Author: Alvira, Marco

The State of the Still, Part 2

“I’m gonna lean on the counter and let the glass ring. More brandy. More brandy. More brandy to bring”

Those lyrics seem like they might have been sung by rowdy, lederhosen wearing Germans in a 19th century Bavarian beer hall. In fact, they’re from an old American song with it origins in North Carolina, as far as we can tell. “The Drunkard’s Hiccups” is just one example of the many traditional songs delving into the pleasures, pains, and complexities of imbibing liquor.

Last September I wrote a column bearing the same name as this month’s. The intent was to annually -or close to it- examine the role of moonshining and drinking in bluegrass and old time. In the first column, I provided some insight into my earliest curiosity regarding ‘shining and a little history into the craft of distilling liquor. (See for the first installment). Now, lest someone conjecture that I’m using this article as a pretext to promote drinking within the genre that all love so well, one only need to take a cursory glance at just a few of the songs in bluegrass and old time to see that a bunch of songwriters have beat me to the punch.

Mountain Dew
Darling Corey
Wild Bill Jones
Revenuer’s Gun
Drunkards Hiccups (Jack of Diamonds)
Raleigh and Spencer
Drunken Billy Goat
Good Corn Liquor
Whiskey Before Breakfast
…and I wonder what they were thinking or drinking when they wrote “Indian War Whoop”

That list was generated in the seconds it took me to type it. I’m sure that the collective CBA mind would come up with a list that would be boggling. What always strikes me as ironic is how a music that can either endorse, or at least reflect, on the use of liquor and its associated salacious behaviors, can also be the source of so many sweet gospel songs that encourage us to repent from those same turpitudes. I suppose, however, that if it weren’t for that likker, there might not be a need for songs such as “I Need Thee Every Hour”, “Power in the Blood”, or “Amazing Grace.” An age-old philosophical question asks: Must one know pain to really know pleasure? Mountain philosophers reflect on this conundrum as evidenced by the broad repertoire of songs ranging in topics from salaciousness to salvation.

Once while visiting relatives in the Ozarks, my dad went to a jam with my mom’s cousin. When he got back home that evening, he recalled how he asked the musicians what key they were playing in. They responded, “I dunno. It’s this one.” (they showed him a G chord on the guitar neck). He said that after they passed the mason jar around a couple of times, the key didn’t matter to him anymore. Even to my eleven year old mind, I knew he was talking about moonshine. From that moment early in life, to my way of thinking, bluegrass and moonshine became inextricably connected. When doing research for my first article on this topic, a video about the infamous Popcorn Sutton dredged up that distant recollection. ( That ancient connection has not been lost on today’s new generation of bluegrass musicians. Tunes like the Steel Drivers’ “Good Corn Liquor” follow a long tradition of likewise themed songs.

Understanding that the distillation of liquor is illegal without a license, I couldn’t help but notice while researching for this month’s column, that there’s a whole bunch of new YouTube videos providing instruction for home distilling. In fact, there are a lot more new videos on moonshiners in Appalachia. I had to ponder if perhaps this new plethora of material were really a new phenomenon or simply a matter of perception since the entire topic of moonshining had only recently moved to the fore of my consciousness? Over the vacation, I was invited to a friend’s house to sample his new attempts at home vinification. To my surprise, in his garage, atop a bench top sat a still used to convert his wine into brandy. Even more recently, I accompanied another friend to a store that sells supplies for home brewing. There, on the rack, was an envelope of high yield distillers yeast. When I asked the proprietor about it, he said home distilling is gaining in popularity and that he carried several new books on craft. I would have to say that based on what I’ve seen in the last two weeks, the state of the still is safe, secure, and prospering in the Union and bluegrass. It is a legacy that has served musicians and bluegrass fans well for generations and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

*It is not the intent of this column to promote the illegal distillation of alcoholic beverages or the consumption thereof.

Posted:  1/2/2011

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