So maybe the late Merle Haggard didn’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee or take trips on LSD, but that certainly didn’t stop country’s greats from trading a shot of Tennessee brown for a toke of Colorado green — and singing about it, too. But true to the genre’s roots, these songs capture a complete, complex story: It’s never just as simple as relaxing on the beach with a joint in hand, and, more often than not, there are bitter consequences. These are tales that show both the pleasure and sorrow that comes with a life lived high.
After the devastating loss of the iconic Merle Haggard, it's heartwarming to look back at this recent track recorded with his pal Willie Nelson, off of 2015's Django & Jimmie, that's propelled by jovial mariachi horns and even more jovial exchanges between the two old friends, as they poke fun at their own mystique and mythologies. Released, naturally, on 4/20 and written by Buddy Cannon, Larry Shell and Jamey Johnson (who makes a cameo on the song), it's a tongue and cheek anthem for the stoner who's as disenchanted with the world around them as they are with the merits of a full bank account. And, if you ask Nelson and Haggard, it's better to smoke your green than spend it, anyway.
While Eric Church has been known to wax nostalgic for lost hometowns and Springsteen summers, he's also sung about trying to erase certain memories with the aid of a little (or a lot of) weed. "She got a rock, and I'm getting stoned," Church sings on this track from 2011's Chief (for the record, aside from Church's nickname, "chief" is also slang for getting high). In this rocking thumper with clapboard guitar and an acid beat, he deals with the wedding of an ex in the best way he knows how: by smoking the pain away. "Smoke a Little Smoke," on 2009's Carolina, may be his better-known stoner anthem, but this one shows how some folks use drugs to dim the reality of heartbreak.
Hopefully Chris Stapleton has a good recipe for weed brownies, or at least a healthy vaporizer — no one would want him to damage those golden pipes with a rasp-inducing joint when he indulges on "Might as Well Get Stoned." From his Grammy-winning solo debut Traveller, the track, anchored by a swampy vamp and written with Jimmy Stewart, has Stapleton praising the healing power of a little un-medical marijuana, lighting up when both his heart and liquor cabinet are empty. But it's not a shallow tune either – the last verse proves that while he might be high, he's also pretty grounded in the sobering realities around him.
With roots in the Appalachian standard "Little Sadie," "Cocaine Blues" reworks the classic tune and adds in the intensified drama of a little white lightening, heightening the moral conundrum. Though it's had many sonic interpretations, no one made it swing quite like the Man in Black, who famously played it for the inmates of Folsom Prison. Attacking that western vamp, Cash tells the story of Willie Lee, who tried to outrun the cops after killing his woman while high on coke. Of course, it's hard to disassociate from Johnny Cash's personal struggles with drugs, or to ignore the near jubilant performance. It leaves a lingering question: Is murder different when you can blame the blow?
Ushered in by a dirty guitar line that’s like a cowboy shaking his chaps in a new saloon, Brandy Clark tells the story of a bored homemaker who finds solace by rolling herself a “fat one” once the kitchen is clean and the kids are in bed. An accomplished Nashville songwriter for likes of Miranda Lambert and Darius Rucker, Clark proved through her solo debut, 12 Stories, that she is not shy about pulling the veil off of suburban life and exposing the intoxicants that make it bearable. But when she ties off the song with “thanks for the Mary Jane,” she’s no longer just speaking for that housewife.
Charlie Daniels, country's king of the moody fiddle and low-talkin' ballad, reportedly struggled with performing this one from 1974's Fire on the Mountain, live — he claimed his Christian beliefs were counter to those of the song's protagonist, who likes getting "stoned in the morning and drunk in the afternoon." These days, he subs in "I get up in the morning and get down in the afternoon" and "tell another joke" for "take another toke." Regardless, it sets a path for southern blues shared by the likes of the Allman Brothers and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and showcased the nagging country conflict between the down-home values and rock star reality.
"Roll up a joint," Kacey Musgraves sings and strums on this sweetly mischievous track off 2013's Same Trailer Different Park. Of course, there's that little added "or don't" thrown out next, but that's just for prosperity (or the FM stations). Still, the song saw plenty of trouble on country radio, with programmers balking at casual marijuana advocacy and the girl-on-girl imagery. Musgraves had the last laugh, though, playing the tune on stage at the Grammys in glow-in-the-dark cowboy boots next to a psychedelic cactus, and snagged the Best Country Album award. Far out, y'all.
Sturgill Simpson has gone out of his way to dispel the notion that his sophomore masterpiece, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, is a drug ode in and of itself – but it's hard to deny the inherent trippiness in the opening track, "Turtles All the Way Down." Let's be honest here: it's not in a sober state where "reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain," but it sounds a little more appealing (and less expensive) than ten years of therapy. Simpson calls out Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and DMT alongside delicate ripples of sound that streak across the song like sun in a stoner's eyes, painting a psychedelic vision of the Nashville skyline that's well worth the trip.
As country music's most ardent steward of the cannabis court, Willie Nelson doesn't actually have many songs that deal specifically in getting high — perhaps he chooses to live by example rather than in lyrics. But "Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die" is a honky-tonk gospel that's anything but subtle. Nelson paired with rapper-turned-Rasta Snoop Dogg, Jamey Johnson and Kris Kristofferson, releasing the track on the holy high holiday of 4/20. Though the album version (from 2012's Heroes) suffers from Snoop's super-awkward twang-izzle phrasing, the stripped-down bonus takes are classic Nelson, where he lays it down like his last will and testament.
It's probably not a unique story: get a little too high while chilling out on Willie Nelson's tour bus, pass out, skip your plans for the night and wake up wondering what the hell happened. Except in this case, it's Toby Keith, so stoned that he misses Charles Barkley's Las Vegas birthday party. Happens to the best of us, right? A bonus track on 2003's intolerably jingoistic Shock'n Y'all, this duet with longtime collaborator Scotty Emerick finds Keith cursing the aftermath of a night with the braided wonder and his killer stash, pledging to "never smoke weed with Willie again." A promise, as he makes clear at the song's witty end, that's pretty difficult to keep.
One of John Prine's most achingly sad songs is about the destructive perils of war — and the drugs required to dull the pain of everything lost on the battlefield. "There’s a hole in daddy's arm/where all the money goes," he sings in his quintessentially nasal tone. Off 1971's John Prine, the song is a key example of Prine's master narrative style, using simple strum and vibrant, if not troubling, imagery to tell the story of how heroin serves the final shot in this poor veteran's doomed life. Johnny Cash covered the tune on Austin City Limits in 1987, but it lost some of its pungency when he edited out the seminal lyric "Jesus Christ died for nothing/I suppose."
Never did getting nasty sound so sweet. In this tune, the Pistol Annie is just a gal looking for a little spice in her relationship — by way of some leather, lace and a pair of nice, strong weed goggles. "Every puff, every shot, you're looking better all the time," she sings in crystal-clear twang, contrasting the edgy lyrics with a classic hillbilly boogie. The song was a cut off her 2013 solo record, Like a Rose, and wilted on conservative country radio. But it showed strong songwriting chops and that maybe Monroe, not bandmate Miranda Lambert, just might be the raciest Annie of them all.
Jamey Johnson was in recovery from addiction when he wrote "High Cost of Living," a song that manages to both mourn the loss of time passed under a drug-induced fog, and look wistfully back on the emotional ease of an intoxicated existence. It's that wavy moral line that makes Johnson's work so appealing — and difficult for the establishment to handle (although Mercury signed on to release 2008's That Lonesome Song, which features this track, he was recently dropped). "With my back against that damn eight ball/I didn't have to think or talk, or feel," he sings in his booming baritone, and you're left to wonder if he'd rather it stay that way.
Laughter might be the best medicine, but weed is a pretty potent alternative — especially if you're more interested in dulling the pain than chasing it away for good. Just ask Andrew Combs, who was "Too Stoned To Cry" on his debut LP, Worried Man. Combs may be numb, but the steel guitar does the weeping for him on this classic folk country ballad that shows how not actually feeling your feelings can be the most devastating emotional state of all: and here, it sounds sweet but hurts like hell.
Even in country music, sometimes the best whiskey just doesn’t cut it: and the Brothers Osborne know that the grass is indeed greener on the other side. On the song from their debut Pawn Shop, the boys from the docks of Maryland stop turning bible pages and start rolling papers – and the result is a glorious honkytonk romp where John Osborne’s guitar burns faster than a fatty j. “This whole world has gone to pot and right now so am I,” sings his brother T.J., confessing that the only gospel that seems to work is the one that grows in the ground below, not the heavens above. It’s a risky point of view for Music Row newbies, but these siblings are as bold as they are stoned.
When a song has the distinction of being labeled both “subversive” by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and a “modern spiritual” by conservative talk-show host Lawrence Welk, you know you have a hit. Welk had a point. Folk duo Brewer & Shipley’s 1971 tune is pretty much just a groovy Southern gospel, though the only spirit it’s chasing is one that comes through a hash pipe. Hunter S. Thompson further cemented it into pop-culture history in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with Dr. Gonzo humming it as he drove, leaving narrator Raoul Duke to wonder, “One toke? You poor fool!”
Zac Brown took a cue from the Jimmy Buffett school of rockin' n' relaxing on this song, which details one devilish little trip to Mexico, imagining a world where Brown might trade his knit cap for a cheeky visor. "Gonna lay in the hot sun and roll a big fat one," he sings to a tropicali tune that could have been ripped directly from Buffett's Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. It went to Number One on the country charts — but not without a clean version that bleeped out any mentions of drugs.
Leave it to the original outlaws to pack a song title with both sweet sincerity and a downright gross double-entendre. As a duet from their 1978 album Waylon & Willie, which saw a Number One country hit in "Mamma's Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," it's one to take with a grain of salt: though they might sing "take back the weed, take back the cocaine" in exchange for true love, Nelson's four wives (but lifelong companion in marijuana) and Jennings' bankruptcy by addiction (and the near millions he blew on, well, blow) beg to differ.
Through their new-bred old-time tales of forgotten Appalachia and buried coal towns, Old Crow Medicine Show illuminate the destructive power of drugs in blue-collar communities on this song co-written with Dave Rawlings. "But mamma she ain't hungry no more/she's waiting for a knock on the trailer door," sings frontman and fiddler Ketch Secor, peppering the choruses with somber harmonica. The song appeared on 2008's Tennessee Pusher, which went to Number One on the bluegrass charts — and probably isn't likely to be covered by Darius Rucker anytime soon.