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Song Translation: Copperhead Road

The language of the American south is a rich and varied thing, rooted in English but infused with bits and pieces of Native, European, and African languages. Then there's Redneck, the official language of country music. Today, I'll attempt to translate an outlaw country song for those less fluent in the language than a native southerner such as myself.

The subject of today's translation will be Copperhead Road by the great Steve Earle. Released in 1986, it was and remains Earle's highest-selling single. Lyrically, it tells the story of a young Appalachian man making his way in the world. The song lyrics will be italicized, the translation in plain script. Let's begin:


Well my name's John Lee Pettimore
Same as my daddy and his daddy before


Allow me to introduce myself. I'm John Lee Pettimore III.

You hardly ever saw Grandaddy down here
He only come to town about twice a year


My grandfather was not one for travelling, although he occasionally made an appearance in the public square.

He'd buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line
Everybody knew that he made moonshine


Grandfather was an amateur chemist well-known for his artisanal distilled spirits.

Now the revenue man wanted Grandaddy bad
He headed up the holler with everything he had


Federal law enforcement agents knew of Grandfather's activities and mounted an investigation of the property.

'Fore my time but I've been told
He never come back from Copperhead Road


This took place before my birth, but family lore has it that the investigation was unsuccessful and the lead investigator's whereabouts remain unknown to this day.

Now Daddy ran whiskey in a big block Dodge
Bought it at an auction at the Mason's Lodge


After taking over the family business, my father purchased a transport vehicle at a sale held by a local fraternal organization. 

Johnson County Sheriff painted on the side
Just shot a coat of primer then he looked inside


A former government vehicle, it was painted a flat gray color before further modification. 

Well him and my uncle tore that engine down
I still remember that rumblin' sound


Mechanical skill runs in the family. My father and his brother improved the engine's performance. 

When the Sheriff came around in the middle of the night
Heard mama cryin', knew something wasn't right


In the early hours one morning, local law enforcement arrived at our house. Mother's reaction gave me a feeling  of impending doom.

He was headed down to Knoxville with the weekly load
You could smell the whiskey burnin' down Copperhead Road 

Father had been involved in a fatal accident in the course of his delivery. The vehicle was lost to fire. 

I volunteered for the Army on my birthday
They draft the white trash first, 'round here anyway


Upon reaching adulthood, I embarked upon a military career. This is not uncommon for those of similar social status in my area, but some wait until called upon to enter into service. 

I done two tours of duty in Vietnam
I came home with a brand new plan


Inspired by the resourcefulness of my so-called enemy, I developed an outline for my post-military career. 

I take the seed from Columbia and Mexico
I just plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road


After importing strains of cannabis hemp with higher levels of THC than domestic varieties, the seeds are planted in the small valleys along the road on which I dwell. 

And now the D.E.A.'s got a chopper in the air
I wake up screaming like I'm back over there


As with my forebears, my activity has attracted the attention of Federal law enforcement, who surveil the area with rotary wing aircraft, the sound of which triggers the PTSD developed during my wartime experience. 

I learned a thing or two from Charlie don't you know
You better stay away from Copperhead Road


Viet Cong-derived methods of boobytraps and snares are utilized on my property; you are advised to steer clear. 

Copperhead Road
Copperhead Road
Copperhead Road


This is the place I call home. 

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