Eight of the Most Overlooked Bluegrass Murder Ballads

No BONES about it, bluegrass is to DIE for!Happy Halloween! The day where we not only tell kids it’s OK, we actually encourage them to accept candy from strangers. Once again, no child is getting any candy from me this year until I find one wearing a Larry Sparks powder blue suit, a pair of Doyle Lawson’s fancy boots, or Del McCoury’s hair. C’mon, people – why hasn’t there been a line of Bluegrass Halloween costumes started yet?

One of the biggest reasons I love Halloween is because I’m a sucker for bluegrass murder ballads. Call me a sick puppy, but I can’t get enough of these grisly tunes. Last year, I featured a list of 13 Essential Halloween “BOO!-grass” Tunes. This year, I figured I’d focus more specifically on murder ballads.

Murder ballads have long been a staple in the American musical canon. Although many of these tunes have been sung for hundreds of years, the human emotion which fill these songs is timeless. A murder ballad is exactly what the name suggests. Ballads are songs which tell a story, therefore a murder ballad is a song which tells a story about a murder. These stories may or may not include details such as innocence, guilt, motive, method, justice, or remorse.

Let’s take a look at, what I consider to be, eight of the most overlooked bluegrass murder ballads. It’s too easy to talk about Pretty Polly, Omie Wise, and The Knoxville Girl. Let’s see some other great bluegrass murder songs, with which you may not be as familiar. This list is strictly opinion, and you can feel free to call me a hack, but I think all of these songs are killer! (Pun intended.)

>1. River Bottom – The Country Gentlemen

This could easily be the most gruesome bluegrass song ever. There’s a reason this one is only played by bluegrass disc jockeys at this time of year. Poor Charlie Waller talks about how good it made him feel to kill his woman. He didn’t just kill her, he dreamed about how great she looks at the bottom of the river with bluegill and rock bass swimming around her with his clothesline tied around her knees! If you couldn’t tell, he really hates her, calling her “that disease.” However, don’t let the morbidness of this song turn you off – the Country Gentlemen knock it out of the park, and it’s one of the most unique songs in their deep catalog.

2. Hollis Brown – Don Rigsby & Dudley Connell

Bob Dylan included The Ballad of Hollis Brown on his ground-breaking album, The Times They Are A-Changin’. It is one of the most stomach-wrenching songs I’ve ever heard. It is about a poor, lonely sharecropper who murders his whole family before he kills himself as way to end his misery. Dudley and Don’s simple arrangement is reminiscent of Dylan’s original, and I’m glad. The plaintive approach not only parallels the farmer’s simple life, but draws added attention to the powerfully deep lyrics. This cut features some of Don’s best mandolin playing, and Dudley’s bluesy approach really drives this song home.

3. I Killed Sally’s Lover – The Avett Brothers

Yes, I know “The Avett Brothers aren’t real bluegrass,” but that still doesn’t erase the fact that this is one of their grassiest songs, and it deserves to be on this list.

Somebody get my shotgun, somebody get my blade.
Sally’s been layin’ with another man, and he’s sleepin’ in my place.
Somebody get my shotgun. I’m gonna shoot him sure as rain.
You can try to run all you want to boy, but I’ll kill you just the same.

If that doesn’t qualify as an overlooked murder ballad, I don’t know what does. Known for being Doc Watson disciples, this Avett song easily sounds like it could’ve been recorded by Doc and Merle back in the day. My favorite line may be at the end when they warn against such reckless behavior by saying, “A bleeding heart is better than the penitentiary.”

4. Frankie and Johnny – Doc & Merle Watson

Speaking of ole Doc, his and Merle’s rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ Frankie and Johnny has long been passed over by bluegrass fans. Jimmie’s original version of Frankie and Johnny was one of the first commercially succesful murder songs, and Doc’s interpretation is one of the best. He transformed this classic song into a Doc Watson number, while still maintaining the same allure of the original. His singing is magnificent on this cut as well. He employs so much feeling, that there is no mistaking who it is. A true stylist, Doc is a legend in all acoustic music, and tracks like this show why. With additional work by such greats as Vassar Clemens and Doc’s son Merle, it is nearly impossible to not bob your head along with the beat on this one.

5. Love For An Angel – Ronnie Bowman

The opening cut of Ronnie Bowman’s The Man I’m Tryin To Be album, Love For An Angel is hard-driving bluegrass, not only in sense that it has a good drive, but listening to it while driving is hard to do without speeding. Heartbroken over a wife with a wandering eye, his rage sends his woman to her grave. Now haunted by her memory, he lies awake in his jail cell at night crying over her! Could this get more lonesome? I don’t think so.

6. Bible By The Bed – Cadillac Sky

A modern bluegrass murder ballad, Bible By The Bed is one of the most unique bluegrass murder ballads. The song describes a woman who is in an abusive relationship. She does her best to make the marriage work, and continually forgives her dangerous husband who continues to beat her. She lives in fear, so she “always keeps a gun under the pillow and a Bible by the bed.” One night, she ends up shooting her drunk husband in self defense. She immediately prays to the Lord and receives forgiveness. This powerful song is definitely one of the best from Cadillac Sky. It surprises me that it hasn’t been covered by a major country star, like Carrie Underwood. I’m still not going to count out that possibility.

7. Katie Dear (The Silver Dagger) – Seldom Scene/Old Crow Medicine Show

If I’m not mistaken, I believe this old song dates back to the Civil War era. A great song about forbidden love, Katie Dear tells the story of two young sweethearts who wish to wed. Young Willie has his dear Katie ask her parents for permission to marry poor Willie. After he finds out they both say no, and have silver daggers ready to kill him, he stabs himself. She then follows suit so she can “die with the one that I love best.” The Seldom Scene recorded Katie Dear on their Grammy-nominated album, Scenechronized. The harmony between Lou Reid, Fred Travers, and Dudley Connell is some of the most under-appreciated in modern bluegrass. Their beautiful rendition of this old song is one of the best from the “new” Seldom Scene.

Old Crow Medicine Show also recorded a good version of Katie Dear in 2001 under the title The Silver Dagger. As to be expected, their interpretation is less polished than The Scene’s. OCMS takes a more classic Appalachian string band approach, which makes the song sound more lonesome. The addition of old-timey fiddle and banjo make you feel as if you’re stepping back in time. Don’t sell Old Crow Medicine Show short when it comes to this cut from early in their career.

8. Don’t Weep For Me – Ralph Stanley

Even though Don’t Weep For Me was just released this year, I don’t think it has gotten near enough recognition. One of Ralph’s best vocal performances, this song features why he is one of the greatest mountain singers to ever draw a breath. Recorded in the solo a cappella style that won him a Grammy in 2001, Ralph absolutely masters this song. Although it sounds at least a hundred years old, Don’t Weep For Me is actually a modern song written by Shawn Lane, Buddy Brock, and Gerald Ellenburg.

Don’t weep for me. I deserve no sorrow,
For you know where I’m bound.
They’ll come for me, and by tomorrow,
I’ll lie beside her in the ground.

That’s just great writing! When Ralph comes through the speakers singing this one, you’ll stop in your tracks. Be sure to check it out.

What do you think are some overlooked bluegrass murder ballads? There are so many good ones! Let us know in the comments below.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.