About 10 seconds into Eric Church’s “Cold One,” a song off his brand new album, I almost turned it off.
Because the first verse quickly paints this all-too-familiar picture: There’s a girl. And a cooler. And they’re by the water. So I was thinking, “Let me guess. She’s wearing cutoffs and cherry lip gloss, and when the sun goes down, they’ll pass some ’shine around and dance by the river bank because it’s Friday night and they’ve worked all week.”
But I did not turn it off, and I’m so glad for that. This is a drinking song, sure, but in this one, something happens. The girl grabs a beer and walks out on him — one beer short of a 12-pack.
“Damn, babe, that was a cold one,” Church sings.
I haven’t heard a song like that in a while — one where the song’s about something more than the drinks. It’s become a bit of a lost art, I think, for songwriters to go deeper than “let’s drink” or “we drank.”
So I analyzed 20 of our genre’s finest drinking songs from the past three decades or so that do go deeper. There are lessons to be learned from each one — from the stories they tell to the essentials lyrics that are often hidden in the middle.
1. “Straight Tequila Night,” John Anderson Instead of just singing about his own drinking, this man is sharing his perspective of a woman he sees at a bar. If she’s drinking Chablis, he tells everyone, go ahead and hit on her. But if she’s drinking straight tequila, he warns everyone at the bar to leave her alone. Essential lyric: “Maybe you can turn her love life around/Then she won’t need the salt or the lime anymore to shoot that old memory down.”
2. “Long Neck Bottle,” Garth Brooks The idea here is that it’s not your fault that you’re out drinking. You don’t need to accept the blame for this night out. So Brooks tells the bottle to let go of his hand, the barroom mirror to go stare at someone else and the dance floor to stop being underneath his feet. Essential lyric: “I oughta waltz right out of them swingin’ doors, but that’s a step I just can’t learn.”
3. “Last Call,” Lee Ann Womack I’m a sucker for song lyrics with a double meaning. This one does it so effortlessly. It’s last call at the bar where he is, and she is his last call (booty call) every time he stays out late. Essential lyric: “They’re probably closing down, saying, ’No more alcohol’/ I bet you’re in a bar ’cause I’m always your last call.”
4. “One Bud Wiser,” Gretchen Wilson Not all drinking songs need to end with some cliché hayloft makeout session. This one ends with the drinker getting smarter with every beer she drinks. Essential lyric: “I won’t be jonesin’ for his lovin’ anymore/’Cause I’m one Bud wiser than I was a minute ago.”
5. “Ten Rounds,” Tracy Byrd One round of Jose Cuervo is nice, but it’s really just the beginning. This song looks at the end game of a man drinking too much tequila. Essential lyric: “I forgot what I came to forget.” (For the end game of a woman drinking too much tequila, see Joe Nichols’ “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.” )
6. “Neon,” Chris Young This ballad has always felt to me like a very heartfelt love song to a bar. How its neon lights are better that the blue sky in Cheyenne, Wyo., the red in a Santa Fe sunset, the yellow of a Texas sunflower, the orange of the fall or the green of the summer. And how that neon pulls him in to a place where he can put a double on his troubles. Essential lyric: “Just like a beachside beacon callin’ all the ships back home/A few thousand volts to cut through the smoke/The windows are tinted/That’s why they invented neon.”
7. “Please Operator (Could You Trace This Call),” Garth Brooks
He’s gone out drinking, all right. So much so, he has no idea where is. He has to ask himself, “If I were me, if I was out drinkin’, just where would I be?” And he’s begging the operator to send him a cab. Essential lyric: “I may be lonely, but I’m never alone ’cause I’ve been beside myself since she’s been gone.”
8. “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight,” Toby Keith This one has the same main components of a typical drinking song. There’s a girl, a dance floor and fruity cocktails. But in this song, Keith warns the girl this isn’t going anywhere after the night. Had he gone on to marry her, as she predicts in this song, Keith would have inevitably been singing her his “You Ain’t Much Fun” in the years to come. Essential lyric: “I’m just talkin’ ’bout two lonely people who might reach a little understanding.”
9. “Here I Am,” Patty Loveless She isn’t really there when he’s out drinking. She’s more just theoretically there when he downs his bourbon and water. Essential lyric: “I’m right there at the bottom of your glass.”
10. “Set ’Em Up Joe,” Vern Gosdin Sometimes drinking songs aren’t even about drinks. Or are they? In this classic, you’re never sure if Gosdin is talking about drinks or songs — or both — when he says he’s gotta have a shot of them old troubadours. Essential lyric: “Every day they replace old B-24 ’cause every night I run a needle through ’Walking the Floor.'” (A nice nod to the Ernest Tubb song from the ’40s.)
11. “Five Dollar Fine,” Chris LeDoux The setting? A bar. The patrons? Drinkers. But in this honky-tonk, there’s only room for happy drinkers. They don’t care about who done who wrong. So if you’re sad, there’s a $5 fine. Essential lyric: “If it ain’t on your mind to have a good time, ya’ll come back and see us again.”
12. “Drink Myself Single,” Sunny Sweeney Sometimes the reason for all the drinking is just to see what it’s like to be him — to stagger in the house like he does every night. Essential lyric: “A bottle of red? A bottle of white? Which one will it be? I can’t decide. I guess I’ll find out once I drink those bottles dry.”
13. “Take My Drunk Ass Home,” Luke Bryan This song’s so good, in a funny way, because it takes you to the part of the night when the drinking’s all been done. I mean, sure, it was fun. But now? His money’s all gone, he hit on all the girls, he sang every song, he drank all the whiskey, he sucker-punched his best friend, the bouncer headlocked him, he misplaced his shirt, his buzz is gone and his ex-girlfriend ain’t lookin’ half bad. Essential lyric: “I look like hell, I feel like shit/I think it’s time I call it quits.”
14. “Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof,” Travis Tritt Alcohol causes plenty of side effects. But none greater than the invincible feeling you get after a few. Like being 10-feet tall, bulletproof and a great dancer. Essential lyric: “I’ll find a bar and I’ll have a few/Until I’m 10 feet tall and bulletproof.”
15. “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association,” Garth Brooks
You know that place you go to do all of your drinking? That’s not just a bar. It’s an organization of like-minded people. This song doesn’t just celebrate hardworking Americans. It raises its glass to a place where you can go when your conversation calls for a little more than a coffee pot. Essential lyric: “Every local chapter has a seven-day-a-week available consultation for your frustration.”
16. “Dry Town,” Miranda Lambert Even if you put all your effort into a night of drinking, there’s the occasional fail. Like when Lambert runs into that rare town where there is no drinking. At least, there’s no booze for sale. Essential lyric: “I’d give a nickel for a sip or two/To wash me down outta this dry town.”
17. “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me,” Dixie Chicks Your ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend walk into the bar. Seriously. It’s no joke. And it is the scenario that turns this drinking song into a story that everyone can relate to. Essential lyric: “Bartender, pour the wine ’cause the hurtin’s all mine.”
18. “Lonely at the Top,” Jamey Johnson Keith Whitley wrote this one but never recorded it. Thank God, Johnson did. It’s about two men at a bar. One’s a country music singer, pouring out his trouble. The other one is a stranger with some sound words of drunken wisdom. Essential lyric: “It might be lonely at the top, but it’s a bitch at the bottom.”
19. “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” Kellie Pickler He is the one out drinking because he’s torn between neon lights and home, but Pickler is smart enough to pour a few drinks of her own. And as for him? He’ll be sleeping on the couch in his cowboy boots. Essential lyric: “I’m gonna sit at that kitchen table with a bottle of wine/And I’m gonna search that midnight radio ’til I find something that hurts.”
20. “Bad Angel,” Dierks Bentley Drinking, smoking, gambling. This tune has it all. But instead of being a song that extols the virtues of the vices, it’s one that is about struggling with the temptations of them. The drinking part of the song, done by Miranda Lambert, is a question I’ve asked myself from time to time. The cap is on the bottle, and the bottle is on the shelf. Should I take it or leave it? Honey, how am I gonna help myself? Essential lyric: “I’m standing at the crossroads of Temptation and Salvation streets.”