Read Kevin Mahler's Introduction to his ongoing 5-part "Portrait Series Paralleling Characters in HBO’s Deadwood with Contemporaneous Pop Country Musicians," and check out previous parts 1 and 2 here.
“(Whiskey For My Men) Beer For My Horses” was a song by Toby Keith and Willie Nelson that was released in 2003 and dominated country music FM radio for the next three years. It was everywhere.
This song was among the last in a long line of Toby Keith songs that leveraged post-9/11 emotions to unleash the darkest demons of American nationalism. Toby Keith’s songs of this era were catchy, funny, and yet… xenophobic. The TK songs of this era seemed to echo the opinions of Fox News hosts. They were also punctuated by bumper sticker poetry and the addictive guitar licks, drum fills, and percussive surprises carried out by Nashville’s finest studio musicians.
The song was about vigilantism. It was about civilians taking the law into their own hands and then taking a little too much pleasure in meting out justice. It was about frustration with the perceived seepage of urban problems into rural America ー and addressing this frustration with contempful, alcohol-fueled delivery of corporal punishment.
Sixteen years later, I can still hear the opening riff and the simplistic melody. The vocal mics were turned up so high, you can almost hear Toby and Willie patting themselves on the back after every line they deliver, believing they have successfully positioned themselves among the Hollywood Western lawmen and American Western troubadours of yore.
They are chest-bumping, high fiving, and back slapping. But this is no sport. This is a Culture War they are fighting. Allusions to “The Maker,” “Grandpappy,” and “Pappy” elevate these sentiments to a higher calling and a historical precedent that may or may not be real.
The fact that this song was sung by Keith allowed the videographer of the even-more-troublesome official video (a CMT perennial of the day) and the listeners’ imaginations to cloak and garnish all of this in the accessories of the season’s highest calling ー Nationalism.
This was the soundtrack of America at the time that Deadwood was born on HBO.
Most country music listeners did not tune into HBO on Sunday nights to watch a period drama with dialogue that bore a closer resemblance to Shakespeare than John Wayne. Most HBO aficionados did not listen to country music.
But for those of us who did, we saw a richer, more complex depiction of the world we heard about on the radio. Where the first, idealized frontiersmen who took the law into their own hands did so for reasons that were mercenary, defensive, political ー but never patriotic or righteous.
Below the portraits are haikus that explain the similarities I see between the personalities.
Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and John Anderson
Evocative of Wild
Bill, not that smart but super
wise, he calms his friends.
A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) and Wynonna
No one else on earth
could ever love me like you,
Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) and Trace Atkins
Shoulder the burden!
He got shot because his wife
got a little cray.
General Samuel Fields (Franklin Ajaye) and Kenny Chesney
Tryin’ to get to
San Francisco, but he may
not get there in time.
Tom Nuttall (Leon Rippy) and Aaron Tippin
Serving working men,
All rise for the Boneshaker!
Fall for anything.