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Weed: The new White Lightning

Published May 18, 2013 1:01 am

Reefer madness • Country songs are taking a shine to marijuana references.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you hear a song called "Hush Hush" on country radio this spring, you might not catch every word, but you'll likely get the drift. As the lead single from "Annie Up," the new record from Nashville supergirlgroup Pistol Annies, the track orbits a jaw-clenched family Christmas dinner where everyone's trying to pretend they don't know the brother just got out of rehab for alcoholism.— "the sugar-coated pretty little secret eating everybody alive." The Annies — Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley — trade off vocals, all singing as a had-it-up-to-here sister, but it's on Monroe's verse that stuff gets real:

So I snuck at behind the red barn / And I took myself a toke / Since everybody here hates everybody here / Hell, I might as well be the joke / I'm gonna dance up on the table / Singing "This Little Light of Mine."

In part because of the drug reference, "Hush Hush" may not be a huge radio hit, but it's in good, and growing, company. Over the past decade, there's been a spike in the number of country songs mentioning weed — not admonishments or rehab laments, but casual, positive references. Tally up the tracks and the artists include the Zac Brown Band, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Dierks Bentley — names recognizable even if you only follow country from afar.

But it's not just big acts with cred to burn dropping the reefer references. So far, 2013 has seen three releases by still-rising stars that make mention of marijuana. If you were startled by the brazen weed-smoking on "Hush Hush," then you probably haven't heard "Weed Instead of Roses" from "Like a Rose," the second album by the Pistol Annies' Ashley Monroe. Over a springy electric guitar, Monroe-as-bored-housewife stages an intervention for her stagnant sex life: "Give me weed instead of roses/ Bring me whiskey instead of wine/ Every puff, every shot, you're looking better all the time." Here, pot is as safely risqué as the leather and lace underwear she dons and the sexy Polaroids she urges her fella to snap. Accessible, too: "Go call your no-good brother/ We both know what he's been growing," she sings, her begrudging eye roll audible through the speakers.

Then there's Kacey Musgraves, whose "Same Trailer, Different Park" came out in March. Musgraves has quickly become a darling among those usually scared off by country music's presumed prudishness, helped by a New York Times Magazine profile that revolved around the iffy radio-readiness of her song "Follow Your Arrow": "When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight/ Roll up a joint, or don't/ Just follow your arrow wherever it points."

Whether a distant observer or a dedicated country fan, you may be wondering how we got to this point. For all the permutations that have spun out of "country music" over the years, a few core elements remain, especially for the major-label-backed, airplay-oriented stuff: an emphasis on storytelling that orbits around family, domestic and romantic relationships, and typically more conservative and traditional cultural and political values.

To look at how mainstream country's relationship with weed has evolved over the years, a good starting point is Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee," released in 1969: "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/ … We like livin' right and bein' free." That also happens to be the year the Pew Research Center began tracking American popular opinion on marijuana legalization, so we know that, as Haggard scoffed (or pretended to scoff) at spliff-passing hippies, the public agreed, with nationwide support of marijuana lingering around 12 percent. And over the next five decades weed's treatment in country music has mirrored public opinion.

The trend really began to develop in the late 1970s. As Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson codified pot-smoking as the province of outlaw rebels, support for legalization was up slightly — around 24 percent. In the 1980s and '90s, as mainstream country shifted more toward the big-haired, big-hatted mama's boys and girls, support for marijuana legalization fell off again, mostly hovering in the low 20s.

As we reached the turn of the millennium, support for legalization began to creep upward once more. Around 2004 or so, it began a steep rise and has continued to increase every year since. And it's been in the wake of that spike that weed references in country music have become especially prevalent. So cancel that Teleflora order, follow your arrow back behind the red barn and let that little light shine. You may be on the wrong side of the law — for now, at least — but the company'll be awful nice, and they'll probably be down for ribs later.