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THE LAST WORD: Addiction plays sad role in ‘Country Music’

Kerry Hubartt

I learned some things about country music during the last couple of weeks. And one was that country musicians have a sordid history of lives scarred by addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Over the past two weeks, I watched the riveting eight-episode, 16-hour documentary miniseries “Country Music,” produced by Ken Burns and written by Dayton Duncan that premiered on PBS on Sept. 15. The series, which chronicles the rise and dominance of country music in American culture, analyzed what the musical genre is all about. Since its earliest days, it has struggled with its definition, assuming labels through the years from hillbilly to country and western to bluegrass to outlaw and various other incarnations. The conclusion is that country music can’t be a form set in cement. Its strength is both in its roots and in its changes. And the essence of good country music is in its storytelling.

The stories told in “Country Music” repeatedly included those of performers who struggled with addictions to alcohol and drugs during their careers. Not to mention their broken marriages. One of the saddest stories was one of the earliest.

The most iconic artist in Burns’ history of country music, Hank Williams, had his life cut short when the effects of alcohol and painkillers led to heart failure. He reportedly used alcohol and tranquilizers to deal with chronic back pain from spina bifida occulta. His frequent drunkenness had already lost him the privilege of performing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.

The soulful singer known as “The King of Country Music” died in the back seat of his car while being driven to a New Year’s Day concert in Canton, Ohio, in 1953 when he was only 29.

Another icon, George Jones, had a reputation for missing scheduled performances due to his decades-long addiction to drugs and alcohol. He had reportedly been mostly sober through the 1980s, but was cited for drunk driving after an auto accident as late as 1999. He died at 81 in 2013.

Waylon Jennings said he had a $1,500-a-day cocaine habit for much of his career. In 1977, he was arrested for cocaine possession, but the charges were later dropped. Jennings sobered up for good in 1984, but many think the effects of drugs cut his life short in 2002 at the age of 64.

Trace Adkins blamed his 25-year addiction to alcohol for his failed marriages, being shot by an ex-wife and drunk driving accidents. He entered rehab in 2002, and since then his life and career have turned around.

In 2012, Randy Travis was arrested multiple times for alcohol-related incidents. In 2013, he plead guilty to DUI charges. On July 7, 2013, he was admitted to a Dallas-area hospital for viral cardiomyopathy in critical condition and three days later suffered a massive stroke and had surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. Now 60, after a long recovery, he announced this month that he would return to touring.

Keith Urban says his wife, Nicole Kidman, helped him kick his drug and alcohol addiction once and for all.

Mindy McCready has had drug problems since 2004. She was convicted on prescription drug fraud charges that year and in 2005 was arrested for DUI. She has struggled with addictions to alcohol and Oxycontin in the years since.

Johnny Cash, one of the primary figures in Burns’ documentary, used alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates during much of his professional life. He was arrested at the Mexican border with 668 amphetamine tablets and 475 tranquilizers. His second wife, June Carter Cash, helped him kick the habit, often taking his drugs and flushing them down the toilet. And Cash said in 1997 that his Christian faith and the Scriptures also helped save his life. Cash died in 2003 at age 71, just months after his wife, 73.

Not only have country singers used drugs, but they have sung about them.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, Cash was among many country singers who have sung about drug use in one form or another. A 2017 study published by Addictions.com found that country ranked first among music genres with an average of 1.6 mentions of drugs per song.

The link between country music and drug and alcohol addiction is a sad footnote to the story of this truly American music and many of the performers who have made it great.

– Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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