Big Sound Saturdays: Whiskey and Cigarettes

Oh my god DAMN I’m so EXCITED to share this one!!! Do you, listening pal, have any idea how many songs there are about whiskey in the blues & country cannon? The first thing I learned, after having gone through ten different versions of “Rye Whiskey” (including “Rye Whiskey Waltz,” “Way Up On Clinch Mountain,” and my favorite, “Bon Whiskey”—“Rye Whiskey” in Creole), is that there are also lots of songs about beer! Gin! Rum! I love these songs because they range from unapologetically wasted—Harry Choates’ “Rye Whiskey,” recorded in 1946, includes slurring and hiccups—to transubstantial, (this one for another mix) Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Drinking of the Wine.” Also, though, because lots of them do the thing where they try to fit so snugly into the pastiche of their own sounds that they end up sounding like a radical, whacked-out riff on the regular stuff:

Take, for example, Tom T. Hall’s “Faster Horses (The Cowboy And The Poet),” from his 1975 album of (basically) the same name. It’s got this raucous, throbbing wind-up, movable enough to fit a fist-pumping power-ballad and what I imagine bros with muscle shirts and two girlfriends loop their alarm clock to. It literally starts like this:

He was an old-time cowboy, don’t you understand

His eyes were sharp as razor blades, his face was leather tan

His toes were pointed inward, from a-hangin’ on a horse


Honestly, it’s not even too much. Because the narrator’s a poet, too!! A poet cowboy who learns the way from that old cowboy philosopher, and The Way, the pedestal, is “faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money.” And then, who needs poetry! When Hall’s poet days are over, those horses, whiskey, and teenagers keep on teen-ing, and that, country crew, is what country poetry is actually all about.

It’s perfect. Whiskey and women, a match for the ages! As a woman who takes her whiskey both neat and by myself, I’m into this. And truly, the bravado is contagious—David Allen Coe’s “Whiskey and Women,” a puff-chested breakup song, stands even taller alongside Sleepy LaBeef’s tragi-comic “Drink Up And Go Home,” an updated riff off of the alternately-scripted “Trouble In Mind” and “Satisfied Mind”—“be thankful you’re livin’, drink up and go home.”

Ushered in by Reverend Gary Davis’ sweet call, “Tiny, roll me a cigarette please man!” woven into his slide guitar riff, “Whiskey & Cigarettes” has two versions of “Rye Whiskey,” Charlie Poole’s “Take A Drink on Me,” Elder Charlie Beck’s cautionary “Drinking Shine,” Bo Carter’s nasty “Cigarette Blues,” and razor-sharp Merline Johnson’s “Bad Whiskey Blues” (which I opted for, after some consternation, over its partner song, “I Drink Good Whiskey”).

Pretty early on, we hear from “the Possum,” “Thumper,” the man who penned “Grand Tour” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and over 900 other songs, more than 150 of which were hits; the late, great, George Jones. A small gesture (and, for his issues with alcoholism, a complicated one), but I do want to throw this mix out to him, because today would have been his 84th birthday. From the artist’s mouth, Yabba dabba doo, the king is gone, and so are you . Pour one out, y’all, and have a happy Saturday night.


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