Marty Stuart on Country Music's Long History of Popping Pills

"They swapped pills like it was M&Ms and nobody thought anything about it," says Stuart, whose 'Way Out West' describes a mind-altering trip

Marty Stuart warns about the dangers of pills in his song "Way Out West." Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage

"Way Out West," the title track of Marty Stuart's acclaimed 2017 album, relies on a narrator who sees the legends and vistas of the American West through the haze of an Alice in Wonderland-style pill trip. It's the kind of high that, once upon a time, fueled hundreds of touring musicians in country music – not to mention professional athletes, all-night disc jockeys, prison guards, rock stars, military men and even housewives. One can almost hear among the mysterious refrains of "Way Out West" the wry commentary of Merle Haggard, who remarked in the 2008 documentary Johnny Cash's America: "The whole entire country was on speed."

"Yes, country music and amphetamines had a long and running relationship," says Stuart from the comfort of his tour bus, tinkering with his mandolin while bass player Chris Scruggs sits nearby. "When I was a kid. . .when I got into the touring circuit. . .nobody thought it was wrong. You'd look at the board and say, 'We're on with the Del Reeves Band and Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, Porter Wagoner and the Wagonmasters.' Everybody would say, 'What you got?' They swapped pills like it was M&Ms and nobody thought anything about it. There were prescriptions on the bottle, they were legal and it made it okay. And in those days, fairly enough, musicians were hired a lot of times not so much on their music ability but on their driving ability. After a picker plays a show, who gets the first turn at the wheel? Well, what do you do? You pop a pill to stay awake."

Like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, country musicians in the 1950s came out of their military service knowing that one or two little pills could help them through a long night of maneuvers. It was the same on the country music circuit, where agents booked shows night after night across long distances with little thought to the bus driver's stamina or the headliner's ability to stay sharp for his audiences. Like any member of a musician's team, the pills got their own nicknames: little yellers, bennies, speckled birds and the fabled L.A. Turnarounds, which was a big dose of the amphetamine Obedrin that allegedly could keep someone awake on a drive from Nashville to Los Angeles and back.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Nashville cats swarmed to a doctor on the city's east side who prescribed as many pills as they wanted. "People did all of that in private," says songwriter Jim Casey, who lived in Music City at the time. "But believe me you could tell when somebody was on an amphetamine because they'd be all livened up and sweating and their hair is greasy. They'd be talking a mile a minute and making big huge plans, always making a plan for something." Though musicians and songwriters alike may have consumed their uppers on the down low, amphetamines were no secret in the country music culture: little white pills figured prominently in the lyrics of Dave Dudley's trucker anthem "Six Days on the Road"; Gram Parsons wore a Nudie suit festooned with embroidered capsules and pot leaves; and Johnny Cash confessed to his addiction on TV, on stage and everywhere.

On the road and in Nashville, the 13-year-old Stuart – who was touring with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt at the time – saw it all up close. "Without calling names, it was pretty easy to look around backstage at the Grand Ole Opry or out on the circuit and see those people who are still heroes to me musically. In their personal lives, there was a weakness and they caved in and the disease had them. But recovery is so much a part of your atmosphere these days. If you stick your hand up, there's some guidance for you somewhere," he says. "Back in those times, if somebody had a problem like that, it wasn't talked about. Back to the days when Hank Williams would come in off a tour, they would drop him off at a sanatorium outside of town because Audrey didn't want him to come to the house. It was not talked about because people were so indignant. Parkview was another psychiatric facility. Sometimes hillbillies would spin out and they'd have to go do time at Parkview, but people didn't talk about that. It was always quiet."

It wasn't long before young Stuart himself explored the mixed-up pill world, much as his character in "Way Out West" sets off down a woozy path through the mythology of California. Flatt's band got caught up in the "Dueling Banjos" craze sparked by the blockbuster movie Deliverance in 1972. The hit instrumental had always been a part of Flatt's set, but when big-time promoters caught wind of it, they slotted the band on a tour of almost 80 college campuses and rock festivals, the first stop at Michigan State University with the Eagles, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. All of 14 years old, Stuart opened his first medicine jar. 

"It was just a part of the culture, the young musicians' culture. I was drawn to it, and it looked romantic to me. Hank Williams did it. Johnny Cash did it. So it must be cool," he says. "I was more into downers than I was uppers, and valium worked. The old guys on the bus took valium to sleep and I thought, 'Oh that's wonderful.' But valium worked different on me. After I took valium I'd want to stay up for two days and write songs and sing and talk to people. I don't have many regrets in my life. But I have one. I would have stayed sober all along."

But for the immediate future, it wasn't to be. In 1979, Stuart began working with Cash, who was deep in the throes of his addiction. "I was fool enough to try to run alongside of him and keep up. That was a tall order. I remember on that European tour – the Survivors in the 80s [Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis] – I set my sight on Jerry Lee. I called him Uncle Gerald. I thought, 'I want to keep up with Uncle Gerald or see if I can.' I had to surrender after three days. 'I cannot keep up. How does he do this? We're years apart in age,'" he recalls. Did he think of intervening to stop Cash, or Lewis? "I was right there in the thick of it, so I couldn't intervene. I needed to be intervened upon myself at those times."

"Cash's jailhouse records probably wouldn't have been the same without the pills." - Marty Stuart

Implausibly, the Mississippi native was discovering that his heroes turned in some of their best performances while chasing the amphetamine dream. "Case in point, I look at Waylon and I was one of the biggest Waylon Jennings fans in the world and I'm glad he quit because it probably extended his life several years, but quite frankly that music never had the spark again that it had before he went to Phoenix and got his life together. It was more mature, maybe more meticulous, but there was a romping stomping something about it that was fueled by it," he says. "And Cash's jailhouse records probably wouldn't have been the same without the pills. He claims to have been straight ahead by then, but I know the sound of that voice, I know there was something on the edge."

As "Way Out West" nears its ending, Stuart decouples from his high-flying friend and turns to the audience with a warning. "It is wisdom at the end of the song," he says. "I like songs where you think they're taking you somewhere and all the sudden they completely go off the rails and hit you with a different kind of hook and when I got down to that point in the song, I thought, 'The best advice that I could give to the listener – cause I don't romanticize that stuff – is that [popping pills] is not fun.' It will kill you. I looked at footage of Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison and those guys and Johnny Cash as well. If they could come back, they'd probably tell you, 'You might want to take a second look if this is the trail you're on.'"

But would they? Drugs still hang around in the shadows of country music – cocaine, meth, opioids – though one never hears about chubby glass vases filled with multi-colored pills that were the centerpiece of Waylon's parties. Eric Gibson of the hard-touring bluegrass band the Gibson Brothers says he never sees drugs at all. "Maybe the circles I travel in are pretty tame. My band drinks way too much coffee to stay awake. That's our speed. We've never gotten into pills. A couple of us in the band have done 5-Hour Energy a few times and didn't like the way it made us feel. It makes us too anxious and jittery. Maybe it's just another word for speed: Starbucks Coffee and 5-Hour Energy."

If there's a song somewhere in Gibson's re-thinking of speed it wouldn't be the first time country bards have pondered the price, chemical and otherwise, that makes fame possible: Stuart's "Sundown in Nashville," Shel Silverstein's "Rough on the Living" and Waylon's "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" come to mind. It's a story that Nashville never tires of telling.

Back on the bus, as show time approaches, Stuart finally rests his mandolin on the seat next to him. "The thing is that after 40-something years of running up and down the roads and knowing all these people, you look back on the broken families and the people that are in their graves today that should be here playing music with us and the hurt that it imposed on kids who didn't know what was wrong with daddy or mama," he says. "That's a deep and hurtful subject, but the good news is that it's totally acceptable to get help these days. It's almost unacceptable not to."