June 2, 2023



The ballad is poetic style dating back hundreds of years, and it's easy to understand the form's appeal. The four-line, rhymed stanzas are memorable (important for an originally oral tradition), and the stories are dramatic. Crime remains a popular subject. If you were strolling the streets of London in the seventeenth century, you might be handed a broadside about the Twa sisters, learning how the older sister drowned the younger in an act of jealousy. When the dead girl washes ashore, somebody makes an instrument out of her bones--or her garments, depending on the version--and that instrument sings about the killing. It doesn't get much more macabre than that. 

If you tune your radio to a country station today, you might learn about a man driving to his ex-girlfriend's wedding with "an old friend at his side," aka his Colt .45. "L.A. County" is not Lyle Lovett's biggest hit off his 1987 album Pontiac, but it's the only one with a gruesome double murder told to a tune so jaunty that you'll find yourself drumming on the steering wheel and humming along. 

A more famous murder ballad example might be "Goodbye Earl" by The Chicks in which best friends conspire to kill an abusive husband. Poisoned black-eyed peas do the trick, and the cops never suspect a thing. Or, as Dennis Linde wrote for the performers, "turns out he was a missing person who nobody missed at all." The video emphasizes the narrative strengths of this song by casting the story with Jane Krakowski and Dennis Franz. But if you're imagining a dark tearjerker, let me assure you that there's more humor than horror, complete with a dancing zombie version of Earl. 

An example with a similar plot but a less jubilant tone is Hardy's "Wait in the Truck." In this story, a stranger stumbles across a woman who's been beaten up. He tells her to wait in his truck then he knocks down her door and shoots her abuser. The song ends with the "hero" serving 60 years in prison without any regrets. The woman gets her own lines (sung by Lainey Wilson), and she expresses her gratitude as well as her surprise: "I never thought my day of justice / would come from a judge under a seat." Like Lovett's gun being his friend, this one is both judge and jury.

What is it about murder ballads that appeal to country music songwriters, performers, and fans? Is there a fantasy element involved perhaps? Often the victims in these songs are despicable, so it's satisfying to hear about them getting their comeuppance. Revenge for domestic abuse is a common theme. Martina McBride's "Independence Day" recounts a woman burning down her own home to escape her abusive husband. The music sounds so celebratory that it's been used by at least one high-profile politician as an anthem at campaign events despite of--or perhaps in ignorance of--its meaning. But plenty of other songs feature crimes of passion, including Miranda Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart" in which a woman burns down her ex's house, not because of abuse but because of rejection. Then there's Charley Pride's 1968 "Banks of the Ohio" in which a man kills his girlfriend for breaking up with him. 

Willie Nelson has an entire concept album about a killer, Red Headed Stranger. Perhaps because the story spans multiple songs, it is more nuanced than the one-off hits. The protagonist kills his wife and her lover then flees from the police, eventually coming to regret his actions. While the story itself is outlandish--at one point the stranger kills another woman for trying to grab his horse--there's memorable reflection, particularly in "Hands on the Wheel." Songwriter William Callery categorizes people as "deceivers and believers and old in-betweeners," a nod to the gray areas of morality.

My favorite example of the country music murder ballad is "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," which also boasts a more complex conclusion, good guys (and gals) blurring with the bad ones. It was written by Bobby Russell and recorded by his wife Vicki Lawrence, but I am more familiar with Reba McEntire's 1991 cover. A man discovers that his wife's been cheating on him, but when he goes to confront the couple, he finds them dead. The cops arrest him for the murder, and he's executed for a crime he didn't commit. This song comes complete with a blockbuster-worthy twist: the killer is the hanged man's sister. 

Posted by at June 2, 2023 12:15 AM