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.”
November 18, 2020 @ 9:14 am
I love the BR5-49 rendition of Knoxville Girl on Live at Robert’s.
There certainly is a place in music for raw storytelling–the present ‘woke’/cancel culture environment notwithstanding. Sanitizing our past is a form of rewriting it. As much as radical progressives may think they want to do that, even with the best of intentions, revisionist history is contraindicated for a healthy society–regardless of ‘which side you are on.’
November 18, 2020 @ 10:02 am
Love the BR549 reference Charlie.
I liked Paychecks song Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill off his first album. And of course Marty Robbins had Big Iron, El Paso, There Hanging me Tonight and others.
Lets also not forget Stapleton’s song If it Hadn’t been for love off the first Steeldrivers album. A masterpiece murder ballad.
Yeah, murder ballads are intriguing. Its hard to get one into mainstream, but it happens now and then. Miranda Lambert had Gunpowder and Lead. And Adele recorded the Stapleton song I mentioned.
In England, there’s a gal named Sarah Vista, who specializes in murder ballads. She’s a fan of the so called spaghetti western, and she’s done a concept album of old west kill em at high noon kinda songs. Look her music up. She’s a hoot, and she won an Ameripolitan Award this year! She’s got a series of videos based on those songs
November 20, 2020 @ 6:41 am
Thanks for the Sarah Vista call-out! Great album; it can sit next to Lindi Ortega’s Liberty.
November 23, 2020 @ 11:22 pm
Applying modern morals and standards to history is folly and just a way for people to distract themselves from dealing with the social problems right around them.
December 3, 2020 @ 1:54 pm
I just checked out this version of Knoxville girl- thanks for sharing! It’s killer!
November 18, 2020 @ 9:32 am
The cover art for that song is gorgeous.
November 18, 2020 @ 10:17 am
I recently performed Tom T. Hall’s “Turn It On” at a guitar pull. Some idiot in the crowd started whining that a song such as that was just not suitable in today’s climate, so I naturally delighted in following it with “Delia’s Gone,” staring the whiner in the eye and grinning the whole time.
The whiner got up and left, and a good time was then had by all.
November 20, 2020 @ 7:42 pm
That is one of Tom T’s best. The Storyteller didn’t just tell sweet, comforting stories. “Turn It On” is a Starkweather-ish tale. For those who don’t know this song, the title is the final words spoken by the spree killer at the center of the story before being executed in the electric chair.
November 21, 2020 @ 8:40 am
As I posted elsewhere on this site, I have delighted the past couple of years in introducing some young folks to the music of Tom T. at guitar pulls, and the reception has been great.
November 18, 2020 @ 11:00 am
Why does the murder ballad need to be “saved”? Some of us have been writing and playing them for years. I even just released an EP, “Murder Ballads of the Texas Panhandle.”
Then again, if Ms. Joyce can get others interested in the sub-genre, that’s ok by me.
November 18, 2020 @ 11:40 am
I thought Stefanie’s points on how maintaining the murder ballad, especially in the mainstream of country music, is a good way to make sure the genre doesn’t become too sanitized.
Just for the record, I wasn’t, and am not ignoring your recent release, or any of the other artists out there releasing murder ballads, traditional or original. There are many great artists out there making sure the murder ballad stays alive. I wanted to include some examples of songs and artists here that the wide public could easily recognize on a broader topic of murder ballads, but I didn’t want to try and field a detailed list of artists working in the genre here specifically from fears of excluding certain artists, or bogging down the broader topic. Whenever you field a list of anything, there will always be people who focus more on what is missed than what is included, and take any omissions as purposeful insults as opposed to innocent oversights. But I have, and will continue to try and feature artists who do what they can to keep murder ballads and all traditional music alive in the modern context.
November 18, 2020 @ 12:21 pm
That’s a pretty impressive resume’-
November 18, 2020 @ 11:40 am
Hell yeah I look forward to checking out your EP!
November 18, 2020 @ 12:13 pm
Thank you for weighing in and reading Saving Country Music- like the song, btw.
November 19, 2020 @ 11:46 am
Stefanie – great song, and it sounds good with you singing it.
If you’re collecting killing songs, John D Hale Band has a couple on each of their albums. “Jedd Black” and “Face Down Dead” would give you a good foretaste.
December 3, 2020 @ 1:57 pm
Just checked out these songs- very cool. I like the vocals. Thanks for sharing!
November 18, 2020 @ 12:17 pm
First thing that came to mind as a murder song was Long Black Veil- second was Leona by Stonewall Jackson- and of course, Frankie and Johnny- those were all from a long time ago, but popular during their time- I like dark- Colter Wall is the perfect example- I like this song too by Miss Joyce.
November 18, 2020 @ 12:19 pm
Nice, i like it.
I have been meaning to do a mixtape of hillbilly songs where girls kill off the bad guys. Then i can send it to my hipster friends to show them how we solve patriarchy issues.
Caleb meyer, in the backyard, goodbye earle, gunpowder and lead, Wichita (gretchen peters, amazing song), karate. Etc
They are legion and it is good.
November 19, 2020 @ 10:12 pm
Try “Murderer of Crows” by Lindi Ortega
November 18, 2020 @ 1:05 pm
Trigger, I may have missed it, but are her quotes from an interview/correspondence with you? I’d love to hear more about why she considered the male perspective more interesting when writing her murder ballad. As mentioned, female perspectives in murder ballads often don’t have the same “tone” as the male perspective, so I’d be interested in hearing the female perspective in a more traditional-type ballad.
November 18, 2020 @ 1:30 pm
Yes, I spoke to Stefanie for the article. I pretty rarely interview artists directly. But in this case I felt it was the best way to present the information.
I don’t want to speak for Stefanie. But I think since she is personally more influenced by the older murder ballads that take a darker tone, and that is why she chose that angle for her song.
November 18, 2020 @ 2:10 pm
Thanks for the reply! I figured that was the case since the few other direct interviews I’ve seen from you are formatted the same way. I’d really love to hear what she could do with a dark tone from a woman’s perspective versus the more tongue-in-cheek ones you/she referenced. On the Ohio is great, nonetheless!
December 3, 2020 @ 2:02 pm
Hey Chris, thanks for checking this out. For this song, I was just interested in writing from a male perspective, and that perspective for me in the context of murder is inevitably a dark one. But I am fixing to record a female murder song that is similarly dark soon. Feel free to sign up on my website if you’d like to stay in the loop. In the meantime… “Caleb Meyer” by Gillian Welch is an EXCELLENT example of a traditional sounding, minor key, appalachian-esque murder ballad written from a woman’s perspective. I remember listening to an interview with her where she describes it as the “Knoxville Girl’s revenge”.
November 18, 2020 @ 3:11 pm
I sing a LOT of the old Appalachian murder ballads and have dug into this genre for decades, and my impression is that the reason they became less popular in country music is that they were such an old-timey folk stereotype that the whole trope got worn out by 1950’s-60’s Folk Revival people, not that someone decided that they had to be sanitized out. They evoke bluegrass/old-time music and old 1930’s-40’s acts more than they do “modern’ country msuic in people’s minds, I think,
November 18, 2020 @ 6:38 pm
And it’s interesting to point out that it was a cover of a “murder ballad” that won the first-ever Country Grammy: “Tom Dooley”, in that epochal 1958 recording by The Kingston Trio.
November 18, 2020 @ 3:11 pm
I likes. It’s not like death and killing have gone away, have they? The papers are full of it, every damn day. We’re swimming in stories, and only a miniscule fraction of a fraction makes it into music, let alone the radio. And when’s the last time you heard a song like Merle’s “Leonard” or “Grandma Harp”?
Rusty W (the other Rusty)
November 18, 2020 @ 7:07 pm
Another song you’ll never hear on the radio any more is Gene Watson’s “I’m Gonna Kill You.” But it is hysterically funny to listen to, and if you don’t own the recording, you can at least hear it on YouTube. But this tune isn’t a murder “ballad,” it’s a murder two-step. 🙂
And then there is the bluegrass tune “Pretty Polly.”
And when I had a Cajun/zydeco band together, we used to perform Frankie & Johnny (who hasn’t?). The tune to Frankie & Johnny used to be used in a lot of beginner music lesson books, without the lyrics, of course! I wonder if anyone who learned to play that melody know what the song was about?
November 18, 2020 @ 8:57 pm
Murder-suicide – Good Girls
Patricide – Between The River And Me
November 19, 2020 @ 1:16 am
Maggie Rose – Looking Back Now – is another excellent example. Covered by Lisa Carver under the title Whiskey and a Gun.
Cool Lester Smooth
November 19, 2020 @ 2:17 pm
Carver actually wrote the song for Rose!
I think she liked it too much, and had to cut her own version, haha.
Cool Lester Smooth
November 19, 2020 @ 4:27 am
Saw If It Hadn’t Been For Love mentioned earlier – Isbell also has a very solid suite of murder ballads (Decoration Day, Live Oak, Yvette, River), as does Steve Earle.
It’s definitely something that’s become confined to the “Americans” niche, though.
November 19, 2020 @ 2:28 pm
Love to see the murder ballad stay around. Like Gospel and the steel guitar, modern country has kicked it away. I imagine it is because if any mainstream male artist released a “Delia’s Gone” in today’s climate, the social media outrage crew would have his career gone in a minute.
People need to learn the difference between reality and fiction. A murder ballad song is tame compared to the violence in our entertainment.
Glad to see Joyce is committed to the cause.
November 19, 2020 @ 11:56 pm
I love murder ballads, can’t wait to look up all the ones in the comments I didn’t know!
Here’s one of my favorites – Fred Eaglesmith’s “Katie” off his album 6 Volts. Which is also a damn near perfect album.
November 20, 2020 @ 10:10 am
Another killing song for you all: “Papa and Mama” by Ray Scott, and just covered by Ward Davis on his new album.
November 20, 2020 @ 6:00 pm
Steve Martin on banjo (yeah that Steve Martin) & the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell, performing the murder ballad “Pretty Little One”:
November 21, 2020 @ 12:59 pm
Porter Wagoner had some murder songs also.