KILLING THEM HARSHLY WITH THEIR SONG:
MODERN COUNTRY MURDER SONGS
Dixie Chicks, courtesy of The All-Inclusive Dixie Chicks page
by Ken Cox (April 2003)It had to happen: for years, country singers have warbled songs about murder. Porter Wagoner (complete with rhinestone sequins) would sing "The Banks of the Ohio," a plaintive song about a man killing the woman he could not have and definitely could not stand another guy to have. Bill Anderson, known as "Whispering Bill" because of his soft-spoken voice, wrote a harsh song about a man who was going to make his cheap floozy of a wife pay for her infidelity in "The Cold Hard Facts of Life." Johnny Cash could sing in concert at Folsom Prison the blues song with the free prison advertisement in the title about a man who shoots another "...just to watch him die." In the same concert at Folsom, Cash also sings about the power of the white stuff - cocaine - that empowers the main character in the song to shoot a cantankerous woman in "Cocaine Blues." Mild-mannered Kenny Rogers and The First Edition could warble the tune "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" - a murder song that sounds sweet lyrically but the result is just as potent. Even The Oak Ridge Boys sang a husband/wife team song written by John and Johanna Hall called "Don't Break the Code" - a very smooth song with Joe Bonsall's tenor voice making a song about a jealous husband shooting his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto.
More recently, Garth Brooks' "The Thunder Rolls" allows the ladies to have a chance at murdering the unfaithful lover. Ty Herndon's " Heather's Wall" relies on memory to comfort a dying man who accidentally walks in during a bank holdup and gets shot to death. Finally, it's the ladies' turn: songwriter Dennis Linde has provided The Dixie Chicks with the consummate female murder song - "Goodbye Earl" from The Dixie Chicks' second project, Fly - a song that deals with the ethics of murder, the enjoyability of murder, and the escape of murder.
Garth Brooks' murder song did not enjoy wide airplay on country radio. The song is haunting with the gloomy atmosphere of a rainy, potentially stormy morning - the weather outside matches the weather inside the woman who hopes against hope that physical elements have kept her lover from her instead of physical beauty that rests in another woman's arms. Perfume becomes the culprit as the anxious woman smells a scent that does not belong to her. The two look at each other in equal epiphany. The gunshot takes care of the situation - there will be no more doubt because there will be no more partner.
Ty Herndon's "Heather's Wall" is a murder song that dwells on the fickle finger of fate. A man walks into a bank while a robbery is in progress and he is shot graveyard dead by the thief. In Ambrose Bierce fashion, the victim's last thoughts go back to October 1999 and an 8 by 10 photograph (an age-old device used in countless country songs) of Heather, the love of his life. Imagination cannot accept mortality as he envisions climbing up stairs, walking down the hall, and seeing Heather. Of course, he dies - with his love on the wall on his mind.
Perhaps the most famous murder song in recent country music comes from the trio of Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Maguire - The Dixie Chicks - as they sing "Goodbye Earl."
Ethically, "Goodbye Earl" deals with spouse abuse as Wanda, the woman who "looked all around this town and all she found was Earl...," becomes a victim of her newly married husband's penchant for violence. The listener is shocked by Wanda's humility and hiding of her scars by "...long sleeved blouses" and makeup "to cover the bruise." Songwriter Linde has done an admirable job in portraying the typical reaction of a woman abused by someone she loves: she hides the truth from others and herself. Evidently, things got worse and Wanda is awakened from her lethargy as she seeks legal restraints. Wanda's plight takes a stronger turn in Earl's deliberate disregard for a restraining order that Wanda has placed on him. Earl not only disregards the law, but he also helps the local hospital get money as Wanda has to be placed into intensive care. It is at this moment in the song that emotions begin to churn in the heart of any ethically-minded person who abhors this distasteful yet all too common event. Had the song ended here, Linde could have used Jean Paul Sartre's title instead: No Exit.
However, the enjoyability of murder enters the picture along with Maryann, the victim's high school friend and former Future Farmers of America buddy. It is Maryann who comes up with the scheme of presenting poisoned black-eyed peas to darling Earl. The sarcasm in Natalie Maines' lead in this song drips all over the recording as she sings Wanda's "innocent" reply about the peas "...tasting all right to me." Earl, of course, dies. The enjoyability aspect of his demise exists in the sarcasm of Natalie as Wanda asking her dead husband's approval for the two women's treatment of the male victim. In the song's recorded version on Fly and publicly-performed version on the DVD/VHS An Evening with the Dixie Chicks as well as the DVD version on the special edition of the Grammy-winning Home CD, when Natalie and fellow Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison sing, "We need a break...," the singers and musicians stop for about two seconds before resuming, "...let's go to the lake." The humor is as evident as cornbread on a country person's plate. This murder is a fun murder - the ethical mistreatment of Wanda by Earl is dealt with in the lex talionis tradition of the Old Testament.
The escape of murder - that is, the escape that comes as a result of murder - is provided at the end of the song. Having evaded the local police's questioning as to Earl's whereabouts, the dastardly female duo purchases land near Highway 109 to bury the wife-beater. The song ends with a round of "Hey...Hey...Hey" as The Dixie Chicks triumphantly take a stand for women's rights. The "Hey" works well on two levels: first, it is a celebratory expression; second, it is a look-at-what-we've-done expression similar to the refrain in The Wizard of Oz, "Ding Dong! The wicked witch is dead!"
"Goodbye Earl" is a masterpiece of macabre music - dealing with the ethics of death, the enjoyment that comes from the death of a lowlife like Earl, and the escape of death as one is freed from the ties that hurt. Men have been singing this kind of song for years. Now, The Dixie Chicks have risen to the challenge.
However, there is a disturbing paradox here: why are these songs by Brooks, Herndon, and The Chicks not given a lot of radio airplay?
One argument might be the same argument given about rock music's coverage of taboo: if it's listened to, people will imitate the action. That is to say, if radio plays suicide songs repeatedly, then mind control becomes inevitable and radio listeners will go out and blow their brains out. Of course, the philosophical problem with this notion of "monkey hear, monkey do" is that personal responsibility, freedom of choice, and ethics are disregarded and man is no better than the lyrics he hears. Humanity becomes nothing but a sponge that sound saturates.
A second reason for such non-popular radio airplay is the let's-play-it-the-same mentality involved in country radio: as The Dixie Chicks' hit "Long Time Gone" laments, "...The music [on radio] ain't got no soul." Country radio is admittedly and unashamedly cookie-cutter music: most of all the performers sound the same - male or female. Individuality is lost in the cacophony of marketable music - same instrumentation, vocal range, and content. Murder songs stand out from the bland and country music programmers want to stay as far away from controversy as possible because money is the issue, not reflecting on life at its best or worst.
A third reason for the demise of murder songs in country playlists is that it calls for somberness that drinking, cheating, and lying songs really don't call for. Booze and parties don't work with suicide-laden lyrics. In fact, the video version of "Goodbye Earl" on DVD is done extremely tongue-in-cheek with Dennis Franz from NYPD Blue and Jane Krakowski as Wanda and Lauren Holly as Maryann. The atmosphere is almost like an outdoor party; of course, the tempo of this murder song is fast (a departure from slow meditation). In fact, the lyrics of the song are depressing until one hears how the song is sung: upbeat and danceable. Still, the content of the song is somber and self-esteem is the byword in American culture these days.
A fourth reason for this don't ask/don't tell/don't play on public radio comes from a blatant ethical contradiction within the country music genre itself: country music is supposed to be about reality but radio is not to play realism. Given the predominance of television "reality shows," one would think that anything goes when it comes to what the American public wants to see; not so for country airwaves. Today's country radio wants nothing to do with any avant-garde approach to content or style that departs from the musical status quo. Oddly enough, what is considered classic country was nothing but avant-garde for its day. Of course, classic country is not for the modern airwaves even though there is a contingency called alternative country that welcomes and thrives on what made music great. Political correctness has reared its ugly head and demolished airplay of music that has depth and calls for introspection. Given all the reasons why country murder songs do not get the recognition they should on a large scale, these songs still somehow rise out of the ashes like the proverbial phoenix and by word of mouth or article, the news is out: there is murder in country songs. These songs are designed for thinkers, not drinkers. Whether mainstream country radio/television might not play songs in which thunder rolls, women are remembered in the last moments of expiring life, and lowlife wife-beaters are done away with, these country murder songs live on.
Ken Cox is an Instructor of English at Florence-Darlington Technical College,
Florence, South Carolina
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