All of these songs and more can be found on our curated Spotify playlist, All American Whiskey. Click the Spotify logo in the search bar up there on the right. You’ll be glad you did. Put it on rando and pour a couple of fingers of corn liquor.
My favorite moment is late at night when everyone’s gone to sleep and I’m out in the back in my favorite patio chair under the trees and the night sky with a glass of whiskey in my hand, headphones blaring music that chars the interior of my dome like a Bourbon barrel. My tastes are multivalent and deep so there is no telling what I’m listening to on any given day. Could be the Stones. Could be Erik Satie. Could be Wutang. I’m all over the place and that’s how I like it.
But sometimes you need songs about whiskey when you’re drinking whiskey
Because there’s value in the sympathetic balance of like with like. So sometimes, leaned back staring into the night sky over Chicago, my head is rattled and blasted with songs that pay homage to uisge beath. However, these songs about whiskey aren’t the obvious titles scraped off a lazy top-40 compilation. These songs are good. These choices come from years of listening to them on purpose.
My criteria are private and you should just take a step back, pal
How the hell do I explain the criteria for offering a list of songs about whiskey? I could drop into nerd mode with a set of inarguable data by which a song may be categorized as a whiskey song but that’s tedious and I’m not going to do that to you, gentle reader. No, my criteria are numinous and tangled. They are whispered to me from the tiny voices trapped in the ice in my whiskey. They come to me after midnight in the muted calls of barn owls and crickets. They happen by serendipitous accident when a song comes onto my Spotify list that makes me reach for a bottle.
These aren’t obvious whiskey songs
It’s not because whiskey’s not mentioned in their title or the lyrics. It’s not so on the nose as that. It’s more about the feeling, about the way they let your troubles slip off your back and loosen up your knees. It’s how in the opening bar the sheer distilled perfection of the attitude of the song, the premise of the music, invites a curious grin to grinch across your face. I mean, a couple of them are also actually about whiskey, but I swear that’s by accident.
However, perhaps some criteria are worth the minimal indicia required to satisfy the step-by-steppy folk who will howl with offense if such criteria are not included. Ahem:
- points for a harmonica
- points if the singer is lonely
- points if the singer is on the run
- points if they’re naked or about to get naked or make you slightly uncomfortable
- points if the singer is on the precipice of certain death, however real or imagined
- points for authentic blues guitar
- points for being written between 1919 and 1933
- points for being haunted
- points for voodoo
- points for being obviously about whiskey without ever mentioning whiskey
Behold: the best songs about whiskey you’ll ever listen to.
“Shake ‘Em on Down”
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey
I can’t tell you why this one works. And I know after all that shit about being a numinous choice and blah blah blah, the album has whiskey right there in the title. Whatever. I’m not your dad. Look, this song is not nice. It’s not about the whiskey you drink while you’re deep into a rumination by a warm fire in your flannel gown with East of Eden upside down on your knee. This song is the soundtrack for a string of bad decisions. It’s about knocking back a fifth of cheap-ass whiskey then, as you’re swinging up that hill of inebriation toward an inevitable descent into madness and the hairy eyeball of rebuke you decide now, right this second, is a good time to let the dogs off their chain. This whole album is a goddam unhinged joy. Play it loud. Let the neighbors know.
The Ass Ponys
It is hard to put into words how wonderful this song is. Such a seemingly simple piece of work. But the way they put it together, the discipline, the restraint they show in not turning what is definitively a neo-billy anthemic love story into a neo-billy anthemic love story for the radio. Songs about whiskey need to show up with verbiage that’s laid down while it’s still hot, like bottling whiskey right away, shine style. They go right to your head. These lyrics are fucking poetry:
When the moment comes,
I could be the trigger
you could be the gun
that blows out the back
of my skull
“Eggs and Sausage”
Nighthawks at the Diner
Picking a Tom Waits song for a list of songs about whiskey is a nearly impossible job. I thought “In the Neighborhood” was perfect for the way it embodies that fuck-it-all sense of resigned hangover love for everything, dulled of course by the whiskey swirling around in your head. The heartwrenching perfection of “Johnstown Illinois” was my next pick because holy mother of God I want to throw myself off a bridge every time I listen to it. Waits’ voice is what whiskey would sound like if it got behind a microphone so almost any of his songs is a perfect whiskey song. “Pulling on Troubles Braids” has that wild finality to it, a kind of Steinbeckian surrender to being on the run. “Soldiers Things” makes you want to curl up and die. But “Eggs and Sausage,” is a different animal. From an early album, from his early years as a Los Angeles troubadour, playing strip clubs and dive bars. Waits lived this song in a rumpled suit and worn-out shoes and a bottle of Old Crow on the dressing room shelf.
“So Long Gone”
Pete Molinari (with Dan Aurbach)
This song runs through the library of blues tropes without sounding like it’s ticking off blues tropes. The singer is lonely, has cheated on someone, is weary, is no good, is being torn apart, needs somebody, and turns a nice metaphor about murder into a plea for love. There is howling. There is a plodding, diligent drum beat. There is Dan Aurbach’s roaring, snarling guitar under Molinari’s frank voice. High pitched like some old Appalachian hobo, but then warmed and supported by something. Presumably whiskey. The song makes you think you heard it before, especially in the bridge when the guitar is clearly inebriated, drinking heavily with the bass drum who is hammered beyond words. But you haven’t heard it before. Molinari and Aurbach are musician’s musicians. They’re names on the back of someone else’s album. And Molinari, if you’re reading this, don’t think we didn’t catch the honky-tonk piano buried deep, deep, deep in the tracks.
“Obviously Five Believers”
Blonde on Blonde
Can’t have a list of whiskey songs without St. Dylan on it somewhere. In keeping with our left-hook, wingnut approach, this isn’t a typical Dylan song for those of you who know Dylan from when “Tangled up in Blue” accidentally drops into your Spotify stream. “Obviously Five Believers” is jangly and tight. It’s Dylan on the electric guitar, probably wearing war paint and stoned out of his mind singing about calling his girlfriend to please come back home, and frankly, that’s a place we’ve all been at some point no matter which end of the gender-fluid spectrum xu fall onto. Dylan is the poet laureate of rock and roll (Bowie being the Pope) and even one of his lesser-known songs like this one is perfect.
“That Goddam Herbert Hoover”
The Origin of Wasteland
The Blind Robins
This one is a favorite of Piehole Willie and a million and five other people. It’s a song about being down and out, arrested for stupid shit, and generally looking forward to dying (apparently). It’s a swinging guitar and drum-driven neo-country punk jewel with lyrics like “tits on a bull” and it just makes you want to throw something across the record store because this is definitely a record store song and as a man who spent a significant period in the 80s drunk in record stores flipping vinyl with a dismissive grunt until the store shop guy finally played something I liked, well, this is like that.
This song will wake your ass up. Taj Mahal laid it down in 1967 and it stands as one of the best blues covers ever. Snarling harmonica. Mahal’s sub-Hendrixian guitar licks. And through it all, the ghost of Sleepy John Estes, the musician who dropped this song around 1929. Estes’ music is classic old-school juke joint blues, and it’s played by every decent band from Led Zeppelin to Derek Trucks. But Mahal’s version is the best. It’s tight. It’s fucking pissed. It’s done with it all. It’s out the fucking door. Look at these lyrics:
I went upstairs to pack my leavin’ trunk
I ain’t see no blues, whiskey made me sloppy drunk
I ain’t never seen no whiskey, the blues made me sloppy drunk
I’m going back to Memphis babe, where I’ll have much better luck
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Creedence does justice to the southern rock milieu by getting the influence of North Mississippi and Delta blues right. They add just enough spooky voodoo weirdness to make you wonder if an acid flashback is imminent. “Graveyard Train” belongs up there with “Born on the Bayou,” and “Heard it Through the Grapevine” as their best work even though nobody ever listens to it anymore because the education system in this country is broken, Scott. IT’S BROKEN. It is another of the resignation songs, the haggard, blank-eyed spirit of disaster and death staring at you from every note. It is a haunted song, a keen of regret and horror. It is as good and as solid as “St. James Infirmary” for singing about one’s dead girlfriend.
The Gold Star Sessions Vol. 2
Ok, yeah. I know. Right there in the title again. Breaking my own rules, but rules are made to be broken, little unicorn, so buckle up. I’m pretty sure this is the song that gave birth to Rock and Roll as we know it. If there’s a band from 1954 to 1979 who didn’t rip off Lightning Hopkins I’d like to know who they are. Hopkins led a pretty hard life until someone in the emergent largely white folk-blues scene brought him up on stage next to Joan Baez and Pete Seeger which gave him a ton of cred to the integrated audience that followed these people around. Which is ironic because it was musicians like Hopkins that wrote the music Baez and Seeger were ripping off by the fistfuls. Over the next several decades Hopkins knocked out a kajillion albums (more than any other blues musician) was the poet laureate of Houston, TX, and died from cancer the year I graduated high school (1982). If you’re ever in Crockett, TX, take a selfie with his statue there.
“Cadillac in the Swamp”
Cadilac in the Swamp
This song is about a guy glimpsing a ghost Cadillac in a swamp full of alligators and I just don’t think much more criteria need to be laid out here. Smokehouse is the real deal, an unknown blues band from somewhere in Florida who may or may not run an actual smokehouse. Hard to say. And I might be wrong. But this song is the kind of spooky, bass and lick-driven late-night smoker ARS only wished they could knock out. I’m pretty sure these guys are still kicking around somewhere near Bradenton, FL making barbeque and records and fighting alligators with their bare hands while ghost Cadillacs rage through the palmettos and Spanish moss.
Pee-Wee Get My Gun
T Model Ford
This is hardcore barely tuned North Mississippi juke joint blues. I swear the dude calls out his girlfriend Stella as if she’s in the audience and he’s looking at her. Then he just flat-out says she cheated on him and he’s going to [I can’t write this stuff because I might go to jail]. It’s like a Reddit thread from r/trashy became a song. It is hard to quantify the avalanche of gritty joy I feel when this song comes on. It’s like walking home in the hot southern sun at 11 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday because you went out with the bartenders last night and shit got crooked and a good time was had by most. Now you’re sweating bourbon through your socks and trying to remember if a person’s eyeballs can actually fall out onto the sidewalk because they. Are. Very. Close.
“Crack Whore Blues”
Souls on Fire
Oxford, MI punk like nowhere else. Raucous and disjointed in the very best way. Punk screaming and blues wailing and solid, capable musicians killing it garage band style. I’ve been listening to this song for more than 20 years and it never fails to bring me joy. Listening to it with a snoot full of rye is just that much better.
“They Say I’m Different”
They Say I’m Different
Not that Betty Davis, the other one. The one who was married to Miles and was flat-out nasty on stage. She sang loudly about getting it on to the music of John Lee Hooker as a 16-year-old back on the farm, after slopping the hogs. This is raw southern funk with an obvious pedigree stretched directly to Lightning Hopkins, Howling Wolf, Albert King, Big Mama Funk, and Chuck Berry—all of whom are mentioned in the song just in case you don’t get it. Davis digs into her music with obvious lustful relish and surrendering to this floor pounder might just teach you how to dance. There is a good documentary on Davis, mostly about how she dropped it all and disappeared at the top of her game leaving her fucking goddam solid as hell band in the dust. A lot of whiskey songs are about feeling bad and lonely and lost. This one is about feeling good, sliding your hand down someone’s butt, and knowing exactly who you are.