I was sitting in my cozy watering hole in town, sipping my favourite poison of choice and reading the newspaper, when I nearly fell off my bar stool. The shock I had seen in the paper was news that Randy Travis had been arrested for driving under the influence. I had to read on to find out what exactly he had been driving under the influence of. Was it heroin? Was it jelly beans? Was it God?
Ah no, it was alcohol. Booze, that’s okay, sure. Alcohol is what makes country music what it is. Good old Randy Travis. He went and crashed his car in Texas, drunk off his brains. The cops came across him sometime after midnight buck naked and rambling like a crazy man, he was so far gone he even tried to fight them. Good old Randy Travis had been reported some hours before by people who saw him stroll in to a local store naked and demand cigarettes.
It wasn’t the first time he was arrested for drunken misbehaviour this year. In February he was picked up outside a Baptist church for being a drunken mess. His mugshot then looked like he was trying his best Clint Eastwood impression, scowling with a hard grin, but his mug shot from his recent arrest is a stark difference. He does not scowl or attempt a Clint Eastwood impression, instead he sports a black eye and some cuts and bruises. His face in that photo may represent the pinnacle of his country music career.
The mean, bruised up mug shot of Randy Travis got me thinking about country music. The God-fearing church-going guy who sings gospel numbers can turn as quick as a flash into a demonic, drinking, hell-raising son of a gun. Country music is seeped in contradictions such as that but, on the other hand, those contradictions could be seen as a sort of twisted redemption.
Hollywood caught on to the trend early on with movies based on icons such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash but it was a fictional one in 2010 which brought the country drinking scene to a centre stage. In the movie Crazy Heart Jeff Bridges played a washed up drink sodden country singer (a role that would win him an Oscar). It was a good movie. It was moving and thoughtfully played out, even with Colin Farrell the redemptionist Irish hell-raiser, playing a minor role in it.
Jeff Bridges played Bad Blake, perhaps the best made up country crooner that was. He drank, he fucked, he sang in and out of tune and gave two fingers to the world but found redemption in the end. Bad Blake epitomised the real grit of country music but that was all just fictional. If we want a real hero of the grit and the grime of the Nashville industry then we need to look at George Jones.
George Jones lived the songs he sang. He was called “no show Jones” due to his habit of going on benders instead of turning up for concerts. When one of his wives hid the car keys to keep him disappearing off down to the bar he just sat up on his lawnmower and rode off there anyway. Another time he reportedly flushed thousands of dollar bills down a toilet just for fun.
While Jones was the face of crazy country, Tennessee Ernie Ford was the gentlemen of it. Ford was old school country, the type dad would listen to. He was a suave looking guy sporting a Clarke Gable moustache, surely he wasn’t a raging alcoholic? Oh yes he was. Tennessee Ernie Ford had a catch phrase, “bless your pea pickin’ heart”, but it was his liver which needed the blessing. Ford soaked it in whiskey. Sometimes, he would be so full of whiskey that he could see his own breath in the middle of July.
Booze and country music is a love affair that goes back several decades. The godfather of country music, Hank Williams, was a noted boozer. He died at the age of 29 but in his short life he drank like a fish. He abused alcohol so much that it almost had to take out a restraining order against him.
Another young death in the booze soaked world of country music came in the form of Keith Whitley. If you Google “drunk country singer” his is the first name to pop up. Whitley epitomised 80’s country with his big hair, big suits and big appetite for destruction. He went to the big bar room in the sky at the age of 34 but left behind tales of excess even the hardest of alcoholics wouldn’t be able to stomach. One story goes that when his wife got rid of all the booze in the house she found him drinking her nail varnish remover as a substitute! Keith Whitley was the type who would have even drank shit if it was liquidized and served in a glass.
The Randy Travis incident just shows that country music is still that controlled chaos we all know and love. It is a genre of music soaked in booze, dripping in heartache and wet with legends–so keep ‘em coming bar tender.
Lily Murphy is 24 years old and comes from Cork city, Ireland. She graduated last year from University College Cork with a B.A in history and politics. She can be reached at Lilymurphycork@gmail.com