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 supergirl-group Pistol Annies, the track o...
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 supergirl-group Pistol Annies, the track orbits a jaw-clenched family Christmas dinner where everyone's trying to pretend like 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 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, Jamey Johnson -- names recognizable even if you only follow country from afar. In January, Darius Rucker, late of Hootie & the Blowfish, released a cover of boozy string band Old Crow Medicine Show's Wagon Wheel with the line about "a nice long toke" intact; the single, helped by a video featuring the erstwhile Pentecostal cast members of A&E's Duck Dynasty, currently sits at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
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 Like a Rose, the second album by the Pistol Annies' Ashley Monroe. It's one of those records where every song feels like the best song until the next one comes on, but even then a track called Weed Instead of Roses can't help but stand out. 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 risqu? 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 centred 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."
Weed makes a more muted appearance on the small-town lament Merry Go Round; the couplet "Mama's hooked on Mary Kay/ Brother's hooked on Mary Jane," bolsters the gut-punch of "we're so bored until we're buried" that comes a few bars later. But mostly, for Musgraves, weed seems to symbolize a certain kind of to-thine-ownself-be-truthiness. There are live videos from a few years back of her performing an early, shaky tune that's nonetheless saved by its refrain: "I'm not good at being careful, I just say what's on my mind/ My idea of heaven is to burn one with John Prine."
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: