For many years now, independent country and Americana artist have been addressing the opioid crisis and pill epidemic in some of the era’s most cutting and poignant songs. Often coming from the very communities that struggle with these issues, their stories are commonly not hypothetical. They’re often about friends, loved ones, or even themselves.
Songs like “Nose To The Grindstone” by Tyler Childers have become anthems of the era, while Childers has also stepped up to directly address the epidemic with the Hope in the Hills Foundation and the Healing Appalachia event. The independent country and Americana community have also been directly affected by the issue with the loss of Justin Townes Earle, Luke Bell, and others.
But similar to how we’re seeing the success of artists such as Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, Zach Bryan, and now even Oliver Anthony result in the mainstream trying to find similar artists and success, it was only a matter of time that the mainstream started to release songs seriously addressing addiction as well. Normally, some independent fans and artists would roll their eyes when something like this happens. But in this instance, the more speaking up about the issue, the merrier.
Where it often seems like certain elements of the government are uncaring about the pill epidemic if not outright facilitating it through close ties with Big Pharma, country music is stepping up to address the crisis, and head on. It’s a concern that affects everyone, no matter your taste in music. But it happens to be that a lot of these songs also are done in good taste. It makes for compelling art and entertainment, while also conveying an important message.
Since his debut single that went straight to #1 called “My Boy,” Elvie Shane originally from Caneyville, Kentucky has labored to make mainstream country that hits a little different. He’s had some hits and misses in the endeavor while recording for BBR’s Wheelhouse imprint, but his new single “Pill” definitely hits hard.
Elvie Shane wrote the song with Lee Starr and Nick Columbia. He says about the track, “‘Pill’ is my story, told from the perspective of a note to me from my little brother in my most trying times. It’s an apology to those I love for the turmoil I put them through. But for me this goes way beyond just what my family and I have gone through. I want to be a vessel and share other people’s struggles and experiences, even if it helps one person, that means I did my job.”
Brad Paisley has entered a very interesting and introspective portion of his career. Clearly past the point of launching major #1 singles, but not exactly a legacy act just yet, he recently transitioned from playing arenas to now making his way playing the casino circuit and similar rooms. Brad could bellyache about this, or sell out to try and maintain his mainstream relevancy like Keith Urban or other contemporaries. But instead, the gifted guitar player who often uses humor in his music has taken a more thoughtful approach.
Similar to Elvie Shane, the results of the new Brad Paisley era have been mixed. His last single “Same Here” featuring Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who Paisley visited in Ukraine would have gone over like gangbusters in early 2022. But when the song hit streaming services earlier this year, a significant skepticism about supporting the war in Ukraine has formed in the American public.
Addressing America’s addiction crisis, its underlying causes such as the hollowing out of the middle and working class, and other issues are what some people believe we should be doing as opposed to funding a proxy war. The reception for “Same Here” has been somewhat similar to Paisley’s controversial song in 2013 “Accidental Racist,” where perhaps the sentiment was in the right place, but the execution left a lot to be desired.
But Paisley’s newest song “The Medicine Will” is a different story. One of multiple new songs including one called “Son of the Mountains” that is also the title of his upcoming album, Brad Paisley is returning to his West Virginia roots, and trying to find a more authentic foundation. Just like Elvie Shane hailing from Kentucky where the country music resurgence has been based, Paisley reaching back to West Virginia where so many surging independent songwriters are from helps tie him to the current trends in independent country music.
There is still a little bit of that sappy, overproduced vibe to the video of “The Medicine Will,” but that doesn’t mean the message and testimonials don’t ring true. Paisley also recorded an acoustic version out in the woods Oliver Anthony style. Both the song and the recording of “The Medicine Will” feature Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Dan Tyminski on mandolin.
What is making these songs so resonant is how many people’s lives have been affected by the pill epidemic. Whether they become “hits” or not is beside the point. They’re sparking conversation, and in the case of Brad Paisley and Elvie Shane, reaching audiences that are not always accustomed to being challenged or compelled in this kind of manner about an issue that is hard to address, and even harder to solve.
Much of the appeal behind Jelly Roll’s recent resurgence has been the redemption story behind his music. Some independent fans may be quick to point out that Sunny Sweeney released a song called “Pills” on her 2017 album Trophy written by Brennen Leigh, or that Kelsey Waldon’s “High in Heels (High on Pills)” was published all the way back in 2014. These are just a few of many examples of how independent artists have been speaking up on this issue for years.
But as the pill epidemic has gone mainstream, so have songs that look to speak to it, and these songs are taking on a much deeper meaning than the “Say No To Drugs” campaigns of the ’80s. It’s sad and unfortunately that such topics even need to be broached in song. But country music is reflecting its time. And since the pill epidemic is epicentered in rural areas and Appalachia, all the more reason that the artists from these areas step up to speak out about the ongoing crisis.