The murder ballad has been around since the dawn of music time going back to the Appalachian folk and Country Swing days with all of the great ones dabbling in this sub-genre in one form or another. Dealing with mostly the dark side of human behavior the subject matter for a rivetting narrative can include murder, mayhem, or even worse, oftentimes with a woman at the center of the action. Before true crime became a staple on our television and radio airwaves it was the murder ballad that we turned to satisfy our inner Hitchcockian demons.
Here are five cool murder ballads that are now playing on the Rock is the new Roll ear-waves.
Lyle Lovett – L.A. County
This one from Lyle Lovett’s Pontiac album sort of sneaks up on you. Like a scene from a Tarantino movie this slow burn of a murder-ballad unfolds over the course of a year as the protagonist decides to attend a wedding and starts heading from Houston to Los Angeles with an old friend by his side that just happens to be a coal-black 45.
And they turned around
And they saw me standing in the aisle
Well I did not say much
I just stood there watching
As that .45 told them goodbye
Johnny Cash – I Hung My Head
Who knew that Sting would write one of the great murder ballads? This one, first appearing on the Mercury Falling L.P., was subsequently covered by the man in black as part of the Rick Rubin series and is one of the rare songs in the genre where the killing that occurs in the narrative is not necessarily intentional. As the man borrows his brothers’ rifle and climbs the hill to practice his aim he sees a lone rider off in the distance. Recklessly, he raises the gun simply to aim towards the target with no harm or malice intended. As the rifle accidentally discharges and the riderless horse gallops away the shooter hangs his head as the calamity of what has just occurred sets in.
Eddie Noack – Psycho
This one could have been ripped right from the pages of an Alfred Hitchcock script. Just in the first minute of the song, the essence of the tale is told and the story unfolds as the young man, over breakfast, tells his mother that he saw his ex last night at a dance at Miller’s store with Jackie White. He killed them and buried them both under Jenkin’s sycamore. And there’s more. One of the few murder ballads that features a serial killer. This one’s not for the faint of heart.
Allison Moorer – Cold Cold Heart
All the more disturbingly poignant because it’s a true story, here, Allison Moorer tells the story of how her father came home from the city and killed her mother before turning the gun on himself with Allison and her sister Shelby Lynne just a screen door away inside the house.
Porter Wagoner – The Cold Hard Facts of Life
The entirety of Porter Wagoner’s The Cold Hard Facts of Life is pretty much a murder ballad in 12 songs. They are all great, and we could have included “The First Mrs. Jones” where all of the current and future Mrs. Joneses meet with an untimely demise, “Tragic Romance,” or “Julie” who liked parties and clothes that fit tight. Things don’t end well well when Julie brings a stranger home. But, fret for fret, the best of the lot is the title track “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” where our hero comes home early to surprise his wife only to find out there was a party going on in his house and he wasn’t invited.