Country music is my favorite genre to listen to if I want to hear really dark shit. My favorite tunes should probably come with warning labels. These amazing songs sound ridiculously upbeat to the point where they are disturbing as hell. If you can’t stomach true crime podcasts, serial killer interviews or horror films, perhaps relaxing with a drink and a Porter Wagoner album isn’t for you.
Thus we come to my favorite socially unacceptable subgenre: the murder ballad. Being a badass feminist, it IS weird that I love an entire collection of music where the majority of tunes are about men killing women or visiting horrific violence upon them. I can’t help it though. I can’t get enough of these songs.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The country music world has always been male-centric. For every forgotten woman like Rose Maddox, Wilma Lee Cooper or Moonshine Kate, there are ten famous male stars like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, or Merle Haggard. So when I come across my murder ballad-singin’ women, I rejoice! Bring that gore to the floor, ladies! Country women who sing about murder and violence are extra subversive, especially if they are making that narrative gender-flip of and sing those stories usually sung by men with murder on their minds…
The Coon Creek Girls
The Coon Creek Girls formed in the 1930s and were the first all-women string-band. Their manager, an exploitative jerk named John Lair, went so far as to change the band name from their self-chosen Red River Ramblers to Coon Creek Girls because he “thought it sounded more country.” Apparently he thought the low/working class exoticism of that band name would sell these Appalachian-raised women better at shows. It didn’t. These gals sold themselves!
Lily May Ledford of the Coon Creek Girls and her banjo
Banjo player Lily May Ledford recalls:
“What a good time we had on stage… jumping up and down, sometimes ruining some of our songs by laughing at each other. Sis, when carried away by a fast fiddle tune, would let out a yell so high pitched that it sounded like a whistle. Sometimes, when playing at an outdoor event, fair or picnic, we would go barefooted. We were so happy back then. Daisy and Sis, being good fighters, would make short work of anybody in the more polished groups who would tease or torment us. We all made short work of the “wolves” as they were called, who tried to follow us home or get us in their cars.”
Tons of “I drowned my girlfriend/lover/wife” songs exist in the murder ballad canon but “Pretty Polly,” is easily one of the nastiest and most violent. That’s what makes the Coon Creek Girls’ version is especially good. While I quite enjoy the song as sung by The Byrds, it’s not as unique as the all-female arrangement. Great band, great tune.
Molly O’Day with Lynn Davis and his Forty-Niners
Molly O’Day was born Lois LaVerne Williamson in Kentucky, daughter of a coal miner. Her version of “Poor Ellen Smith” really gets me. Based on a true story, this song has been covered by many female musicians, including Neko Case. Fans of country and bluegrass alike have said they prefer the tune to be sung by a woman. Brutal death, brutally good song.
Patsy Montana’s catalog is dynamite. Recording her breakout hit in 1935, she was a great yodeler and her cowgirl persona was brilliant. She was in a few films with Gene Autry and wrote the only song about a yodeling ghost that I’m aware of. This song, “I Didn’t Know the Gun Was Loaded” is catchy as hell, chock full of personality and most importantly? It’s about a woman killing a man, not vice versa! Go Patsy!
Wanda Jackson is a more well-known name, but not necessarily for this particular song. Nicknamed the Queen of Rockabilly, Jackson sang duets with Elvis, and was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame for her kickass career. But this song? Well, it’s special. I could listen to “The Box It Came In,” all day long. It’s about as as country, dark and pro-lady as it gets. Of note, this is a strong player in one of the most fun murder ballad categories, what I call the “OMGWTF Holy Shit Seriously?” ending. Really terrific tunes exist in this category—Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is worth a major shout-out—but these songs are the ones you have to listen to carefully and wait until the very end!
Finally, one special mention: Kitty Wells, called the Queen of Country Music, and goddamn right she was. She sang about women who really got the short end of the stick. Basically every woman in her songs would have been well-justified in doing away with the gentlemen they were involved with. Wells’ 1952 hit song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was a direct musical response to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” and changed the way in which women in country music viewed themselves, their careers and their ability to rock the stage. The song is now in the National Recording Registry.
Moonshine Kate aka Rosa Lee Carson, possibly one of the most interesting early women in country and bluegrass—musician, entertainer and early comedienne!