It’s almost Halloween, so what better time to talk murder ballads?
My favorite thing about country music is the storytelling. Give me a song with a great story and some killer (no pun intended) lyrics, and you’ve got my attention.
And sure, everybody loves cheating and beer drinking and heartbreak songs. But when there’s some actual killing in the story to spice things up?
Well even better.
Country music has a long history of murder ballads, which makes sense when you consider the genre’s roots in Appalachia and the rural south. There’s a lot of dark shit that’s gone down in those hollers and hills…
So let’s take a look at some of the best murder ballads in country music:
“Banded Clovis” – Tyler Childers
One of the kings of modern-day country music storytelling is Tyler Childers, so naturally he can put out a great murder ballad. “Banded Clovis” tells the story of two men who go out hunting treasure (a “Clovis” is an extremely valuable type of arrowhead dating back over 10,000 years). But when they find a Clovis, one of the men gets desperate and kills the other to keep the fortune for himself.
“Red Headed Stranger” – Willie Nelson
A classic murder ballad from a legend: “Red Headed Stranger” tells the story of a man who rides into town followed by a horse that belonged to his late wife. But when a blonde woman puts her hands on his wife’s horse, the man “shot her so quick they had no time to warn her.”
“Lightning” – Eric Church
One of Eric Church’s most underrated songs is this murder ballad that tells the story of a man headed to the electric chair for killing a store clerk. But the magic in this song is that, layer by layer, it makes you sympathize with the convicted man as you realize the remorse he has for his crime, and the reason behind it: A hungry, blue-eyed baby crying back at home.
“Guilty As Can Be” – Cody Johnson
If you’re noticing a theme here, it’s that a lot of murder ballads have to do with cheating – including this CoJo tune from way back in 2011, which tells the story of a husband who walks in on his wife with another man. And he feels no remorse for what he’s done:
“Well, I said if murderin’ a man who didn’t understand Just what she meant to me Means I’ll rot here in this cell for eternity Well then mister, I’m as guilty as can be”
“Cranes of Potter” – Charles Wesley Godwin
From his 2021 album How the Mighty Fall, Charles Wesley Godwin tells the haunting story of a girl named Claire who was killed by a jealous stalker and buried deep beneath the “Cranes of Potter.” Inspired by the true story of human remains that were found during construction of a plant in Potter Township, Pennsylvania, Charles decided to fill in the rest of the story, and the result was this masterpiece:
“We never found that girl from Potter, who’d so often wander Till more than a century later a builder found her in the ground Beneath the cranes of Potter, where Jeremiah shot her There lies the mayor’s daughter, two feet down”
“Martha Divine” – Ashley McBryde
This murder ballad, about a woman who kills the woman who her father is cheating on her mother with, was actually inspired by Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene.” According to McBryde, she told co-writer Jeremy Spillman:
“Instead of singing ‘Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, please don’t take my man.’ What if we said, ‘Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, I’m coming after you with a shovel.’”
“Birmingham” – Zach Bryan
Killing a man with a tire iron after he tries to rob you. Doesn’t get much more badass than that. And this one’s quickly become a crowd favorite at Zach’s live shows. “Crooked Teeth” is a good one too.
“The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia” – Reba McEntire
The story in this one, originally performed by Vicki Lawrence, is just incredible. A man comes back home to find out that his wife’s been cheating on him while he was gone. And when the man she was cheating with is found dead, naturally her husband is the prime suspect – but a twist reveals that it was the little sister who took care of both the cheating wife and the man she was sleeping with. So many twists and turns that make for a truly classic murder ballad.
“White River” – Kaitlin Butts
This one tells the story of a girl who grew up with a father who abused her and her mother, until finally the daughter decides that it was time for him to pay for what he had done and puts a bullet in his head.
“El Paso” – Marty Robbins
A classic gunslinger murder ballad about challenging another man to a duel over a woman and shooting him dead on the barroom floor.
“Kate McCannon” – Colter Wall
Another murder ballad about a love gone wrong, “Kate McCannon” tells the story of a man who shoots his lover after buying her an engagement ring when he catches her with another man.
Maybe the best murder ballad of all time. Originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell, this one tells the story of a man falsely accused of murder who refuses to give an alibi because he was “in the arms of his best friend’s wife.” And after he’s executed, the woman visits his grave in a long black veil. I mean, talk about great storytelling.
Honorable Mention: “Goodbye Earl” – The Dixie Chicks
“Goodbye Earl” has more humor than it does eerie, ominous storytelling, BUT… it’s an all-time CLASSIC.