Blazing trails: Country music’s historical – and complicated –relationship with weed

Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez, KUT / Illustration by Raul Alonzo, Texas Standard

Reefer’s relationship with the genre spans more than just a couple of hits.

Blazing trails: Country music’s historical – and complicated – relationship with weed

By Kristen Cabrera | April 20, 2023 3:15 pm

It’s April 20, also known as 4/20 – a certain smoker’s holiday of sorts.

In Texas, we all know that one ubiquitous Texas musician heavily associated with weed – Willie Nelson. But country music’s history with cannabis is more vast.

Spencer Dukoff, director of audience development at Consequence, recently co-authored a piece looking at country music’s historical relationship with weed. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript was edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: We don’t have time to go through all ten songs, but maybe we should begin with a classic from Merle Haggard, I think. You know the one.

Spencer Dukoff: Yeah, “Okie from Muskogee” we really kind of picked out as a starting point, being this huge country smash and also firmly positioned country music on this more socially conservative side of the country. And the rest of the song kind of draws links between, you know, dope-smoking hippies and kind of the collapse of traditional values in the United States. Just given how popular that song was, even if there was a little bit of a wink and a nod and it was somewhat of a sillier song, you know, there were plenty of people who were listening and saying, “OK, country music is on this side. It’s 1969. Rock and roll is on another side.” And so that’s kind of the starting point we had for this. 

Of course, the Man in Black himself had an important take on counterculture with “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” right? 

For sure. And that has kind of entered the canon as one of these classic country and marijuana songs. It’s definitely a little bit more subtle than some of the more contemporary songs out there, you know? And I think also just given who’s narrating this song, you know, people have a certain understanding of Johnny Cash as this, you know, rough and tumble outlaw. And so him, you know, wanting a toke of weed, I don’t think was going to ruffle too many feathers.

But you know, it seemed like there was a definite break. I think of it with that Toby Keith song. “Weed With Willie” is almost a joining up with the generations and a coming to terms with weed, no?

For sure, and I mean, I think looking at the chronology of the songs on our list, you know, we had some difficulty finding songs in the eighties and the nineties. You know, we have “Reasons to Quit,” which is that Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson’s song, which came out in 1983. But, you know, for the most part, it seems like in the sixties and seventies you have a little bit more of an outlaw country renaissance.

And then there’s this gap with traditional and mainstream country. So kind of going with “Weed With Willie,” that’s in 2003, you know? Still attitudes towards marijuana and legalization are pretty cool. People are not super keen across the country to legalize marijuana. But here’s this song from Toby Keith, who’s arguably one of the biggest stars when this song drops. You know, it’s kind of… it’s a total joke. Silly song. It’s also kind of playing into some tropes of, you know, marijuana – really knocking him out and making him drool and pass out. And, you know, meanwhile, there’s all these other songs about alcohol where there isn’t the same level of, you know, reefer madness. 

But you know, you fast forward a few years to Kacey Musgraves, right, with “Follow Your Arrow” directing listeners to roll up a joint or don’t – taking much more of a laissez faire approach than Merle Haggard certainly would have.

For sure. And I think that’s a great bookend to the Merle Haggard example, because I think if you look at “Okie from Muskogee” being this kind of ode to social conservatism and, you know, being really hip to be square, “Follow Your Arrow” kind of comes on the exact opposite side where it’s this much more progressive worldview. In that song, there’s not only the reference to smoking marijuana as kind of this sense of freedom and being able to make your own choices, but it’s pro-LGBT. It’s very much about kind of “do you and don’t let broader society kind of imprint its values on you.” So I think that that song also really reflects a turning point in this relationship. 

You know, I don’t think that we can, as the Texas Standard, possibly get away with talking about country music and weed without mentioning the man. You have on your list a song that maybe wasn’t the hit that some people thought it should have been. But is there a more “Weed With Willie” song than “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die?”

Yeah, we were thinking about how we wanted to kind of put a little bit of a capstone on the list and, you know, it really pops up throughout our list of ten songs at a few different points. But this particular live performance, you know, features just so many artists kind of spanning these different periods of country music, even going outside of country music. You know, the specific rendition that we pulled from the American Outlaw performance has everyone from Jimmy Buffet to Eric Church to The Avett Brothers to Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle. You know, it runs the gamut. And then even people like Margot Price, who are, you know, this new vanguard of outspoken outlaw country artists. You know, she was in that performance, as well.

So, yeah, that just felt like a really appropriate way to kind of end things and also look toward the future – you know, who is going to be carrying this torch, so to speak, moving forward. 

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