Song of the Week delves into the new songs we just can’t get out of our heads. Find these tracks and more in our Spotify Top Songs playlist, and for our favorite new songs from emerging artists, check out our Spotify New Sounds playlist. This week, bluegrass giant Billy Strings is casting Willie Nelson for his stoner-friendly “California Sober.”
Country artists have long written about alcohol motifs. For every heartland ode to cold beer and Southern Comfort, there is a counter-exposition suggesting that alcohol is a major contributor to feelings of separation, isolation, love, and insecurity.
Weed, on the other hand, has a similarly complicated past with country music, but in the past two decades, the cultural tide has begun to turn toward more explicit endorsements in the genre. In bluegrass extraordinaire Billy Strings comes into the fold, enlisting longtime cannabis frontman Willie Nelson for a new song about kicking the hard stuff, as well as growing up. To say you are a “California Sober” means that you abstain from every substance – alcohol, cocaine, pills, etc. – Except for fate. It’s a popular move for people recovering from more severe addictions, who understand the dangers of alcohol and harsher drugs, but turn to weed for its medicinal and stress-relieving properties.
Although the song’s central motif and upbeat, upbeat tone suggest “California Sober” is just a joke, both Strings and Nelson are unapologetically serious about it. “The old crew doesn’t get together much these days,” Nelson says in his second story, concluding that “some went straight some went straight to jail” and now they’re “busy posting videos and trying to raise their kids / Instead of raising hell and posting bail “.
For 89-year-old Willie Nelson, it’s entirely understandable that he didn’t go out with his old buddies who get blown up and make mistakes — but for Billy Stranges, it’s an even more grievous sacrifice. As he lays out his reasons for giving up on the drinking, he finally settles on the revealing last syllable: “I was California sober till I thought the world was over / Now I’m sitting on the roadside again / And when that cart was passing by, I don’t even bat an eye / Because The devil on my shoulder always wins.” It’s supposedly a reference to the bleakness of the pandemic, and the number of people who have returned to their vices in the wake of global paranoia and pain.
Although Strings feels the complex influence of the Devil on his shoulder, his role as Willie Nelson feels fresh and warm. Their harmonies are comforting with sweetness and, as always with Billy Strings, their banjo, lap steel and guitar work are second to none. It’s a nice return to Strings’ usual thriving country fare, and even nearing the age of 90, Willie Nelson is as charming as ever.
With just one song, Strings and Nelson seem to be giving the best of each other — and if “California Sober” is any indication, there’s plenty of smoking sessions in store for the two, devil or nothing. For more Stones-friendly jams, check out our recent list of the 50 Greatest Weed Albums of All Time.
– Paulo Ragusa
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