Wild Country: Cocaine Cowboys
by Max Sparber
Country has a reputation as a blue-collar, beer-swilling, tough-living music, which doesn't really dovetail with cocaine's reputation as the drug of choice for bored yuppies. But country is both druggier and cokier than you might expect: Addictions.com scraped more than a million songs from Song Meanings and discovered that country was the genre that most mentioned drugs, and while weed was country's number one drug of choice, cocaine came in second.
Country musicians that have struggled with cocaine included George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, and Merle Haggard (who once responded to a breakup by buying $2,000 worth of cocaine and retreating to a houseboat until it was finished.)
If there is one thing you can count on country for, it's to compose a song about something that makes people miserable, especially if it also involves bad choices, and so here are five songs about one of the world's great inspirations for bad choices and misery.
"Cocaine," Dick Justice (1928)This is a song that from the earliest roots of country music, back when it could be awfully difficult to tell whether a song was country or blues, and if it was sung by a black artist or a white artist.
"Cocaine" was first sung by a black artist, Luke Jordan, and is a a ragtime-tinted blues song. Justice was a friend of a number of black artists Virginia, and borrowed largely from their repertory. Even though he was a white man, the song is written from the perspective of a black man, and it's a disordered song, a jumble of frantic comic images, including the story of a circus monkey in five-cent story, a child being whipped by a doctor, and a girlfriend who has lost her sense of smell, interrupted by Justice's furniture being repossessed, all of which he responds to by crying out "I'm simply wild about my good cocaine!"
Justice performs it almost exactly as Jordan did, and, yet, to my ears, the Jordan version sounded like a blues song and this sounds like a country song, likely because Justice sounds like a white man. It's an academic distinction, perhaps, but country would continue to borrow from the music of black people — it never really lost the ragtime influence, as an example — and so I like noting these early moments, when this sort of borrowing is transparent.
"Cocaine Blues," Johnny Cash (1969)Perhaps surprisingly, cocaine wasn't Johnny Cash's drug of choice: He was heavily addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. Nonetheless, Cash was responsible for one of country's most legendary cocaine songs, "Cocaine Blues."
The song, which tells of a coke addict who murders his girlfriend, is probably just as famous because of context as content: The song (written by T. J. "Red" Arnall, reworking a traditional murder ballad called "Little Sadie") had been recorded a few times earlier, but Cash performed it at Folsom State Prison in 1968, a performance recorded and released as an album.
Cash made the unusual decision to largely perform prison songs and songs about murder, which the inmates responded to enthusiastically. Above a typically cavorting chunka-chunka guitar part, Cash practically screams some of the song, his voice breaking and scratching, like the whole story thrills him. It thrills the audience as well, who almost never stop cheering.
"Bales of Cocaine," Reverend Horton Heat (1993)Reverend Horton Heat's comic music tends toward rockabilly, and this song features the genre's rattatat drumming and Scotty Moore-style electric guitar. But the melody is very country, not far removed from the "Green Acres" theme.
Appropriately, too, as this is a song about a farmer. Sort of. It takes a turn early on, when low-flying places dump bags of white powder over the farm for no explained reason, but likely disposing of evidence. The farmer collects up the bags, loads up his truck, and 30 minutes later is a millionaire. The song ends with him in a Peru, at a new farm, growing product that is shipped in low-flying planes.
"Casey Jones," Vassar Clements (2000)So, first of all, Casey Jones was an actual man, a folk hero who lost his life in 1900 trying to prevent his passenger train from crashing into a stalled freight train. So it's a bit irresponsible that songwriter Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead wrote a song about the man that, in it's very first line, claims Jones was high during the incident. "Driving that train, high on cocaine," the Dead famously sang.
That being said, it's a heck of a song, a country rock classic back by Jerry Garcia's swirling guitar, recreating the story almost as an underground comix, with a slumbering switchman and a train coming toward them on the wrong track.
It's no secret Grateful Dead songs often make good bluegrass tunes, and Vasser Clements, the "father of Hillbilly Jazz," speeds the song up and throws wailing lap steel guitar and fiddle behind the song — it really sounds like Jones is rushing headlong toward something terrible, although it's hard not to imagine him shuffling and heel clicking as he does so.
"Cocaine Habit," Old Crow Medicine Show (2006)Another song that crosses the lines from blues and country and back again, this folk song (frequently recorded as "Take a Whiff on Me") has long been a favorite of folk artists and jug bands, as is protean enough to sound like any sort of song, depending on how it is played.
The Old Crow Medicine Show, a string band from Nashville, likes the song enough that they have recorded it twice; I'll recommend their 2006 recording from their album "Big Iron Wood," which has the sort of loosey-gooseyness and sheer verve of a Bob Dylan basement tape. As it should: This song, of all the songs on this list, is the one that sounds the most like a celebration of cocaine, with the singers declaring how much they love it. And, gosh, they sure do sound like they are having fun.