From The CNN Of The 17th Century To Country Hits, Murder Ballads Won’t Die

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Carrie Underwood (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Carrie Underwood (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

An uncommon phenomenon hit the country music charts at the beginning of 2013: two best-selling singles from Carrie Underwood and The Band Perry that are also murder ballads captured the public’s attention. Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” reached the top of the Mediabase country singles chart, while The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” hit No. 1 on both Mediabase and Billboard.

It’s been a while since the murder ballad was so prevalent in country music. There was a rash of hit murder ballads in the ’90s dealing with domestic violence. These included Garth Brooks’ controversial “The Thunder Rolls” (1991) and the Dixie Chicks crossover career-maker “Goodbye Earl” (1999), not to mention Martina McBride’s dark hit single “Independence Day” (1994) or Reba McEntire’s cover of  first-person murder ballad “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” (1991). And while the odd song will come out from the likes of Miranda Lambert (“Gunpowder & Lead”), whose honeymoon spent hunting is common knowledge, or Toby Keith (“Beer For My Horses”), whose name is almost as synonymous with avenging the War on Terror as it is red Solo cups, for the most part murder ballads stayed underground in the last 10+ years in the world of country. Until now. We explore in our latest episode of Radio.com Inside Out, below.

The sort of gruesome justice and twisted love that murder ballads depict have strong roots in country that are today most closely associated  to Johnny Cash (“Folsom Prison Blues,” “Cocaine Blues” and countless more including his classic covers), but the art form dates back to the folk and bluegrass days before the term “country & western” even existed to describe music. The re-emergence of the murder ballad in popular culture is something that’s been happening cyclically since the format emerged. But original murder ballads weren’t fun/dark little romps where fictional characters killed each other. Murder ballads were the CNN of their day.

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