Song Meanings: Tennessee Whiskey

Updated on March 4, 2017
Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton perform both "Tennessee Whiskey" and "Drink You Away" at the 2015 CMA awards
Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton perform both "Tennessee Whiskey" and "Drink You Away" at the 2015 CMA awards

Lyrics

I used to spend my nights out in a barroom
Liquor was the only love I've known
But you rescued me from reachin' for the bottom
And brought me back from being too far gone

You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey
You're as sweet as strawberry wine
You're as warm as a glass of brandy
And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time

I've looked for love in all the same old places
Found the bottom of a bottle's always dry
But when you poured out your heart I didn't waste it
'Cause there's nothing like your love to get me high

You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey
You're as sweet as strawberry wine
You're as warm as a glass of brandy
And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time

You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey
You're as sweet as strawberry wine
You're as warm as a glass of brandy
And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time

You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey

*this is the version most recently sung by Chris Stapleton. The versions sung by David Allan Coe and George Jones are ever so slightly different.

Performances and Versions

Tennessee Whiskey, was written in 1980 by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove. Dean Dillon is a country singer and highly acclaimed song writer who has written 55 songs for George Straight thus far including "The Chair," "Easy Come Easy Go," and "Living for the Night." He has also written or co-written for country stars like Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney as well. For this song he teamed up with the late songwriter and extremely talented studio musician Linda Hargrove who's songs "Just Get Up and Close the Door," "Let It Shine," and "I've Never Loved Anyone More" received car-topping success.

The song was first recorded and performed by David Allan Coe, a popular, yet controversial country artist who is best known as a part of the Outlaw Country Movement. His version peaked at 77 on Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart in 1981.Only two years later country superstar George Jones covered the song as a part of his 1983 album Shine On. That version of the song prove to be more popular to a larger audience, and peaked at number 2. The song was left untouched for more than thirty years until Chris Stapleton recorded a decidedly soulful version of the song in 2015 as a part of his debut album Traveller. Stapleton formerly was the lead singer of the grammy nominated bluegrass band, the Steeldrivers until 2010 when he left the band to focus on raising his family. In 2015 after years of writing hit songs for other country stars like Kenny Chesney, George Straight, Lee Ann Womack, and Sheryl Crow he finally made his debut with his talented wife Morgane Stapleton singing backup vocals. Although hiss take on "Tennessee Whiskey" is a completely reimagined version of the song, fans ate it up eagerly. A large part of his current success owes itself to his powerful rendition of the song.

David Allan Coe (1980)

George Jones (1983)

Chris Stapleton (2015)

Analysis and Meaning

The speaker of Tennessee Whiskey begins his story by telling the listener about his life before he met his lover. He says “I used to spend my nights out in a barroom” implying that he wasted his time drinking not only on the weekend, but every night of the week. He then states, “Liquor was the only love I’d known” signaling to us that the speaker felt there was nothing besides liquor to give him the comfort and support he craved, so he falsely mistook those feelings for love. In the following the line the speaker claims that his lover “rescued” him “from reachin’ for the bottom.” Here “the bottom” refers both to the bottom of the bottle as well as to the low point in his own life. He goes on to say that, not only did she rescue him, but she also brought him “back from being too far gone.” This line suggests that before the speaker met his lover, he did not believe that he could escape his cycle of alcoholism and that he was too far gone to matter or to be loved by another person. It is also interesting to note that being “too far gone” is also an expression commonly used to mean someone is too drunk.

In the following stanza, the singer introduces the chorus that will go on to be repeated three times over the course of the song. In the chorus, he uses liquor imagery to describe his lover. He says “You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey/ You’re as sweet as strawberry wine/ You’re as warm as a glass of brandy.” The words he uses to describe his lover are words associated with intimacy and love when used to describe a person, but when used to describe alcohol they complement the alcohol on its taste or qualities. It is interesting that the language used to praise an alcoholic drink can also be used to praise and describe a lover. Furthermore, the speaker’s inability to separate or conceive of love in terms outside of alcohol show that the feelings of addiction to alcohol and the addiction to love are very similar in his mind. Because he has no experience with human love he supplements that lack of experience and vocabulary with those of a kind of “love” he is familiar with. He continues his use of liquor imagery by stating in the last line of the chorus “I stay stoned on your love all the time.” Since the effects of real alcohol are temporary, in a way he is attempting to praise his lover because she allows him to maintain that calm, drunk feeling he craves at all times. In another sense, being in a constant state of disorientation is not necessarily desirable although the speaker seems to think it is. In addition, we do not learn much about the other person because he does not love her for her, he loves her for the high/drunk feeling he is giving him.

In the next stanza, the speaker reiterates the story of how his lover rescued him from his alcoholism but peppers it with more liquor imagery. He tells us that he “looked for love in all the same old places” but found that “the bottom of a bottle’s always dry.” These two lines reiterate the fact that before the speaker met his lover he only searched for love in liquor, yet after the bottle was finished so was that false sense of love. In continuation of his liquor imagery, he tells us that his lover “poured out [her] heart.” While this is a common phrase, it’s similarity to the action of pouring a drink takes on a whole new meaning in this song which relies heavily on liquor imagery. The speaker also reiterates that her love is better than alcohol because “there is nothing like your love to get me high.” Again, he conflates the high associated with alcohol and addiction with feelings of love.

Which Version of Tennessee Whiskey is Your Favorite?

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