Murder ballads are at least as old as the printing press, and narrating the killing of women is much older. These tunes sing the alternative: gleeful viricide, the killing of men. Blueswomen sang titillating and plaintive songs of murder throughout the 1920’s and ‘30’s, and a very few ballads proclaim these murders (False Sir John, Frankie and Albert), but until very recently, mass media didn’t hear much about these furious women.
It wasn’t really until Vicki Lawrence’s 1972 performance of “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia” (represented on this murder-spree mix by Reba’s hit version from 1991) that man-killing hit the country stage. In 1974, Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land” followed on its heels. Tucker’s song describes Molly Marlow, whose young body becomes “no man’s land” after it’s violated by a man named Barney Dawson. To combat the overwhelming violence of her rape, Tucker’s protagonist kills Dawson by inaction, refusing to administer life-saving care as he wastes away in prison. “Now his soul’s walking,” she croons, “in No Man’s Land.”
Country music’s enormous commercial growth in the 1990’s took these man-killing ballads onto popular Country’s center stage. In the nineties, we were gifted with Gillian Welch’s alternative hit “Caleb Meyer” (“I pulled that glass across his neck, as fine as any blade / And felt his blood run fast and hot around me where I laid”), SHeDAISY’s self-immolating “A Night To Remember” (“She throws the car in gear, plunging to the earth below…she throws the car in gear, it blossoms like a fiery rose”) and Martina McBride’s wildly popular anthem of female vengeance, “Independence Day.” At the crux of McBride’s murder ballad, the female protagonist stages her “revolution,” burning down her house with her abusive husband inside and “lighting up the sky that fourth of July.”
As the decade progresses, this female aggression becomes increasingly explicit. In 1999, The Dixie Chicks had a hit with “Goodbye Earl,” an irresistible, upbeat anthem about two female best friends gleefully murdering a husband guilty of domestic abuse. Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” slays another abusive partner, followed by four female Country murder ballads in 2012: The Band Perry’s song of homicidal love, “Better Dig Two,” alternative pop-Country singer Lindi Ortega’s “Murder of Crows” (“they ain’t gonna find me out / Ain’t gonna bring me down”), Carrie Underwood’s conspiratorial “Two Black Cadillacs,” and Brandy Clark’s cloying “Stripes,” with The Civil Wars’ “Oh Henry” in 2013. In “Stripes,” a cheating man is spared his death only because Clark “hates stripes” and orange “ain’t her color.” Her refrain, “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion,” proclaims with irreverence the ease with which these cheaters are disposed of.
In the Los Angeles Book Review, Alice Bolin identifies the bland, “saber-rattling” small-town patriotism of contemporary male Country musicians in contrast to their female contemporaries, whose songs demand respect, alternatives, escape. We can add Taylor Swift’s mega-hit “Blank Space” to the blessedly growing list of tunes that fly in the face of the masculinist country narrative that’s always already off-base.