Songwriter Stefanie Joyce Wants To Save the Murder Ballad

Songwriter Stefanie Joyce moved to Nashville in 2017 to pursue her dream of becoming a songwriter, and has landed numerous cuts with multiple up-and-coming performers, while also winning the attention of publisher Woody Bomar of Green Hills Music. But as she slaves away each day trying to land a song that someday may be a hit on country radio, she’s also working towards her perhaps less lucrative pursuit, but one she feels very passionate about: the murder ballad.

Murder ballads are indelible part of country music history, from the earliest recording from The Carter Family, all the way to today with Ashley McBryde’s latest radio single “Martha Divine.” The roots of murder ballads go back to before country music was a commercial enterprise.

“My background is a lot more in folk music, and old ballads,” Stefanie Joyce tells Saving Country Music. “Over the last few years I’ve been living in Nashville and writing songs about drinking and hooking up by day. I’m not one of those that’s going to complain about mainstream country music because I think there’s a lot of cool stuff going on. But as someone who loves a lot of these older songs, I’m really impressed by the range of subject matter you get from old ballads, especially murder ballads.”

Much more prevalent in the early era of country music, singing murder ballads was almost like a rite of passage. Today, murder ballads are much fewer and farther between, partly due to the scrubbing of them from the mainstream due to the taboo subjects they often broach.

“I feel like there was a time in the early days of hillbilly music and the early Carter Family recordings when you could talk about really disturbing things,” says Joyce. “And I feel like the genre has become so sanitized, especially in the last 20 or 30 years. Obviously, there’s people making great music. But I think there’s something about murder ballads that people find as sinister and almost fun, along with country music that explores stuff like crime, murder, death, and drugs. For the genre to stay relevant, it needs to talk about the broad range of human experience. There was a time when people were more comfortable going to those places.”

In 1968, Johnny Cash performed the song “Cocaine Blues” on his At Folsom Prison album. The song was originally written by T.J. Arnall, and was a reworking of the murder ballad “Little Sadie” first published in 1922. Depicting a man taking shots of cocaine before killing his girlfriend and running from the police, it’s something you couldn’t fathom hearing from mainstream country music today. But as Stefanie Joyce explains, murder ballads weren’t always just meant as escapism, cautionary tales, or entertainment.

“One of the ways the murder ballad genre originated was a way to tell news. In Britain, ‘Wexford Girl,’ which became ‘Knoxville Girl’ was based on a real story in song as a way to broadcast local news before there were readily-available printing presses. The genesis of the genre was more about just reporting stuff that happened. I do think that people now have a harder time acknowledging this stuff happens. Just because someone is singing about the truth doesn’t mean they think the truth is good. It just means that it’s real.”

One of the most popular songs from Canadian cowboy and Western artist Colter Wall is his murder ballad “Kate McKannon.” Some have criticized Colter and other murder ballad writers and performers of glorifying violence towards women.

“Some people have given Colter Wall flack for glamorizing killing Kate at the end,” Joyce explains. “But I think it’s important that we ask ourselves as artists and writers to get into the head spaces of people that do abominable things. Because people do them. Pretending it doesn’t happen just represses it. Folk ballads served a purpose, to give people space to explore the shadow side of society and humanity, and that dark and sinister potential within themselves is allowed to come out through song in a way that is in fact much less murderous than killing your fiance.”

The murder ballad is also not always about man-on-woman violence. In fact in most modern country music, it’s the women doing the killing, whether it’s Carrie Underwood’s “Church Bells” that became a #1 in 2016, or the [Dixie] Chick’s “Goodbye Earl,” which was a Top 20 song in 2000.

“A lot of the old songs are almost all men perpetrating violence usually against their pregnant girlfriends to kill them off, or girlfriends that don’t want to marry them in the old Appalachia stories,” says Stefanie Joyce. “But any mainstream murder ballad that has been made in the last 20 years, like ‘Church Bells’ or ‘Goodbye Earl,’ the gender narrative is flipped and it’s women killing men that beat them up. But what I find really interesting is the mood of the old ballads is really haunting and disturbing, while the mood of the new ballads tends to be kind of campy and fun. ‘Earl had to die, na na na na na na na!’ It comes from a different place. I don’t know what that says, but it’s an interesting distinction. You don’t see Carrie Underwood or the [Dixie] Chicks criticized for glorifying violence, but you do see it for Colter Wall.”

Stefanie Joyce doesn’t just want us to start thinking again about all the great old murder ballads of the past. She’s contributing her own to the country music canon as well. Just released, her stab at the murder ballad called “On The Ohio” (listen below) was inspired by the traditional Appalachian ballad “Banks of The Ohio,” and also a bit by “Knoxville Girl.”

“I tried to straddle that line by writing from a male perspective, which I thought was a lot more interesting,” she says. And along with the original song (with another murder ballad on the way soon), Stefanie Joyce is also trying to stimulate dialog about murder ballads online. Instead of putting just another compilation of them together that the public may or may not pay attention to, she wants to raise awareness about them by engaging with listeners directly.

“There have been a lot of compilation albums of the last 20 or 30 years. What I think there’s more space to do is do more stuff online and starting conversations including audience conversations. We have an interesting opportunity now with how fans are so interactive on social media, and center the revival on the discussion of the song itself than, ‘Look at my beautifully-produced cover album.’ I don’t know what it’s going to turn into. I’m actually getting a lot of interaction on Tik-Tok more than anything else, which is bizarre. I want to create an online space where people can discuss this as opposed to just consume it.”

Stefanie Joyce can be found on Tik-Tok, YouTube, and Instagram, where she plans to continue to share her passion for the murder ballad.

“They represent the opposite of sanitized country music,” she says. “I think it’s really important they stay alive, or else the genre risks getting more and more vanilla.”

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