Killer Songs: The 10 Creepiest Country Murder Ballads
Thanks in part to the influence of Appalachian folk, hillbilly and Western swing, country music has always addressed some pretty dark subject matter. Sure, there are songs about cheating, fighting and stealing, but it’s those even darker tunes about killin’ that are the guiltiest of pleasures. They’re also among the most popular — trying to count the number of times murder is alluded to in country’s storied history is, like James Joyce said of eternity, akin to moving a beach one grain of sand at a time.
To be a bona fide country murder tale, the song must have a homicide (or two), a narrative and, of course, possess that distinctive country sound. Ergo, “Murder Was the Case” wouldn’t qualify. Likewise, simply mentioning the capital offense does not a murder ballad make — there needs to be action. Here then are 10 country murder songs that best sum up the sub-genre.
Lefty Frizzell, “Long Black Veil”
A murder is committed while the narrator — who's apparently the killer's doppelgänger — is in bed with his best friend's wife. Everyone and their mother has covered this song (including my mother). And everyone wonders why in the world the narrator would choose death over just confessing to a lesser crime. That must've been some friendship. Now he's six feet under, his lover is forced to hide her grief, her husband is without a best buddy, and the real murderer is still on the loose!
The Louvin Brothers, “Knoxville Girl”
This song is the best example of Appalachian roots on the early country scene. Unfortunately the word "femicide" was coined because of stories like these from the 19th century. Perhaps if our narrator had just popped the question, there would have been no murder. But murder he does and with such description. Perfect harmonies describing a vicious killing is sort of like china dolls: beautiful and creepy.
Dixie Chicks, “Goodbye Earl”
"Goodbye Earl" is a true murder ballad performed by women, for a change, that shocked the country airwaves in 2000. The lyrics and video leave little to the imagination: Wanda is beat up by her husband, Earl, just two weeks after their wedding. Mary Ann flies to her rescue and helps plot Earl's demise: death by poisoned black eyed peas. They do a Dexter-worthy job of hiding his body and then start a lucrative business selling ham and jam. And, most importantly, they "don’t lose any sleep at night." A song as sassy as Natalie Maines herself.
Johnny Horton, “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below)”
This 1959 cautionary tale by noted story-singer Horton ("The Ballad of New Orleans") flips the murder ballad script by retelling the action from the point of view of the victim — not the killer or some omnipresent third party. In this case, the poor soul makes the mistake of "dancing" with the wife-to-be of a goon named "Big Ed." Horton ends each verse with "it's forty below," setting up the mother lode of all payoffs in the final line.
Lyle Lovett, “L.A. County”
Like a scene out of Quentin Tarintino's revenge opus Kill Bill, a bride and her groom get shot right there in the chapel on their wedding day. Other folks might have a different definition for "old friend," as Lovett refers to his .45 in the lyrics, and it's unclear if the narrator was even jilted by the girl, but the gruesome final scene guarantees anything but a white wedding.
Marty Robbins, “Big Iron”
"Gunfighter" is not synonymous with "murderer," but the stranger with the "Big Iron" on his hip is a killer nonetheless. Yes, Texas Red had it coming. Yes, Red has the blood of 20 men on his young hands. But, no, the Code of Hammurabi is not a viable reason for the Ranger with that titular iron to gun Red down. Still, its drifting constable with good aim who takes justice into his own hands makes it one of the Wild West's best murder yarns.
Waylon Jennings, “Cedartown, Georgia”
His woman runs around; the narrator buys a .22. Seems rational enough — at least in this Number 14 hit for Jennings, who sings about what he's plotting to do with his "sharecropper's daughter" wife after she spends his hard-earned pay and makes a fool of him. Even so, those egregious slights don't justify shooting this Cedartown girl and her "dandy" in their Room 23 love nest. But it does make for a wickedly cold-blooded song, made even scarier by Jennings' calm baritone.
Willie Nelson, “Red Headed Stranger”
This entire album of the same name is one long murder ballad, telling the tale of the red-headed stranger who may be a cold-blooded killer, but is also somewhat of an American treasure. Chalk that up to the universal compassion for lost love, animals and Willie Nelson's voice. Plus, when listening to this track alone, we don't know that he actually killed his wife, as revealed in another song on the album, "Blue Rock Montana." "Red Headed Stranger" itself resolves the penalty for the crime, and the widower is simply protecting his deceased wife’s horse. Shame on the "yellow haired lady" for trying to steal that bay!
Vickie Lawrence, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”
Spoiler alert: You're listening to the killer the entire time. Unlike "Long Black Veil," everyone fesses up to adultery and manslaughter in this labyrinthine song of cheating and killing, which Lawrence took to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. While Big Brother has the intent to shoot friend-turned-cheater Andy, his little sister beats him to the punch — and watches quietly as her sibling is hanged for the crime. What's more, she apparently did a bang-up job of hiding the body of her brother's foolin' around wife — who, it becomes clear, never really did leave town.
Johnny Cash, “I Hung My Head”
While Johnny Cash has a lot of lyrical blood on his hands (see "Folsom Prison Blues," "Cocaine Blues," "Delia's Gone," "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "Ballad of Annie Palmer" and covers of most songs on this list), not all his songs that mention murder are ballads. "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die" may be one of the most famous lines in country music, but it's a confession, not a story. "I Hung My Head," written by Sting and recorded by Cash in 2002, is the only song on the list with a case of accidental manslaughter. To sing tenderly of violent death is a performer's great achievement, but to actually hear a snapshot of guilt in Cash's voice makes this song the cream of the murder ballad crop.