It has been rough and rocky traveling for cannabis cowboys for most of the 40 years since “Me and Paul,” the hounded-by-the-Man classic in which Willie Nelson tipped off like-minded longhairs to the presence of narcs in Laredo. “If you’re staying in a motel there,” he warned dryly, “don’t leave nothin’ in your clothes.”
Thousands of miles, songs, and buds later, country stars at last aren’t hiding their drugs — or, in the case of Nelson compatriot Waylon Jennings, flushing the harder stuff down the john, as in the magnificently titled 1978 smash “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?” A heap of recent hits and album tracks by the most mainstream of Nashville stars endorse pot both tacitly and with full-throated approval. Even a resolutely un-outlawish hunk like Blake Shelton went all-in with 2011’s “Ready to Roll,” a loping, blissed-out tribute to getting off work and getting high with your spouse.
“Ready to Roll” could have been a mid-’70s Wings hit, which isn’t exactly an endorsement. But its domestic warmth exemplifies how this still-illegal substance squares with Nashville’s celebration of traditional values: Male country stars are always singing about happily ever afters these days, and this song admits that long-term commitment doesn’t have to be dull: “Let other fools go paint the town,” Shelton sings, “We’ll just hold this sofa down/Till Monday morning rolls around.”
Other songs work a similar conservative take on liberal (or at least libertarian) drug use. In 2010, hip-hop–minded scowler Eric Church hit the Top 20 with the stomping “Smoke a Little Smoke,” a simple, stellar rap-rock lark that managed to be pro-pot and anti-Obama at the same time. Church sings about how he wants “a little more right” and “a little less left” and that “my definition of ‘change’ just ain’t the same” as the one in the air. At the same time, he’s perfuming said air with his own outlaw weed, which in this case helps link Church’s character to that American past liberals are ruining: “Dig down deep/Find my stash/Light it up/Take me back.” It’s both glorious and bonkers.
Church released a cleaned-up take of “Smoke a Little Smoke” for some squeamish radio programmers. (“Find my stash” became “find my glass.”) That wasn’t the case with likable Darius Rucker, whose cover of the Old Crow Medicine Show (and Bob Dylan) neo-standard “Wagon Wheel” hit No. 1 and racked up Grammys and CMAs despite Rucker declaring, on every country station in the U.S., that he enjoyed “a nice, long toke.” His voice, plump and rich as an amber stout, made it clear he considered this a moment to be relished. Just imagine how many kids sang along in exurban SUVs.
Lee Brice’s godawful Top 10 hit “Parking Lot Party” suggests you “light one up” as just one of the many ritualized behaviors involved in tailgating; Toby Keith’s weak-sauce “Weed with Willie,” from 2003, came too early to be an endorsement: In it, tough beef-slab Keith chickens out and vows he’ll never smoke with Nelson again. Meanwhile, recent cuts from Randy Houser (“They Call Me Cadillac”), Ashley Monroe (“Weed Instead of Roses”), Kenny Chesney (“French Kissing Life”), Kacey Musgraves (“Follow Your Arrow”), and many more tout weed as pleasure, relief, and symbol of freedom right up there with any other signifying cliché. The best is Brandy Clark’s “Get High,” a blessing and curse on the order of that old country standby, “White Lightning”: “All she can do is stare at the paint/That’s been peeling off the walls/A couple tokes and her troubles don’t seem all that tall.”
She sits in a stupor, feeling better and feeling worse, and any lover of drinkin’ songs will tell you there’s nothing more country than that.
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