This 4/20, we’re celebrating the best intersections of weed and pop culture. After reading through this list about country music’s complicated relationship with marijuana, be sure to also check out the Top 50 Stoner Albums to Give You a Contact High and 25 Stoner Movies That’ll Leave you (Half) Baked.
If you listen to country music, you’ll have no difficulty finding songs about beer or trucks or hunting or The South or whiskey or workin’ hard or hardly workin’ or fishing or tractors or cheating or gambling or patriotism or honky tonk badonkadonks. But should you want to listen to a country song that references marijuana, traditionally you had to search a little harder.
Unlike rock ‘n roll or hip-hop, weed-smoking in country music has been mostly relegated to the genre’s margins, reflecting broader society’s reefer madness over the years. Only 12% of Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana in 1969, and that number never hovered above 32% until the mid-2000s, according to Pew Research Group. But the general feeling toward pot seems to have flipped in recent years, and even country’s traditional gatekeepers have looked the other way as songs about dope enjoyed mainstream success.
Of course, country music mythology is filled with renegades, from outlaw stars like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard to modern-day iconoclasts Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, and Chris Stapleton. Unsurprisingly, those renegades have been all too happy to push back against the social mores of the Nashville establishment and forge their own path — a path that, more often than not, smells quite dank.
So let’s raise a joint to those cannabis country songs that trade red, white, and blue for red-eyed and baked. Through the song list below, you can see how marijuana in country music went from taboo to toast of the town. — Spencer Dukoff
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Merle Haggard – “Okie From Muskogee” (1969)
If you had to pick just one song to serve as the anthem for social conservatism, it would be “Okie From Muskogee.” Written in response to nationwide protests against the Vietnam War, the breezy us vs. them tune is a (respectful) middle finger to the dope-smokin’ longhairs tearing apart the fabric of Haggard’s America, populated by football-loving, Old Glory-flying, White Lightning-drinking, self-described “squares.”
The first line is, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” with that small Oklahoma town standing in for all the little small towns scattered across the country who were not so sure about this whole “peace and love” thing. “Okie From Muskogee” was a huge hit, topping Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart, where it remained for four weeks, and earning Country Music Association’s Single of the Year for 1970. It’s a useful signal for understanding how cannabis was viewed by the country music establishment and its mainstream audience: Haggard links marijuana use to a lack of patriotism, disrespect for authority, and emasculation — Okies from Muskogee do not wear “beads and Roman sandals,” but they do wear “manly leather boots”. You can draw a straight line from “Okie From Muskogee” to Kid Rock using cans of Bud Light for target practice in order to own the libs. — S. Dukoff.
Johnny Cash – “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970)
The Man in Black bridged the gap between the traditionalism threaded through country music and the hard edges of counterculture. With the Kris Kristofferson cover “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Johnny Cash returned to a theme present throughout his music, which is reckoning with past transgressions and their consequences. “I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned/ Cause there’s something in a Sunday that makes the body feel alone,” he sings. Cash’s audience had already empathized with murderers and other evil men, so a narrator craving a toke wasn’t such a stretch. — Mary Siroky
John Prine – “Illegal Smile” (1971)
Let’s get something straight from the beginning: “Illegal Smile” is not about marijuana. “I have to confess, the song was not about smokin’ dope… But it was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn’t want to stop every time I played it and make a disclaimer,” John Prine told Performing Songwriter in 2013. However, intent is different from impact, and the fact of the matter is “Illegal Smile” has been embraced by a dope-smoking set hungry to see themselves reflected in music.
Lyrically, it’s a little trippy, especially when compared to mainstream country music in 1971, which is perhaps one of the reasons Prine has been regarded by some as more of a folk icon than a country icon. Whether you want to believe the song is about Prine’s special way of looking at the world or a veiled nod to ganja, one thing is for certain: It sounds pretty damn good after toking on a jazz cigarette. — S. Dukoff.
Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson – “Reasons to Quit” (1983)
A decade-and-a-half after the success of “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard released a collaborative album with his good friend Willie Nelson, one of country music’s most high-profile cannabis connoisseurs. Together they had helped pioneer of the outlaw country movement, and Haggard’s attitude toward cannabis had considerably cooled in the years since “Okie From Muskogee” — his daughter would claim later that he regretted writing the 1969 hit.
The landmark album Pancho & Lefty, with a title track by Townes Van Zandt, paired Haggard and Nelson on a number of duets, but perhaps the most enduring track is the somber “Reasons to Quit.” It’s not pro-weed — “the low is always lower than the high” — but it does not relegate smoking marijuana to some lesser unspeakable category set apart from drinking. Still, it’s a tune that could be enjoyed by both those who partake and those who abstain, accentuating all the downsides of an un-sober lifestyle. — S. Dukoff.
Toby Keith – “Weed with Willie” (2003)
The slick country machine of the late ’80s and ’90s didn’t tolerate much marijuana, but as legalization gained popularity, pot re-emerged in some unlikely places. “Weed with Willie” tips the proverbial cowboy hat to Willie Nelson, who by 2003 (and honestly much earlier than that) had come to be marijuana’s biggest evangelist in country music. As for Toby Keith, at the time his “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” continued to spray support for the Iraq war across radio stations, and his politically-charged feud with the Dixie Chicks had just a few months earlier inspired Natalie Maines to perform in a shirt that read, “FUTK.”
“Weed with Willie” is one of two bonus tracks on Shock’n Y’all, alongside “The Taliban Song.” It’s essentially a joke song about Toby Keith getting smoked under the table by Nelson. It’s all hyperbole, with references to taking “one friendly puff” before “the Grim Creeper set in,” and ending with Keith in the “fetal position with drool on my chin.”
“Weed with Willie” was not a massive hit, but the fact that it’s on the platinum smash that was Shock’n Y’all shows that mainstream country attitudes had at least relaxed enough that we could laugh about smoking marijuana. At the same time, during an era when there were numerous songs with explicit nods to drinking beer and whiskey, it’s notable that “Weed with Willie” positions cannabis as something that will mess you up so badly that you’d swear it off for good, at least until the next time you boarded Nelson’s tour bus, the Honeysuckle Rose. — S. Dukoff.
Eric Church – “Smoke a Little Smoke” (2009)
In 2009, Eric Church hadn’t quite broken through into the country music mainstream yet, and some of that was on purpose. A lot of Church’s persona as an artist recalls the outlaw era; 2009’s Carolina is a record that wasn’t written with the explicit goal of radio hits, as many of Church’s contemporaries were prioritizing at the time.
“Smoke a Little Smoke” found its audience nonetheless, and the gravelly chorus where Church states his plans to “drink a little drink, smoke a little smoke” is kind of a whole vibe. It’s also a notable moment in country’s history — an unambiguously pro-weed hit that even cracked the Billboard Hot 100. The counterculture was moving to Nashville’s mainstream and carrying rising stars like Church along with it. — M. Siroky
Ashley Monroe – “Weed Instead of Roses” (2013)
For much of the 2010s large networks of country radio stations refused to play consecutive songs from women, with one executive opining in 2015 that women were the “tomatoes” in the salad, not the lettuce, and should be “sprinkled” on playlists instead of getting played back to back. But a new generation of alt-country artists challenged the old paradigm, led by Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves (who we’ll get to), and Ashley Monroe.
It’s pretty perfect that Monroe’s “Weed Instead of Roses” appeared on her album Like a Rose, it was a solid theme. With this track, she established just what she wants in a romantic relationship. “Give me weed instead of roses and let’s see where it goes,” she sings, an overall inspirational statement for anyone in the early stages of a romance. Monroe, who is also one-third of the Pistol Annies, has long established herself as someone who isn’t too concerned with protocol. Despite or maybe because of that, the album landed in the Top 10 on the country charts; people got it. — M. Siroky
Kacey Musgraves – “Follow Your Arrow” (2013)
Long before Golden Hour, there was Same Trailer, Different Park, a stunning debut record that introduced the world to the biggest country-pop crossover star since Taylor Swift. While “Merry Go Round” was the first radio hit for the then-emerging Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow” eclipsed it soon enough, successfully establishing the singer-songwriter as a breath of fresh air.