Drinking songs in country music aren’t an unusual thing; in fact, they seem to be more popular than ever, regardless of what we all know about the sometimes-catastrophic results of alcohol abuse. One of the rare songs that focused on the consequences of excessive drinking instead of its pleasures was “Whiskey Lullaby” by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss, a song so well-written and well-produced that it should have been a hit no matter what it the subject matter was. In this case, the song was about a couple whose broken hearts led them to basically drink themselves to death.
Written by one of country music’s actual living legends, Bill Anderson, and Jon Randall (Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley), “Whiskey Lullaby” was a great example of a true songwriting collaboration, as Anderson recounted to author Jake Brown in Brown’s 2014 book, Nashville Songwriter.
“Jon Randall and I got together to write one morning, and I came in and said, ‘I’ve got an idea to write a song called ‘Midnight Cigarette.’ Can you imagine a cigarette just sitting on an ashtray at midnight? Nobody’s smoking it or paying it any attention, and it just sort of burns out and goes out all by itself, and liken that to a relationship – it wasn’t like you hit a wall or anything, it just burned out, it just went away. And he loved that idea, and had been going through a lot of personal things in his life … he said, ‘Well, I put the bottle to my head and pulled the trigger a few times,’ and next thing I’m going, ‘Forget the midnight cigarette! I love put the bottle to the head and pulled the trigger!’ So what we did was we combined my line, ‘She put him out like the burning end of a midnight cigarette,’ as the opening line of ‘Whiskey Lullaby,’ and it worked really well. And then, of course, the line that everyone remembers is, ‘Put the bottle to his head and pulled the trigger,’ so that was probably an example of cowriting in its purest form, where both people contribute pretty much equally to the process.”
“Then Brad Paisley heard it – and we did not write the song as a duet, it was written just as a song to be sung by one person – and Brad called me one day on the phone and said, ‘I’ve been listening to this ‘Whiskey Lullaby,’ and what would you think if I brought a girl to sing on that second verse?’ And I said, ‘I’ve never thought of that. Who do you have in mind?’ And he said, ‘Well, I think there’s only two people who could do it, and I would like to have one of those: Alison Krauss or Dolly Parton.’ And I told him, ‘Well, you don’t have to ask my permission to do that, because I love them both!’”
Krauss was enlisted, and the song became a top 5 hit on country radio, and a standout cut on Paisley’s double-platinum album Mud on the Tires. It won the Country Music Association Song of the Year award for the writers, Anderson and Randall. Many naysayers may have believed that a song so inherently sad, with such a negative view of drinking, wouldn’t stand a chance of success at radio, but they were proven wrong.
For more on Bill Anderson and a review of Jake Brown’s Nashville Songwriter, check out this link.