There are times when thoughts pop into one’s head that should be written down…they say for posterity’s sake. This “note” may not merit such an epithet as an heirloom but it struck me as interesting.

I thought I would write a few thoughts about songs I’ve listened to. It might seem strange for a preacher’s kid to start off with this one but if you’ve seen my red hair, you know why.

Scots Irish Influences in Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road

Country rock was a thing of the 80s and some vestiges of its ballads and epic tones linger on with Zac Brown Band and Chris Stapleton. It’s hard to think of that music being anything other than American.  Steve Earle was a pioneer of the genre and his album and song “Copperhead Road” bring an an interesting twist to country rock. While the songs on the album are steeped in hard rock and “left-wing politics”, the style and themes of the music bring out some of American music’s oldest ingredients–the influence of the Scots Irish.

Generally speaking, country music, bluegrass, and old-time music draw heavily from the Scots Irish, especially in the case of material. The Scots Irish not only brought their famous fiddles with them to the New World but they also brought their ballads. A ballad, simply put, is a story set to music. They recount the life of workers, outlaws, heroes, and other such blue-collar folks. These ballads were often melancholy in nature and those influences certainly show up in bluegrass and country music. Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road is certainly a ballad; a ballad about outlaws, family, and a hard life.

The song highlights a family in the hills of East Tennessee; they were poor and made their money making and bootlegging corn liquor. With Johnson County being a “dry” county, the Pettimores were often on the wrong side of the law. The main character is the third in a string of John Lee Pettimores but he wants a different life from his father and grandfather. He wants to get out of the poor hard life of the hills and volunteers for the Army during the Vietnam War. He gets a taste of war and finds some familiarity in the tactics of the Viet Cong. He also gets the idea of going back home and improving the “family business”. He starts growing maijuana in the hills and uses Viet Cong tactics to outwit the DEA.

If you know the history of the Scots Irish and their influence in the backcountry, you know how this song fits in. The Scots Irish have a intense loyalty to family, a strong dislike for government control, and are fierce fighters. The Pettimores seem to live up to that:

Everybody knew that he made moonshine
Now the revenue man wanted Grandaddy bad
He headed up the holler with everything he had
It’s before my time but I’ve been told
He never came back from Copperhead Road
Now Daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge
Bought it at an auction at the Mason’s Lodge
Johnson County Sheriff painted on the side
Just shot a coat of primer then he looked inside
Well him and my uncle tore that engine down
I still remember that rumblin’ sound
Well the sheriff came around in the middle of the night
Heard mama cryin’, knew something wasn’t right
He was headed down to Knoxville with the weekly load
You could smell the whiskey burnin’ down Copperhead Road

The culture of moonshining and bootlegging is certainly a Scots Irish tradition. Just after the American Revolution, there was a Whiskey Rebellion where the government imposed taxes on farmers selling corn liquor. Infinitely clever and thrifty, the settlers of the backcountry along the Appalachian Mountains found it was more lucrative to turn corn into moonshine and ship it into town than the grain itself. It wasn’t taxed like other liquors until the American government under Washington tried to enforce it on corn whisky. The settlers, mostly Scots Irish in Pennsylvania and Virginia, rebelled at this and the Federal Army was sent to enforce the law.

Not only are the lyrics and story of the song influenced by the Scots Irish but the intro to the song uses a keyboard to imitate the sound of a bagpipe. The “drone” sound continues throughout the song; a key feature in Scottish pipe and fiddle music. If Steve Earle was trying to bring the Scots Irish heritage to the forefront of American music, he did an excellent job.

 

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