Every time I listen to a new country album, I find myself being drawn to the songs that tell a story, those songs that create characters and have a plot.
Maybe it’s the English major in me, but there is something to the specificity of those songs that make them the most compelling.
To go one step further, the most interesting story that a country song can tell is murder. I know, dark.
But let’s take a quick look at Taylor Swift (I know she’s not country, just bear with me for a sec).
When Swift released her surprise album Evermore in 2021, the song that seemed to stand out the most and was one of the favorites among fans was “no body, no crime.” That song has two murders including the singer killing her best friend’s husband.
A lot of chatter around this song was whether it was an indication of Taylor Swift moving back into country music and whether the song would be played on country radio.
The murder ballad has become almost synonymous with country music and has all of the best themes of good country: authenticity, specificity, storytelling.
And as much as the murder ballad has been present throughout the history of country music, they’re just as alive and well today as they’ve ever been.
Below are six of my favorite country murder ballads:
“Kate McCannon” by Colter Wall
As I was putting my list together, Colter Wall was person I had the most difficult time picking one song for, but I ended up having to go with “Kate McCannon” because I think it tells a common story of many murder ballads.
The scorned lover kills the cheater.
This trope is seen in songs like “Ol’ Red” by Blake Shelton or “Papa Loved Mama” by Garth Brooks.
What makes this song so unique is there is no gradual build-up to finding out what happened. From the very first verse, we know the singer has killed Kate, and now we just get to find out why.
Memorable lyric: “And I put three rounds into Kate McCannon”
“Martha Divine” by Ashley McBryde
Playing on the scorned lover trope, Ashley McBryde’s “Martha Divine” tells of a daughter killing her father’s lover to keep her mother happy.
Similar to “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” by Reba McEntire, the murderer isn’t the scorned lover but someone close to the person who is wrapped up in the cheating.
The song is unabashedly angry and has a grit that is so awesomely Ashley McBryde.
Memorable lyric: “It ain’t murder if I bury you alive”
“Cranes of Potter” by Charles Wesley Godwin
I have to admit that this is probably my favorite song on the list.
Again, it features a scorned “lover,” but Charles Wesley Godwin is able to weave so much storytelling and complexities into a 4-and-a-half-minute song.
Set around the time of the American Civil War, the song follows a bystander telling the story of Claire, the mayor’s daughter, who is murdered by a man who believes he is her lover.
The song is sad yet beautiful, and the way Godwin sings certain lyrics just scratches a part of my brain.
Memorable lyric: “He’d hung for what he’d done, we caught him bloody with his gun”
“Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks
I feel like this song has become a classic murder ballad and is one of those songs I grew up singing too loudly, too young.
We’ve talked about the scorned lover in almost every one of these songs, but “Goodbye Earl” takes it even further. This is the ultimate (and most deserved) revenge song.
Best friends Mary Anne and Wanda set out to murder Wanda’s abusive husband by poisoning his food. If this song didn’t make you look at your next bowl of black-eyed peas a little funny, you’re lying.
Memorable lyrics: “And it turns out he was a missing person / who nobody missed at all”
“Scarecrow in the Garden” by Chris Stapleton
I feel like I’m cheating a little bit with this one (and maybe spoiling the song), but I can’t help but get murder ballad vibes from this song.
Chris Stapleton always knows how to make me feel and knows how to tell a story.
In my opinion, “Scarecrow in the Garden” is one of his most underrated songs. It tells the story of a man whose family has made their money as farmers, but as the crops stop growing, the man becomes desperate.
I won’t say anymore. Just go listen to the song and see if you think it could be a murder ballad.
Memorable lyrics: “There’s a scarecrow in the garden / That looks like Lucifer”
“Shoshone Rose” by Emily Scott Robinson
Back to a much more classic murder ballad.
Emily Scott Robinson’s signature soft and twangy voice perfectly unfolds the story of a Shoshone woman pretending to be a White man in order to get revenge.
Robinson is amazing at taking songs using themes we’ve heard before and making them uniquely feminine. She is a master at using the female experience to create music that will punch through your heart.
Memorable lyric: “Lust is smoke, it clouds the sight”