I was brought up on folk music, including the high lonesome murder ballads of the Appalachians: “Pretty Polly,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Down by a Willow Garden.” All these tell basically the same story: a man murders a woman because she’s pregnant and he doesn’t want to marry her. Then there’s the great “Long Black Veil,” written in 1959 and performed by just about everyone, from Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, and Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen and the Chieftains. In that one, the first-person narrator, accused of murder, is hanged because his lover, his best friend’s wife, won’t speak up and give him an alibi. In fact, the song’s a paranormal: “She walks these hills in a long black veil/Visits my grave when the night winds wail.”
I didn’t discover country music until 1988, when the New Country was just getting started, although I discovered that many of the “folk songs” I’d heard in college were by country singers like Johnny Cash, such as “Folsom Prison”: “I killed a man in Reno just to see him die.” At the time, as an addictions treatment professional, I was more interested in alcoholism and codependency than I was in murder. And country music certainly had more than its share of stories about my area of expertise. Why do you think these guys went so far as to kill their girlfriends? They’d probably been drinking. And why did their girlfriends stay with violent men who got them pregnant and refused to marry them? Codependency, of course. They were hooked on love, the victims of addictive relationships.
I once gave a workshop at a professional addictions conference on alcoholism and codependency in country music. I had a great time making the tape. Some of the greatest country singers were alcoholics: Hank Williams, killed at 29 driving drunk on an icy road on New Year’s Eve. Keith Whitley, a rising star of the late 80s who got sober and then died of alcohol poisoning at 32 during a relapse. And loving a no-good man was a staple of cheatin’ songs, songs about women who loved alcoholics (“Whiskey, if you were a woman/I’d fight you and I’d win, you know I would”), and such classics as “Stand By Your Man.”
I talked about how drinking beer (rather than effete wine) was considered a virtue of the working-class culture hero in dozens of songs. I pointed out how dysfunctional some of the love situations in these songs were. “I Will Always Love You,” written by and a hit for Dolly Parton and then a megahit for Whitney Houston, was used for the soundtracks of two movies, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Bodyguard, in which lovers don’t live happily ever after. As a therapist, I assure you that if you don’t see somebody for thirty or forty years and have a modicum of emotional health, love passes.
Then there’s Linda Ronstadt’s gorgeous “Long, Long Time,” in which there is no love affair, only unrequited mooning over a man who isn’t interested: “I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine/And I think I’m gonna love you for a long, long time…I never drew one response from you…Living in the memory of a love that never was.” Does this woman need therapy or what?
When I listen one of the many “darling, please let me come home” songs that male country singers still write and perform, I always think, “There are three reasons she could have thrown him out: infidelity, alcoholism, or domestic violence.” When you read between the lines, his request doesn’t sound so reasonable or his declaration of love so sincere. Nowadays, there are many other ways than murder to deal with a failed relationship or an illegitimate child. And sometimes the woman turns the tables on the man, as in Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” in which an abused wife takes a burning-bed revenge. But underneath the surface, when they’re chirping about love, I can still see death.
I can even see a serial killer in an upbeat country song. Take Sara Evans’s “Suds in the Bucket.” It’s about an 18-year-old girl, and it’s sunny as a day in July. “She was in the backyard…when her prince pulled up - a white pickup truck…Well, he must have been a looker - smooth talkin' son of a gun/ For such a grounded girl - to just up and run/… you can't stop love/…She's got her pretty little bare feet hangin' out the window/ And they're headin' up to Vegas tonight/…She left the suds in the bucket and the clothes hangin’ out on the line.” It’s love at first sight, right? Does the image of those “pretty little bare feet” fill your heart with romance? Not me. Maybe it’s because I’m a mystery writer. Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t listen to that song any more, because every time I hear that line and imagine that young woman going off with a stranger, I think of Ted Bundy, and I shudder.