Country music's love affair with alcohol

Each night I leave the bar room when it's overNot feeling any pain at closing timeBut tonight your memory found me much too soberCouldn't drink enough to keep you off my mind.- Merle Haggard, "The Bottle Let Me Down"

Otis "Bad" Blake (Jeff Bridges) looks like he's been ridden hard and put up wet.

The 60ish musician in the movie "Crazy Heart" once lived high on a steady stream of country classics, but now he has just about hit bottom.

Instead of playing arenas and making TV guest appearances, he's constantly on the road, living out of a 30-year-old SUV and playing one-night stands in bars and bowling alleys, usually backed by a local band.

Still, the scraggly haired, bearded country outlaw prides himself on never missing a gig.

Of course, at some point in the evening, he'll probably race offstage to puke his guts out into a trash can. Bad has a bit of a drinking problem.

He's not alone.

The movie, which earned Bridges an Oscar nomination, is only the most recent bit of pop culture to examine the nexus of booze and country music.

And Bridges, who won best actor at the Golden Globes, is among good company. Robert Duvall won an Academy Award for his portrayal of alcoholic country crooner Mac Sledge in 1983's "Tender Mercies." Just a few years ago, Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for his portrayal in "Walk the Line" of the legendary Johnny Cash, who had his own problems with the bottle.

Drinking has always been a popular subject for country musicians, even more so than for rock 'n' rollers, rappers or even bluesmen.

The reason has much to do with the cultural roots of these musical forms.

Especially during the late '60s, rock music was seen as diametrically opposed to the blue-collar, beer-fueled culture that spawned country music.

Back then alcohol was widely viewed as an outlet for an older generation. Young people were into marijuana, LSD and other mind-benders and frequently sang about the liberating possibilities of getting high. No drug was too much - Lou Reed sang of "Heroin," while Eric Clapton extolled a life of "Cocaine."

But country musicians rarely sang about those illegal intoxicants. They were perfectly happy to embrace Bud and Beam, the simple (and legal) pleasures of simple folk.

This was fitting. After all, the patron saint of modern country and western music - Hank Williams - died at age 29 in the back seat of a limousine after years of alcohol abuse.

Before the 1980s, country music generally wasn't made by or marketed to the college-educated or the upwardly mobile. The music reflected the lives of Middle Americans - rural and urban - who found life a struggle and took comfort in their class origins and traditional recreations.

It's Friday night. Let's drink.

My woman cheated. Let's drink.

Our team won. Let's drink.

What's curious about country music and alcohol is that while they often sleep together, they're uneasy bedfellows.

We're talking about God-fearing folk who might, when pushed, down a bottle of bourbon, get in a fight and go home with a waitress.

Country music's handling of alcohol is both critical and celebratory, H. Paul Chalfant and Robert E. Beckley write in the article "Beguiling and Betraying: The Image of Alcohol Use in Country Music" in the Journal of Alcohol Studies.

Conservative working-class society traditionally has viewed alcohol use as essentially evil, leading to illicit sex, dissolution of the family and personal destruction. This attitude often can be found in country songs.

At the same time, country music imparts to alcohol some positive values.

"Drinking is seen as related to manhood (as in the 'good old boy' syndrome), facilitation in social life and assuagement of problems," Chalfant and Beckley observe.

"Drinking is clearly considered wrong . . . but in most of the same songs it is seen as expected and even encouraged either as a routine part of life or as a way to face the hard facts of life."

The answer to this seeming paradox lies in country music's innate acceptance of yet another concept: redemption.

Country music is filled with tales of musicians like Cash or George Jones, whose drinking almost was their undoing, but who somehow found the strength - usually through religion - to turn their lives around.

Similarly, the drinker who has found sobriety and spiritual repentance is a common figure in country music lyrics.

And it's hard to find a country song that is flat-out pessimistic. Most harbor a seed of redemption, of turning things around, of finding the right path.

Country songwriters are a lot like St. Augustine, who wrote, "Lord, make me chaste . . . but not yet."


Want to win an Oscar? Try playing a drunk. It worked for these actors:

Lionel Barrymore for "A Free Soul" (1930/31)

Van Heflin for "Johnny Eager" (1942)

Ray Milland for "The Lost Weekend" (1945)

Lee Marvin for "Cat Ballou" (1965)

Robert Duvall for "Tender Mercies" (1983)

Nicolas Cage for "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995)

James Coburn for "Affliction" (1998)