The rampant top ten features provide a quick and easy way to access key aspects or themes running through the music that fuels this site and enriches our todays. And now we reach a key influence in many, many of our artists and indeed our own lives. Drugs, of whatever hue, have often provided a spark for creativity and yet they have also in may cases stripped personalities of that very creativity which they seek to communicate. I have not included alcohol in this list which it could be argued has done more damage than any other drug to our particular genre and yet is still celebrated by both artists and listeners alike.
It’s not big and it’s not clever and Zammo was probably right but for now these are the top ten drugs references in Americana music.
9. ‘Codeine’ – Jason Isbell
A sweet waltztime number with a gorgeous country flecked flavour that lyrically hides a darkness.
‘She should be home by now but she ain’t. I should’ve gone by now but I cain’t. One of my friends has taken her in and given her codeine.’
What’s going on here? Is she in harm’s way? It sounds like it but Jason’s dealing with his own demons, in this song’s case alcohol. Isbell’s work is littered with references particularly when reflecting on his sobriety and his journey to this point.
2. ‘Rockefeller Druglaw Blues’ – The Felice Brothers
A desperate pean with perhaps Ian Felice’s most powerful vocal this is a tale of a working man who chooses to deal drugs to pay for medical bills and pays the price for his ‘crime’ with incarceration.
‘I promise you mama, I’m gonna get you them pills, I got me a box of bags and a baker’s scale.’
And then there is the heartbreaking chorus, utterly devastating when seen performed live:
‘Fifteen grams of heroin, An ounce of speed, Fifteen years to life, Rockefeller, that’s a long old time’
3. ‘Blister in the Sun’ – The Violent Femmes
Jaunty, upbeat and notable of riff this is a song which belies the subject matter as Gordan Gano delivers the twisted lyric through his trademark snarl. This is an ode about drug (possibly heroin) addiction he sings about being strung out and unable to control himself during sex thereby staining the sheets or at the very least masturbating furiously. He must have pissed himself when Thompsons used the track to sell holidays, Wendys to sell burgers and Fosters their so called lager!
‘I’m so strung out, I’m as high as a kite, I just might…Body’s and beats, I stain the sheets, I don’t even know why’
5. ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ – Tom Petty
Tom loved a smoke and his lyrics throughout the canon are chockful of thoughts on the herb and other drugs but this is his most overt. A girl who makes things better and relieves boredom and pain! Petty was plagued with addiction issues particularly heroin during the nineties and his output particularly around the time of ‘Echo’ certainly had a sense of darkness about it.
‘Last Dance with Mary Jane , one more time to kill the pain’
3. ‘Tired Eyes’ – Neil Young
Another artist whose work is riddled with drug references, some literal ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ others more illusory ‘Pocahontas’ but in the dark days following the deaths of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry the entire album ‘Tonight’s the Night’ was forlorn howl to the Gods at the catastrophic consequences for some in the thrall of their chosen ( by whom?) drug. ‘Tired Eyes’ is the sound of heartbreak and the parched longing of the addict.
‘Well he shot four men in a cocaine deal, and he left them lyin’ in an open field full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors, he tried to do his best but could not….’
6. ‘Sam Stone’ – John Prine
An excoriating exploration of the effects of morphine on an injured Vietnam survivor and how the addiction leads to a life chasing the dragon. Thefts clothing his children, Sam has a ‘hole in his arm where all the money goes’. He dies alone in a shitty room that smells of death. A song of such bleak beauty that if you haven’t heard it I demand that you sit down now and do that very thing.
2. ‘The Drugs Not Working’ – Ryan Adams
From the album ‘Rock n Roll’ Adams dissects his addiction and refracts through a lyrical lens and musical palette of paranoia and abandon. Adams struggled with addiction for several years and this is plainly not a cry for help, more a cry for more. In light of recent reports concerning his behaviour this song also has some frankly worrying lyrics
‘I was shooting in the back of the car, When the windows smashed on the police cars, I was swimming through the streets of New York, With my cocaine dagger and throats to cut, And it was making her cry, And it was making her cry, And it was making her cry, But it was making me high’
8. ‘Heroin Again’ – Drive By Truckers
From the angry and unbowed album ‘The Unravelling’ and starting with a dirty bass riff Patterson Hood lays his feelings out over a narrative featuring two protagonists and then he turns his forensic eye on himself with the lines ‘It’s called me and tempted me but never quite captured me, I always just turned away.’ It’s a classic DBT song structure that features a great squealing guitar solo and end s with the repeated refrain ‘I thought you knew better than that’ Not quite a poacher turned gamekeeper but Hood makes a powerful case.
1. ‘All the Way Down’ – Jonathan Wilson
Wilson’s music is often seen a clear line from the Laurel Canyon mores of the late 60s to the Americana sound of the west coast now and his own image as hippie soothsayer and mystical musician was never more in evidence than on the sublime ‘Fanfare’ and this closing number which is his ‘light a phat one, inhale and kick back’ song. Beautifully restrained acoustic and whispered vocals with some splashes of production colour as the strings swoop and glide. This is a great musical piece as well a clear evocation of a slightly stoned mood. And relax…. aahhhhh.
‘Take it all the way down, Yet there’s something I can feel, With the drugs and the fleecing dancer, With the cats and the cardboard manners’
And the tenth song is up to you, dear reader, to enter in the comments section below. What should have made the cut and as importantly what should have made room for the inclusion?