John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Bill Anderson’s “Cocktails” Is Potent

His version, and Robbie Fulks’ update in a different key, are both classics.

By - Mar 18th, 2016 12:23 pm
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Bill Anderson. Photo from Facebook.

Bill Anderson. Photo from Facebook.

In the hangover from Saint Patrick’s, let’s delve into a topic dear to the hearts of Irish and American Country musicians — drinking oneself to the point of oblivion. Drinking songs are always more working class, at least the good ones are. There’s a lot of pain to be found on the lower rungs of the ladder. This is not to say the ruling class isn’t tipsy, just that no one is interested in what Bob and Ray called ” their petty battles over power and money.”

Irish drinking songs are legendary and every year we are reminded of their claim for dominance in the field of drunken screw ups. But the south was populated with many Irish, Scotch and English settlers. They brought the old musical traditions that are still alive in the hills and hollers; they just added a bit of twang over the years.

I was reminded what a fine, cantankerous and sad song “Cocktails” was when Robbie Fulks played it live recently at Colectivo on Prospect. People actually sang along to this tale of brutal destruction, I suppose because it’s played equally for laughs and pathos. It struck me how perfectly balanced between those two extremes it is, one hanging chad away from being completely funny or utterly tragic. That’s why I think this song is magic. Let’s listen to and watch two versions: Robbie’s, seen here at McCabe’s in Hollywood with his trusty sideman, Rob Gjersoe, who was with him last week.

Robbie’s a fine writer and performer, and his research at Country Music Hall of Fame uncovered this gem by a guy who is a legend, but mostly to other country artists: Bill Anderson is heard, but not seen here performing the original hit. Anderson, whose nickname ‘Whisperin’ Bill,’ tells you a lot about him, was not George Jones or Hank Williams intense. He insinuated and always kept it polite. I won’t tag him for being among the school of country singers who seek to reassure the listener what nice, reasonable, clean-under-the-nails boys they are. I find it annoying in everyone but Whisperin’ Bill. I understand it takes all kinds, and this style can hint at taut repression ready to snap.

When Robbie sings it, he takes it over the fence with his fine Carolina tenor and it lands squarely in a big field of hurt. He sings it one step higher than Anderson, taking it from the key of F to G. That’s not a big leap, but the difference is night and day. On the record, the high harmony is sung by his lovely wife Donna, who is an actor of no small talent. On that version she is totally convincing in both the high and lonesome categories. The lyrics are a blunt instrument:

Cocktails tore up my family, Cocktails tore down my home
I cheated and I lied, I swallowed my pride
And then, Washed it down with Cocktails

One to wake me up every morning, one with a buddy at noon
One for the road every evening, til I found out pretty soon

It took two to wake me up every morning, two with my buddy at noon
Two for the road every evening, til guess what happened pretty soon

Cocktails tore up my family, Cocktails tore down my home
I cheated and I lied, I swallowed my pride
And then, Washed it down with Cocktails

I had a house on a hillside, the car I was driving was new
I had money in my pocket, but look what liquor made me do

I started runnin round with a woman, turned my back on my wife and my kid
Wonder how Momma’s gonna tell them, the awful thing that Daddy did

Cocktails tore up my family, Cocktails tore down my home
I cheated and I lied, I swallowed my pride
And then, Washed it down with Cocktails

© Bill Anderson

This is pretty adult stuff — we are not in the land of unicorns and rainbows, only the Irish can pull that kind of whimsy off and still seem tragic. Country Music handles mature topics in a way that is not unlike the Blues. Dwight Yoakam has called it white man’s blues and, when it’s good, that pretty much hits in on the head. The word “catharsis” comes too mind. It is funny and sad and emotionally draining. Most of all it makes you feel like you are alive. Humans, as we know, are a very volatile mix of emotion and intellect, which music expresses so well.

The beautiful book of American Music has endless examples of artists taking personally painful stories and turning them into something transcendent. So to Robbie and Whispering Bill, and all the amateur and professional drinkers out there, I’d like raise a glass to cocktails. Or as they say in Ireland, Slainte!

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: Bill Anderson’s “Cocktails” Is Potent”

  1. hristina Zawadiwsky says:

    I’ve taken to looking up these songs on YouTube before reading your article on the lyrics, just to get a sense of the implicit emotion, since you’re right, the lyrics always hold up on their own, like poems. Actually it’s a complex song, lightened by the singer’s voice and music. Thanks for making me aware of this one!

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