The Heartbreaking Meaning Behind ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Opening with crisp, bright guitar picking, “Whiskey Lullaby” gets muddied by the dobro’s deep, hollow vibrations as a story unfolds. Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley are merely the storytellers of the 2004 hit, whose meaning can be found in the song’s narrative.

Paisley’s poetic twang and Krauss’ angelic soprano were the perfect foil to tell the tale of “Whiskey Lullaby,” but that’s as far as their role goes. To dive into the meaning behind “Whiskey Lullaby,” a closer look is required.

The Inspiration

The pain, separation, heartache, and guilt that builds in the song had to be experienced firsthand before they could be unloaded.

Jon Randall, one of the song’s co-writers alongside Bill Anderson, had been through the wringer before writing “Whiskey Lullaby.” He had just divorced his wife and fellow-country singer, Lorrie Morgan, and had also lost a record deal and songwriting contract, reportedly, all within a few days of each other.

As a result, Randall discovered solace in the bottle, drinking regularly, and clinging to harmful and reckless habits. After seeing the state Randall was in during this time, it was his manager who told him, “Hey man, every now and then you’ve got to put a bottle to your head and pull the trigger.” Randall wrote down that line, thinking it would be great to use in a song.

The Co-write

He met with his co-writer, Anderson, completed the song and eventually the tune made its way to Paisley.

In Jake Brown’s 2014 book, Nashville Songwriter, Anderson recalled the collaboration with Randall. “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,” Anderson said.

“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.”

While “Whiskey Lullaby” was not written as a duet, it was Paisley’s idea to include a female vocalist, believing that there were only two people who could pull it off: Dolly Parton or Alison Krauss.

Behind the Lyrics of ‘Whiskey Lullaby’

The song tells of tragedy against a ghostly gothic bluegrass backdrop. It follows a couple whose painful separation has led them both down different paths with the same sad end.

[Paisley:]
She put him out, like the burnin’ end of a midnight cigarette
She broke his heart, he spent his whole life tryin’ to forget
We watched him drink his pain away a little at a time
But he never could get drunk enough to get her off his mind
Until the night

The male figure in the song begins drinking himself to death in order to avoid the pain of a love lost. He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger, sing Paisley and Krauss in the most memorable line of the song—the words that started it all. The man finally drinks the hurt away with whiskey as her name lingers on his dying breath.

[Paisley and Krauss:]
He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger
And finally drank away her memory
Life is short, but this time it was bigger
Than the strength he had to get up off his knees
We found him with his face down in the pillow
With a note that said, “I’ll love her ’til I die”
And when we buried him beneath the willow
The angels sang a whiskey lullaby

La, la, la, la, la, la, la
La, la, la, la, la, la, la

A similar fate befalls the female character as news of the man’s death leaves her guilt-stricken. The rumors flew, but nobody knew how much she blamed herself, Krauss sings, the weight of the woman’s conviction heavy in her own mouth.

[Krauss:]
The rumors flew, but nobody knew how much she blamed herself
For years and years she tried to hide the whiskey on her breath
She finally drank her pain away a little at a time
But she never could get drunk enough to get him off her mind
Until the night

The woman, too, put the bottle to her head and pulled the trigger. We laid her next to him beneath the willow / While the angels sang a whiskey lullaby, the song plays out the sad tale as the closing la, la, la, la, la, la, la‘s send the couple off.

[Paisley and Krauss:]
She put that bottle to her head and pulled the trigger
And finally drank away his memory
Life is short, but this time it was bigger
Than the strength she had to get up off her knees
We found her with her face down in the pillow
Clinging to his picture for dear life
We laid her next to him beneath the willow
While the angels sang a whiskey lullaby

La, la, la, la, la, la, la
La, la, la, la, la, la, la

The Music Video

The accompanying music video for “Whiskey Lullaby” tells an even deeper story. The video opens with a soldier returning home from WWII. Just inside the doorway of his home, he looks upon a framed photo of him holding his wife under a willow tree. The footage flashes to the day he took leave, when they said their goodbyes to each other under the same tree.

Back to reality, as the man steps further into his house, he is immediately met with his wife’s laughter coming from upstairs where he finds her in bed with another man. He storms out as the song begins.

Shots of Paisley and Krauss performing the song on stage intertwine with the video as the tragic storyline is carried out.

Watch the powerful video and listen to the even more powerful vocals by Paisley and Krauss below.

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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