I'm a country music fan, and I love creating country playlists for the holidays and various themes.
Love and Murder: Two Sides of Passion?
We all know love and hate are two sides of passion, but what about love and murder? Within the genre of country music, these two themes appear together far more often than one would hope. I guess there is a reason that the police always suspect the spouse first when a murder has taken place. After all, unfaithful spouses, extramarital lovers, and firearms don’t usually mix. Below you will find a compilation of the top 13 country songs about love and murder.
13. Carrie Underwood, "Two Black Cadillacs"
“Two Black Cadillacs” is the tale of two women—a wife, and a mistress—who, after discovering that their man hid the existence of the other woman from both of them, plot to kill the man who wronged them both. The song, which was a collaborative effort between Underwood, Hillary Lindsey, and Josh Kear, reached No. 2 on the Billboard Country Airplay Chart and was nominated for an ACM award.
Underwood greatly enjoyed writing the song, saying “it was so much fun to write and just be in that room.” The song appeared on Underwood’s 2012 album Blown Away.
12. Garth Brooks, "The Thunder Rolls"
Although the album/radio version of this 1991 hit from Garth Brooks leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not the cheating man’s wife kills her husband or not, Garth leaves no such doubts in his live performances. He ends the song with a final verse telling how the scorned wife runs down the hallway of their home to get the pistol that will end her husband’s life. Brooks has even been known to end the song with a theatrical gun shot.
11. The Chicks, "Goodbye Earl"
“Goodbye Earl” was written by Dennis Linde, a talented songwriter most known for her song “Burning Love,” which was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1972. It was part of a longer series of songs including "The Queen Of My Double Wide Trailer," recorded by Sammy Kershaw in 1993, that featured a character named Earl. The song was reportedly an effort by Linde to “kill the Earl character.”
The murder ballad was recorded by The Chicks as a part of their fifth album Fly, even though it had been commonly performed by Sons of the Desert who intended to record it as a part of their second studio Album. After the Chicks recorded the song, Sons of the Desert left Epic Records in the wake of the dispute that followed.
The controversy didn’t end there. "Goodbye Earl" was banned by several radio station programmers because they believed that it wrongly condoned murder, while others praised the song for exploring the topic of domestic abuse. Despite the controversy, the Chick’s version of the song was widely popular, reaching No. 13, and the accompanying music video won both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association Video of the Year Awards in 2000. In that same year, comedian Cledus T Judd capitalized on the publicity surrounding the song by creating a parody called “Goodbye Squirrel.”
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10. Miranda Lambert, "Gunpowder and Lead"
Miranda Lambert released “Gunpowder and Lead” as a single on her second album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in January of 2008. The song was co-written by Lambert and Heather Little, a talented singer-songwriter from Eastern Texas who began collaborating with Lambert after winning a songwriting competition in 2002. The song features an enraged female narrator who has been pushed to the edge by her abusive boyfriend/husband and is contemplating murdering him with a shotgun when he returns from jail where he was thrown for beating her.
Although the song went double platinum and was Lambert’s first top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, some people questioned the authenticity behind the song for Lambert. However, she told The Boot that “it’s meant to be taken lighthearted in some aspects, but [this song is] also very real to me … When I was younger, my parents took in abused women and their kids, so I saw firsthand what damage it can do to a family to be in an abusive relationship.”
9. The SteelDrivers, "Shallow Grave"
“Shallow Grave” was released in 2012 as a part of The SteelDrivers’ album Hammer Down, which was the first album featuring the band's new front man Gary Nichols. Chris Stapleton, their former front man and principle songwriter left the band to focus on his individual career following the recording of Reckless in 2010. Considering the band's success, some worried that Nichols wouldn’t be able to fill Stapleton’s shoes; however, Nichols more than proved himself on Reckless.
Nichols is the sole writer on five of the ten songs on the album, including “Shallow Grave.” The song tells the story of a man whose lover haunts him after he “laid her down in a shallow grave.” Now, “when darkness comes, she appears” because you “can't keep love in the cold, cold ground, nothing in the earth can hold her down.” Although the narrator doesn’t offer a reason as to why he killed his lover, the song is ghostly and chilling.
8. Blake Shelton, "Ol' Red"
Although “Ol’ Red” found the most success as a recording by Blake Shelton in 2002, the song was earlier recorded by country music legends George Jones (1990) and Kenny Rogers (1993). The narrator of the song begins by telling his listener that he has been convicted of murdering his wife after catching her with another man. While the narrator may have lashed out in a crime of passion, he is very capable of planned manipulation.
He first befriends the warden who then assigns him to “a life of ease taking care of Ol’ Red.” He then decides to have his cousin bring down a blue tick hound to tie up just south of the prison gate so that Ol’ Red can come visit her every night. After Ol’ Red is hooked, the narrator keeps him away until the dog can’t take it anymore.
Then, “when the time got right” he fled “north to Tennessee,” but Ol’ Red headed south to see his lady rather than chase after the narrator. At the end of the song the narrator fittingly tells us, “love got me in here and love got me out.”
7. Garth Brooks, "Papa Loved Mama"
“Papa Loved Mama” first appeared as a single on Garth Brook’s album Ropin’ the Wind, released in February of 1992. Garth co-wrote the song with Kim Williams, a renowned country music writer and winner of the CMA Song of the Year award for Randy Travis’s recording of his and Doug Johnson’s song “Three Wooden Crosses” in 2003.
Originally, “Papa Loved Mama” was not going to be included on Ropin’ the Wind, but Brooks found himself left with an extra day of recording time for the album so he invited Kim Williams to the studio to do a version of the song. Garth Brooks was impressed by Williams’s skill as a writer and a person, stating “Kim Williams might be one of the most talented writers I have ever worked with simply because he can sneak so many things in on you as a listener.”
The song follows as the son of a truck driver recalls how his father became enraged when he realized that his wife had been cheating on him while he was away, causing him to drive his truck into the motel where his wife and her lover were staying. The speaker’s father was then sent to “the bin” for killing his wife. The wild story of the song is mimicked by the upbeat “chaotic pace” of the song. It is a wild ride from start to finish.
6. Kenny Rogers, "Coward of the County"
“Coward of the County” was written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, two very prominent Nashville songwriters in the 1970’s and 80’s. The song was recorded by Kenny Rogers in 1979 who had previously recorded another hit song “Lucille” also written by Bowling.
The song tells the story of a man who has taken a vow of pacifism at the request of his delinquent father who died in prison. Because of his reputation as a coward, a group of men gang rape his wife, in the belief that he will not retaliate. The young man realizes that some things are worth fighting for, so he decides to take his revenge on the men who wronged her.
The song proved to be wildly successful and even inspired a TV movie by the same name, which aired in 1981. The movie was directed by Dick Lowry who also directed The Gambler, another film adaptation to one of Kenny Rogers’ songs.
Although the song was widely popular among country fans, there was a cloud of controversy surrounding the line which names the “Gatlin boys” because of its connection to another popular country music group, The Gatlin Brothers. Although co-writer Billy Edd Wheeler denied any connection to the Gatlin Brothers, Larry Gatlin claimed in an interview with Adam Carolla that Roger Bowling held a personal grudge against him.
5. Johnny Cash, "Banks of the Ohio"
“Banks of the Ohio” is an Appalachian murder ballad written by and unknown author in the 19th century. Although lyrics vary widely between versions, the song is told from the first person by a man called “Willie” who murders his lover on the banks of the Ohio River because she refuses to marry him, and because he suspects that she has been untrue.
The song is creepily compelling due to its strangely calm psychological and musical tone, despite the graphic subject-matter. Versions of the song have been recorded by countless artists including Ernest Stoneman (1928), The Callahan Brothers (1934), The Blue sky Boys (1936), The Monroe Brothers (1936), Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1953), Ruby Vass (1959), Dolly Parton, Olivia Newton-John, and Johnny Cash.
4. Reba McEntire, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia"
“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” was originally written by Bobby Russel in 1972, but Russel reportedly hated the song and refused to record it. Vicki Lawrence, who was Russel’s wife at the time recorded it herself after offering it up to several other artists, including Cher. The recording was completed in 1973 and later inspired a movie in 1981 by the same name which featured a cover of the song by Tanya Tucker with heavily altered lyrics to reflect the changed plot points in the movie.
The song was later recorded by country star Reba McEntire in 1991 as a part of her album For My Broken Heart. The song reached number 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart aided by an excellent music video featuring Reba herself as the younger sister in the song and playboy model Barbara Moore as the sleazy woman who cheats on her husband with several other men including the judge of the town and Reba’s character’s own fiancé.
3. Johnny Cash, "Cocaine Blues"
“Cocaine Blues” was written by T. J. "Red" Arnall as a reworked version of an American folk song most commonly called “Little Saddie,” although it has been known by other titles including "Bad Lee Brown," "Cocaine Blues," “Transfusion Blues," "East St. Louis Blues", "Late One Night", and "Penitentiary Blues," among others.
While written records of the song predate it, the first known sound recording of “Little Saddie” was done in 1930 by Clarence Ashley. Various versions of the song have been recorded by other artists, with some small changes made to the lyrics.
Johnny Cash’s version “Cocaine Blues” was famously performed in 1968 at his Folsom Prison Concert and was later recorded that year with Columbia records. Cash had previously recorded a version of the song in 1960 under the title “Transfusion Blues” as a part of his Now, There Was a Song album. Another version was recorded by Joaquin Phoenix for the soundtrack of Cash’s biographical movie Walk the Line.
Across all versions, the story features a man who shot his wife/girlfriend and makes a run for it, only to be apprehended and sentenced to a life in prison.
2. Old Crow Medicine Show, "My Good Gal"
“My Good Gal” was recorded and released by the bluegrass/folk band, Old Crow Medicine show, as a part of their 2006 album Big Iron World. The album was produced by American guitarist, and acclaimed producer David Rawlings, who is best known for his Musical Partnership with Gillian Wench.
The Old Crow Medicine Show is probably best known for their song Wagon Wheel, whose chorus was written by front man Ketch Secor and Bob Dylan, but finished by Secor 40 years later. The final version was recorded in April of 2013 and covered by Darius Rucker in the same year, topping the charts at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs.
Although not as commercially successful, “My Good Gal” is an impressively chilling song featuring the story of a man who still misses his lover even after she mistreats him and blatantly cheats on him. After putting away his pride, and attempting to love and support her, she continues to mistreat him and use him for money, causing the speaker in the song to snap and shoot her dead.
1. The SteelDrivers, "If It Hadn’t Been for Love"
Although “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” is probably best known to a larger musical audience as a cover done by Adele in 2010, the song was originally written by Chris Stapleton and Michael Henderson, two former members of the Grammy-nominated Bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers. The SteelDrivers recorded the song in 2008 on their self-titled album The SteelDrivers.
The song features former lead man Chris Stapleton assuming the voice of a vengeful husband who claims that he murders his wife because of love. Nowhere in the song does he express guilt for the murder beyond the fact that he is trapped in prison. He blames his incarceration on his blinding love and is actually relieved that she is dead and can do him no more wrong. He says, “at least I know she is lying still.”
The chilling, remorseless lyrics of this song are capitalized on by Stapleton’s amazing vocal and emotional range, making this the number one pick for this list. For any bluegrass or country-lovers this song is sure to become a favorite if it hasn’t already.
More Great Songs That Didn't Quite Make the List
- Porter Wagoner, "The Cold Hard Facts of Life"
- Bobby Bare, "Marie Laveau"
- Jason Isbell, "Yvette"
- Waylon Jennings, "Mental Revenge"
- Jaron and The Long Road to Love, "Pray for You"
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Questions & Answers
Question: Do you know the name of the country song about an abuser whose wife takes judo and gets a black belt?
Answer: Unfortunately I have not heard of this song. I tried googling it and came up with a song that may be the one you're thinking of. "My Wife" by John Entwistle is about a man who is afraid his wife will kill him after having an affair. In the song, he imagines crazy ways of protecting himself including hiring "A back belt Judo expert with a machine gun." Perhaps this helps.