Good country music doesn’t only sounds good, but oftentimes it hinges on vivid storytelling through well crafted lyrics.
And sure, some people argue that real country music has been dead for years, but those people could not be more wrong. You might not hear it much on mainstream country radio these days, and that’s a shame, but thankfully artists from the Texas/Red Dirt and Americana scenes, as well as other somewhat marginalized subgenres of country music are finally beginning to get their due. Just look at the recent explosion of artists like Tyler Childers.
But there is one thing we’re still missing… murder ballads.
Songs like Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger,” Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and a number of other murder ballads not only were popular mainstream songs in their time, but they have gone down as some of the greatest songs of all time, across any genre. They tell interesting stories and they get the blood pumping a little bit… I mean, what more could you ask of a song?
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good murder ballads that have come from modern artists, but dammit, we need more. Here are some of my favorite murder ballads, both new and old.
“Martha Divine” – Ashley McBryde
The second installment of McBryde’s murder mystery trilogy.
“Martha Divine, Martha Divine
Put your hands on the wrong damn man this time
Jezebel, you’re bound for hell
But evidently the devil was busy so I moved you up in line, Martha Divine”
“Kate McCannon” – Colter Wall
This is probably the most popular murder ballad to come out in the last few years. Great music video too, chills every time.
“Cedartown, Georgia” – Waylon Jennings
The outlaw himself.
“I made up my mind what I’m gonna do
Eased in the pawn shop and bought a .22
I watched as the room clerk gave them a room key
Standin’ right outside I could read room 23”
“Down By the River” – Chris Knight
A ballad about a man avenging the murder of his brother over a pool hall fight.
“Tommy Jackson” – Randy Rogers Band
“It didn’t matter Tommy Jackson was running free
Cause the man he killed never mattered much to me
There’s talk in our town about where Tommy might run
Wondered if it mattered, he has used my gun”
“Nebraska” – Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen is definitely known for being one of the biggest rock stars in American history, but he’s been a big influence on tons of country singers.
“Fast Hand” – Cody Jinks
The gunslinger’s anthem.
“I ended up in every town where all the bad men go
And they’ve been runnin’ just like me, someone always knows
He’ll say ‘Ain’t you the man that shot that boy’ who wanted his turn to dance
So will I die in some street that night, no never had a chance.”
“Red Headed Stranger” – Willie Nelson
All time classic from one of the greatest of all time.
“Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” – Reba McEntire
Originally written in 1972 by Bobby Russell and recorded by Vicki Lawrence, it was later recorded in 1991 by the great Reba McEntire.
“That’s the night the lights went out in Georgia
That’s the night they hung an innocent man
Well don’t trust your soul to no backwoods southern lawyer
‘Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hands”
“Birmingham” – Zach Bryan
We need this ballad on his next album.
“Lightning” – Eric Church
The Chief is probably the most mainstream modern guy on the list, we need more of that.
“Every life owes a death, that’s what the Bible says
I owe mind to this state for shootin’ that boy to death
A liquor store attendant, he was reachin’ for his gun
Now his mama sits there smiling as the boss yells ‘roll on one’”
“Jedd Black” – John D. Hale Band
Sheriff comes home from work and sees someone else’s horse in his barn, and a big plot twist in the middle makes this a great one.
“Outlaw’s Prayer” – Mike McClure
Phenomenal ballad by the Texas/Red Dirt old timer and prolific producer.
“Father please forgive me for the evil that I do
If you get me safe to Mexico then I swear to you I’m through
And if redemption comes in a blaze of bullets I guess that’d be fair
I ain’t afraid to die, I just hope you hear this outlaw’s prayer”
Giving the king of murder ballads his own section because, well, he deserves it. There are so many good ones, but here are a few of the best.
“Folsom Prison Blues”
This might be the hardest verse in all of music, ever.
“When I was just a baby, my mama told me, ‘Son
Always be a good boy don’t ever play with guns’,
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry”
“Long Black Veil”
A song originally written by the great Lefty Frizzell, it would be cool to see on Cody Jinks’ Lefty cover album.
“I Hung My Head”
“My brother’s rifle, went off in my hand
A shot rang out across the land
The horse, he kept running, the rider was dead
I hung my head, I hung my head”
This one tops the ranks for me. I don’t know what it is about it, but this is the greatest murder ballad of all time.