From Murder Ballads to “Goodbye Earl”
by Marie Baleo
Taylor Swift has popularized country music to a large audience around the world, but has often been criticized for portraying relationships involving weak and vulnerable women. But this theme is not alien to country music, far from that. In fact, country western is one of the only musical genres where this tragically frequent phenomenon is addressed. Indeed, country appears more prone to mention distress in relationships and violence between domestic partners than any other genre. Meanwhile, women in country are usually less sexualized and objectified than in other modern genres such as hip hop, RNB, or even that junk kids call “pop” these days (here’s looking at you, “Blurred Lines”).
In late 19th century and early 20th century America, violence against women was both legal and widely accepted; women were their husbands’ inalienable property, hardly different from cattle or material possessions. In the 20th century, legal resources and options became increasingly available, and allowed abused women to protect themselves from their husbands and partners’ violent behavior.
Country music reflected this evolution, giving a stronger, louder voice to female performers, but the characters in the songs they sung still remained well within the confines of traditional gender roles. After all, country is a direct descendant of 19th century Southern folk music, which gave us murder ballads (songs that tell the story of a murder).
However, other modern musical genres can also be considered as heirs of southern folk, yet have not gone down the path of domestic violence. So, if women in country music seem (slightly) less objectified than in other genre, why does domestic violence still pervade country so much?
In its earlier stages, country music reported a male perspective exclusively. At the time, men had an undisputed monopoly over all discourses pertaining to gender relations, women, and domestic violence. Male narrators often chose to kill women when they found they could not have them. Mind you, this is a theme that spans various musical genres:
in “Run For Your Life”, the Beatles sing “Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl – Than to be with another man”.
in “The Banks of the Ohio”, when the female character declares “O no, your bride I’ll never be – Another one’s prepared for me”, her words ultimately lead to her demise: “I took her by her golden curls, – I drug her down to the riverside – And I threw her in to drown, – I watched her as she floated down”. This song was a popular folk piece. First recorded by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers in 1927, it was later covered by a great number of country artists, but also by Joan Baez and Olivia Newton-John.
This heartwarming idea of killing the object of your affection solely because she is out of reach carries on into modern country music. The video for Johnny Cash’s song “Delia’s Gone” was filmed in 1994, at the height of the MTV era; the modernity of the music video, highlighted by the musical style and photography, contrasts strongly with the archaically violent content.
Even though “Delia’s Gone” is a traditional song, and Johnny Cash is neither its composer nor its initial performer, the fact that he would choose to sing this particular piece is symbolic of the centrality of the theme of domestic violence in country music.
The female perspective in country music only finally developed between the 1960s and the 1990s. As Lewis writes, “from the women’s perspective, as K.T. Oslin sings in 80’s Ladies, “We’ve been educated, we got liberated, and that’s complicated matters with men.” In the 1960s, women started talking about domestic violence, while of course remaining trapped in traditional gender roles. Their growing disapproval of this situation was paralleled by a change in country music’s treatment of domestic violence, showing once again that country is innately in touch with the most common societal issues. However, at the time, women still did not seem to expect an improvement in their condition, due to a continued lack of resources for victims of abuse.
This lag between the awareness and condemnation of domestic abuse and the lack of responses available persisted until the 1980s, when women began to no longer be portrayed exclusively as victims. Suddenly, they were depicted as having options. This led to a new era in female country music, with popular songs such as “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks or “Independence Day” by Martina McBride, where women reclaimed control over their bodies and their lives, and rebelled against the violence they had endured without a word until then.
Both “Goodbye Earl” (2000) and “Independence Day” (1993) were substantially successful, and substantially controversial. The debate that surrounded these songs was interpreted by many feminists as evidence of misogyny in the country music audience: “excessive violence becomes unacceptable only when it is (visibly) directed against patriarchal control instead of being perpetrated in the service of it”. In “Goodbye Earl”, the female protagonist, who is mistreated by Earl, first seeks out a restraining order and only turns to violence when this fails to protect her from Earl. “Goodbye Earl” was said to encourage “justified” murder: it is interesting to note how fast this particular piece spurred controversy (and to speculate on whether it has anything to do with the fact that the Dixie Chicks are… chicks), when other occurrences of violence in country music have gone widely unnoticed.
In “Thunder Rolls”, Garth Brooks describes a woman smelling another woman’s perfume on her husband’s clothes, waiting for him to come home, and shooting him out of jealousy. But the murder scene only appears in the third verse, is omitted in the recording, and only sung by Brooks in live performances. This is a testament to the uneasiness caused by this sudden outburst of female revenge-themed songs.
The prevalence of domestic violence in country music is also due to the nature of the genre itself. Country music tackles everyday life and issues which its mainly white, working-class audience of males aged 25 to 49 can relate with. This explains its focus on interpersonal relations, and mostly love, and the near absence of any direct political or societal commentary within the genre. Country music shows what is, instead of what should be, and it is only natural that it should address domestic violence, a tragedy that is undeniably an integral part of reality. But the commonness of of domestic violence in country is liable to normalize violence and appear to legitimize it. In other words, violence itself can appear less serious because it becomes the subject matter of light-sounding, upbeat music and ballads, such as the humorous “Goodbye Earl”.
To say that this knack for domestic violence is specific to country is to misunderstand its themes and audience. Instead, the propensity of country singers, male and female, to address the topic of domestic violence stems from the prevalence of domestic abuse in contemporary society and from the nature of country, which thinks of itself as a reflection of society.
As George H. Lewis writes, “Modern American country music, perhaps more than most other forms of popular song in this country, deals frankly and openly with the everyday trials, troubles, hopes, fears, and dreams of its audience”. As domestic abuse became a criminal offense, country opened up to women and their perspective on violence, to a point where female characters in song became able to murder their abuser. However, the treatment of domestic abuse themes within country music is unique: its combination of abuse and love, of gruesome descriptions and soft-sounding ballads, is what makes domestic violence in country music so much more disconcerting than violence against women in other musical genres such as rap, hip-hop, or R&B. And while country might have seemed less misogynist than other genres in the past, the situation has evolved in recent years, as country’s “bro problem” has emerged, in the form of “girls in tank tops and flip flops dancing on bars and in the flatbeds of pickups at a never-ending dirt-road tailgate party”, as Carl Wilson so rightly notes.
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Song Lyrics and Music Videos:
- Dixie Chicks, “Goodbye Earl”: http://www.purelyrics.com/index.php?lyrics=optttcso
- Garth Brooks, “Papa Loved Mama”: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/garthbrooks/papalovedmama.html
- Johnny Cash, “Delia’s Gone”: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnnycash/deliasgone.html (lyrics) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1iKEPzF1Js (video)
- Martina McBride, “Independence Day” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VPpAZ9_qAw
- Garth Brooks, “Thunder Rolls”: http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/brooks-garth/the-thunder-rolls-4998.html
- “Knoxville Girl” (lyrics): http://sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiKNOXGIRL.html
- “Banks of the Ohio”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banks_of_the_Ohio
Articles and Books:
- C. Kirk Hutson, “Whackety Whack, Don’t Talk Back”: The Glorification of Violence Against Females and the Subjugation of Women in Nineteenth-Century Southern Folk Music”, 1996 Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 8 No. 3 (Fall)
- Sheila Simon, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL: Greatest Hits: Domestic Violence in American Country Music
- Untitled review of “Finding her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music” by Martha Mockus, in Notes, Music Library Association 1995
- Reading country music: steel guitars, opry stars, and honky-tonk bars Cecelia Tichi 1998 Duke University Press
- Interpersonal Relations and Sex-Role Conflict in Modern American Country Music, George H. Lewis, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Dec., 198912
- “Killing Women – A Pop Music Tradition”, John Hamerlinck, Humanist, American Humanist Association, July-August 1995.