MY FAVORITE MURDER BALLAD (Not So Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

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Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits [Columbia, 1975]
As if recalling Appalachian roots, the youngest superstar and sex symbol in country music history adds rape, murder, and bastardy to familiar themes like drunkeness, poverty, abandonment, and love-is-the-answer. Kid stuff it ain’t. Her burred contralto is an American dream, some weird hybrid of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Marilyn Monroe, and Will Rogers–dirty plainsong. But though I enjoy almost everything she does as soap opera–the bloodier the better–I don’t believe a word. B+ (Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the ’70s)

As if?

It’s funny. Growing up among a bunch of transplanted Appalachians (including my parents) in Florida, I found that the general reaction to Tanya Tucker songs was along the lines of “sounds like Cousin Jimmy’s side of the family.”

I suspect it was more or less the same everywhere from West Virginia to West Texas.

We believed every word

Not literally of course.

Just spiritually.

We believed she knew what we knew. And we believed she knew who we knew.

We believed she knew of whence she sang.

I still believe we were right.

Robert Christgau can go suck an egg.

I don’t mean to say that Tanya was universally beloved. Even when she started out and was still prone to at least saying all the things everybody from West Virginia to West Texas was trained to expect, “wild child” was still the phrase that was made to fit. It didn’t take her too long to make it fit literally. But she had one quality from the beginning that every real country star needs for long term acceptance: the ability to get people who never met her to talk about her as if she was one of the family.

The black sheep maybe, the one you had to keep an eye on maybe, but still.

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Given all that, it was actually kind of reasonable she would get to sing a murder song or two, no matter how young she was.

Murder songs aren’t unheard of in American music, of course. One even makes the charts now and then. Country has maybe had a few more than its share, though not nearly as many as your average Ivy Leaguer  who loves his bluegrass collection might assume. As hits go, they aren’t really as common as other kinds of death songs: suicide songs, accident songs, I feel like I’m gonna die songs.

It takes a very special kind of singer to pull off a straightforward, ice-cold murder song and leave the camp out of it–to make it sound like something that seeped out of the air as naturally as the weather. Bessie Smith used to do it. Ralph Stanley used to do it. Hank Williams could have done it if he had put his mind to it.

None of them were fifteen.

That makes a difference. Fifteen-year-olds who are born performers don’t tend to have a filter. They develop one, eventually. It’s necessary to their own survival and maybe more necessary if they’ve come out of the gates selling millions of records. But there tends to be a phase in there where everything inessential is cut away and whatever they really invest in goes straight from their brain to your brain, if you’re willing to let down your guard and meet them on their own level.

So it was with my favorite murder ballad…

Considering the number of folks in my neighborhood who spoke wistfully of the days (several months before) when she sang stuff like “The Jamestown Ferry,” where she merely chased her man “through his kingdom of honky-tonks and bars,” remembering all the great sex they had back in the days when he swore he’d never leave her, it wasn’t a slam dunk that such a song would be a hit, let alone become the permanent most requested number on Goth Night in The Hall of the Mountain Kings.

But I’ve seen the file, tucked away in the bowels of the Security State, and, even if that’s a whole other story, I promise I wouldn’t lie to you.

And just FYI: I’m giving it the slightest nod over “No Man’s Land” because it was a hit and because about ten years back, on the only occasion I’ve heard it on the radio since the seventies, it wasted everything programmed within ten miles of it in any direction I cared to turn.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Harmony Group Singer: Rock and Roll Division….Probably preceded by my carefully considered definition of a rock and roll harmony group).

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