Today’s song of the day is the outlaw anthem “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle.
- Released in 1988 on an album of the same name, “Copperhead Road” reached number 10 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart making it Earle’s biggest hit at the time.
- Copperhead Road is a real street near Mountain City, Tennessee. Due to sign thefts, the road has been renamed Copperhead Hollow Road.
- The song is about three generations of bootleggers — people who make and distribute illegal alcohol, a practice that has deep roots in rural areas like Mountain City.
- This alcohol was often cheaper and transported to “dry” counties where alcohol sales were banned. There are still close to 90 dry counties in the United States.
- With the practice of bootlegging waning, the song’s protagonist John Lee Pettimore III returns from the Vietnam War and grows marijuana protected by traps and methods used by the Viet Cong.
- Though the story itself is dramatized, many bootleggers actually turned to marijuana when more counties allowed alcohol sales.
- Most infamously, the Cornbread Mafia of central Kentucky had roots in bootlegging and employed tactics like Pettimore after returning from the Vietnam War. By 1989, government agencies had arrested 70 members though none of them cooperated with authorities.
Well my name’s John Lee Pettimore
Same as my daddy and his daddy before
You hardly ever saw Grandaddy down here
He only came to town about twice a year
He’d buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line
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
Then 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
I volunteered for the Army on my birthday
They draft the white trash first, ’round here anyway
I done two tours of duty in Vietnam
And I came home with a brand new plan
I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico
I just plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road
And now the D.E.A.’s got a chopper in the air
I wake up screaming like I’m back over there
I learned a thing or two from ol’ Charlie don’t you know
You better stay away from Copperhead Road