Drug references in music could be heard as far back as the 1930s. Jazz musicians, bluegrass artists and swing bands were among the first to sing about drug use, though the mentions were mostly casual. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s when pop stars, folksters and rock bands would talk about pot, cocaine, heroin, speed and other mind-altering substances on a regular basis.
Of course, country music’s not free of this lyrical affair with drug use. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels Band, Waylon Jennings and John Prine have all sung about drug use in one form or another – whether it’s about recreational fun or the pits of addiction. Modern country artists such as Jamey Johnson, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, Eric Church and Ashley Monroe have also penned their own versions of the drug ode over the last decade or so.
A new study published last week by treatment and recovery site Addictions.com found that country actually tops the list of genres that reference drugs the most. Country artists sing about drugs more often than any other musician, the study found – more than rock stars and rappers. And the substance they love to talk about the most: weed. Cocaine and meth came in second and third.
“From what our data is showing us, country music does have the most drug mentions and a lot of the country songs do speak about marijuana quite a bit,” Logan Freedman, a data scientist at Addictions.com, told Rolling Stone.
Addictions.com’s researchers combed through more than a million songs collected from the Songmeanings API database and examined the frequency of drug references, what drugs were involved, and how the trend has changed over time. What they’ve discovered is that, out of eight categories, country ranked first with an average of 1.6 drugs mentions per song. Rap came in last with less than 1 mention on average, while electronica hovers somewhere around the middle. (Some individual hip-hop artists took the cake for an “extreme amount” of drug references in their own songs, Freedman clarified.)
Freedman told Rolling Stone that he was “surprised” to find that country music outranks rap. After all, he said, the prevailing assumption is that rappers are “lyrical drug peddlers.” And most of what has been published on Addictions.com’s findings pits the two genres against each other; Newsweek, for example, sets up its article on the study with a hypothetical situation where a parent “traveling through American life with their children planted in the backseat of their car” changes the station when rap comes on the radio to find a “safer” genre like country or jazz.
“Country music stations aren’t going to play a lot of songs mentioning marijuana,” Freedman says. “Another thing that is really important here is outlaw country, which isn’t big on the radio, but there are a lot of artists who make their own albums.”
But to describe mainstream country music as “safer” is to paint the genre with a very broad brush, says Jocelyn Neal, author of Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History and The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Legacy in Country Music. Freedman’s theory also ignores those popular country artists like Florida Georgia Line, an “enormously successful” band that’s sung about getting stoned and gotten radio play, she says.
There are these monolithic and coded assumptions in the study about “what country music is, talks about or could be,” Neal, a music professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Rolling Stone. “Country music philosophy as espoused in its lyrics is both complicated and far more nuanced than one would say, ‘wholesome.'”
Then there’s the matter of lyrical ambiguity. Song lyrics are mostly interpretive, and listeners will fight over meaning. Take, for example, Blake Shelton’s single “Came Here to Forget” off of 2016’s If I’m Honest. There’s a line where Shelton sings, “The first kiss is like a Colorado hit”; some fans believe he’s talking about weed, Neal says, while others believe he’s not. How does the study interpret those songs, Neal asks. Would “Colorado hit” count? It’s hard, she says, to know “how deep this idea of interpreting lyrics one specific way goes.”
“Colorado hit” is not on the list of drug terms Addictions.com used in its study. Alongside obvious names like meth and heroin, Freedman and his researchers analyzed lyrics for mentions of slang words like addy, blow, molly, roxy and sizzurp, among others. The study – which excludes alcohol – identified more than 65 names, which were lumped into seven categories. The research includes direct and subtle references, whether they’re positive or negative.
The researchers then manually scrubbed the data to double-check the findings. “We went through the songs to make sure they were actually singing about drugs instead of another meaning for the slang word,” Freedman told Rolling Stone.
If an artist was talking about a woman named Mary instead of mary jane, that song was cut from the data, he says. If a singer wrote about Bud but was singing about the beer brand, that was taken out too. Blow was removed when it wasn’t about cocaine, x was taken out when DMX was rapping about himself, coke was cut when it meant the soda, so on and so forth.
Though country music’s spot at the top of the list of most drug mentions in a genre has surprised most people, it’s not actually the study’s most shocking finding, Freedman said. Instead, it’s the fact that drug references in lyrics are on a decline.
“The thing I wasn’t really expecting was the nosedive around 2013,” he told Rolling Stone. “Music, all type of music, is really, really, straying away from mentioning drugs.”