented dangerous (and in many states, illegal) practice. Rather, it seems to be a case of art imitating life, because these songs are relatable enough to climb the charts, and (in most cases) not controversial enough to anger the masses. In some cases, this may be a behavior engaged in by the singers themselves.
For many people who grew up in relatively rural areas, driving with an open can of beer in your console is not considered shocking. In fact, in my experience in my home state of Texas, it's quite common on the back roads to encounter drivers actively throwing their empties out the sliding back window into their truck beds without so much as slowing down. So, it might not be fair to take these singers to task for something that is simply a fact of the society of which they are a part.
The question now becomes, what is an artist's responsibility when it comes to matters of social welfare?
Country music is nowhere near the only genre that mentions drinking and driving in its lyrics, so we can't lay blame squarely on the shoulders of country artists. Alcohol and tipsy or buzzed driving can be found in anything from rap music to pop music to alternative music and beyond, which indicates that its a practice that is widely identifiable to people from all walks of life.
So while it would be nice if country musicians would stop singing about driving under the influence, it would also be nice if society would just stop doing it in general. With the popularization of ride-sharing services like Uber, finding a responsible way home is easier than ever. Making a real change is going to involve all of us, from musicians to fans and everyone in between. So influencers like country stars could lead the way, but let's work together to make it stop. Seriously y'all. It's dangerous.