For most of my life, I’ve been a part of the Musician’s Culture and more recently, I’ve been very involved in the Cowboy Culture as well. If there are any other identifiable cultures that drink more than those two, I sure don’t want to meet up with them. There’s a line in a Tom Russell song that says “And if we drink ourselves to death, ain’t that the cowboy way to go.” The same could be said for the “musician’s way to go.”
In the 80s, I played in a pub in Dallas. People often expressed their appreciation for your talent by buying you a drink. One night, I looked back at my amplifier at the end of the evening and counted seven beers and five shots of whiskey sitting there. It occurred to me that if I drank them all, I would probably die of alcohol poisoning. Fortunately, I chose not to drink all of them…but I certainly drank some of them. When I look back on that time, I think it’s a wonder than I didn’t kill myself or even worse, some innocent bystander, as I so often drove home in an inebriated state.
Years later, my friend and bandmate from that time, Roy Lyle, said to me, “Jim, you know you don’t have to drink every shot that people buy you.” I said, “Really? What do you do?” He told me that all those years, when someone bought us shots, he would put the glass to his lips as we drank our toast, take a tiny sip and then set it on his amp. Later, he would quickly pour it out behind the amp. I was astounded. It had never occurred to me that you could do that. It also explained the mildew on the stage carpet behind his amp.
A good cowboy friend of mine has a brother who is a bonafide alcoholic. He told me that he once asked his brother if he thought he could just drink one beer and stop. For a moment, his brother seemed puzzled. Then he responded, “Why in the world would I do that?” He started out as a teenager going out with his cowboy friends and seeing who could drink the most. The “winner” was considered the best cowboy and the best man. What started as teenage hijinks developed into a habitual pattern that lead to full-fledged alcoholism. Would he have gone down that path anyway? I don’t know but the cowboy culture sure greased the wheels.
My paternal grandfather was a serious alcoholic who died from cirrhosis of the liver. He abandoned my grandmother and their three sons during the Great Depression, which left lasting emotional scars on my father and his two brothers. To his credit, my father was always careful about his drinking and served as a good example for me once I developed the good sense to pay attention. However, it’s a legacy that some think is carried in the genes and I’ve tried to make it clear to my children that they need to be aware of it. In a song I wrote in memory of my grandfather, “Whiskeytown,” I said:
“My Mama loved her cowboy once when he was young and strong
But his heart and soul are shriveled now and I guess that love is gone
Sometimes my Mama stares at me, her eyes afire with pain
Cause she knows how the bloodlines go and what flows in my veins
She's scared for what the future holds, what goes and comes around
She dreads the day she hears me say I'm bound for Whiskeytown”
At this point in my life, I’m able to drink socially without going nuts. My friends in the musician’s world and the cowboy world generally respect that and don’t pressure me to prove my manhood by drinking to excess. Unfortunately, I think that kind of thing still goes on all the time with younger people, not only in the world of cowboys and musicians but also on most college campuses. As I said above, I don’t want to preach at anyone but I do want to encourage all of us to stop and think about the messages we send to our children. You can be a man (or woman), a good musician and a good cowboy without proving it by drinking everyone else…and yourself…under the table. Really.