This list is exclusively older country, and by that I mean pre ’80s, the reason being that I can barely refrain from ripping my own ears off when stuck in an elevator or grocery listening to the likes of “Christmas Shoes” or any number of sappy, new, drama-queeny country songs.
They don’t write ’em like they used to. Country music used to be about counting your blessings or crying in your beer, so crack a Schlitz, scroll down to the play list and fire it up, and read about nine of the most disturbing country songs of all time (that don’t make you feel like throwing up).
The first time I heard this song I was sure it was a joke.* This one is about a “crippled” little boy on a CB radio talking to truckers because he misses his dead trucker daddy. It’s told from the point of a long-hauler as he listens to Teddy Bear’s depressing story, reproduced by Red Sovine in a cracking, teary drawl.
Teddy Bear says, “Mom has to work now to make ends meet / And I’m not much help with my two crippled feet,” and “But I know now I’ll never get a ride on 18-wheeler again.” After several minutes of this, the trucker is overcome with emotion:
What’s your home 20 little CB friend?”
He gave me his address and I didn’t once hesitate,
‘Cause this hot load of freight would just have to wait.
It was a simpler time, when little crippled boys could give their addresses out by CB and a lone trucker could be shocked by “18-wheelers…lined up for three city blocks” as a gaggle of like-minded road warriors took the kid out for a spin, one after another.
The trucker says, “Well you better believe I took my turn ridin’ Teddy Bear,” and relates how all the truckers threw together some money for him before they went on their ways.
The real shocker is the end when Mama Teddy Bear gets home to a pile of money and her child’s account of being taken out on the open road by a series of strange men. Instead of calling the police, she gets on the CB herself and thanks the truckers for their generosity.
I know I’ve already said enough about this song, but feel it’s also worth noting that due to its popularity, a spinoff was born. “Teddy Bear’s Last Ride” was sung by Capitol Records’ Diana Williams and never reached the popularity of the original song.* I thought this the first time I heard The Black Eyed Peas “My Humps,” too, and I’m not sure I can be convinced otherwise to this day.
The story is simple. Boy meets girl. Boy proposes marriage to girl. Girl declines. Boy drowns girl in the river and watches her float away.
According to a flowery and bizarrely speculative account by Sean Wiletnz in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, the song was traced by reporter John Garst to a real incident . On Christmas day, 1900, Delia Green, 14, died of a gunshot wound to the groin after calling her boyfriend a “son of a bitch” after he proclaimed to her loudly and in mixed company, “You know I have had you as many times as I have fingers and toes.” Both assailant and victim were 14 years old.
One of the earliest recorded (blues) versions is by Blind Willie McTell, which you can hear here at Murder by Gaslight. The song changed greatly as it traveled to the Caribbean, came back to the US, and eventually moved into the country world. The one you’re most likely to hear is the Johnny Cash version, included in the playlist, which ends charmingly enough:
You can let her run,
Or you can bring her down and
Do her like Delia got done.
A PETA anthem if there ever was one, Jim Reeves’ ‘The Blizzard’ follows the thoughts of a man as he freezes to death trying to coax his “lame” pony, Dan, home.
Starting from seven miles away, the narrator describes his fingers and toes going numb as he fantasizes about Mary Anne’s biscuits and talks to Dan about his nice, warm barn.
One hundred yards from the house, he loses steam. They find him “there on the plains, his hands frozen to the reins” because “he couldn’t leave ol’ Dan.” I’m sure that made for a nice surprise for Mary Anne.
The song was released three years before Reeves’ own death as he crashed the plane he piloted in a Tennessee thunderstorm. To my knowledge, no one has written a song about that.
Made famous by Kenny Rogers in 1969, ‘Ruby’ is another story about love gone horribly wrong. This time the narrator is a Vietnam veteran whose legs are “bent and paralyzed.” He watches, captive, as Ruby dolls herself up to “take her love to town.” Parallels can be drawn between this and Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” a woman’s sexuality a terminal weapon.
The final verse is when the story gets really ugly:
The way I know I’ve heard it slam one hundred times before.
And if I could move I’d get my gun and put her in the ground.
Oh Ruby, don’t take your love to town.
Oh Ruby, God sakes, turn around.
Loretta Lynn’s Fist City was number one on Billboard Hot Country Singles in April of 1968. Among Lynn’s songs about infidelity, alcoholism and poverty, this one stands out for rhyming violent threats and put-downs. A woman’s husband is cheating and in true country form, it’s the other woman rather than the cheating husband who is blamed.
It opens strong:
But the man I love when he picks up trash he puts it in a garbage can.
And that’s what you look like to me and what I see is a pity.
You’d better close your face and stay out of my way
If you don’t wanta go to Fist City.
And the chorus is priceless. It’s hard to imagine petite Lynn grabbing anyone by the hair of the head and lifting her off of the ground, but that’s what she threatens to do.
From the beginning of this song, we know something’s gone wrong, due to the refrain, “I didn’t know the cold hard facts of life,” but we don’t know how horribly wrong until the end.
A man comes home early from a trip out of town, imagines surprising his wife with champagne and candle light, stops at a liquor store, and sees a stranger at the counter bragging about a party with a woman whose husband is out of town. They leave at about the same time and he notices that they are taking the same route away from the store, but it’s not until the stranger pulls up in front of his own house that he realizes what’s going on.
He drinks a “fifth of courage” and things go downhill quickly. We can only assume the wife and the other man were killed after “They screamed and cried, ‘Please put away that knife,'” because the final three lines of the song are:
But who taught who the cold hard facts of life?
Who taught who the cold hard facts of life?
“Long Black Veil” was popularized by Lefty Frizzell in 1959 and has become a country classic performed and released by the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, The Band, and most recently and unfortunately by The Dave Matthews Band.
It’s told by the dead, but apparently still observant main character, who is accused of murder and hanged to death for it. In the second verse, we find out why he keeps silent as to his whereabouts at the time of the killing when asked by the judge. “I spoke not a word though it meant my life / For I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.”
The chorus goes:
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me.
And really, this doesn’t make sense if you think about it. The only one who knows isn’t the woman who walks the hills in a long black veil, but the dead protagonist who can still manage to sing? And doesn’t her husband think something’s a little strange when she goes out after the hanging of his best friend to wander the hills in a long black veil?
In the playlist, I’ve included a sweet version with Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash whose chilling harmonies might help you forget that the song makes little sense.
Told from the point of view of the protagonist Tommy’s uncle, “Coward of the County” is one of the most involved tales of country heartache I’ve ever heard. In the first verse, we see that Tommy is known in the county as “yellow” for his cowardly ways. Then we find out why. You see, Tommy’s dad died in prison, and his dying wish is repeated throughout the song as a chorus:
Walk away from trouble if you can.
It won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek.
I hope you’re old enough to understand.
Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man!”
Despite his pitiful reputation, Tommy finds love in Becky and one day while he’s at work, three brothers force their way in to Tommy and Becky’s home and gang rape her. Tommy comes home to find his honey pie a wreck and hunts down the Gatlin brothers where they’re drinking in a bar, locks them in and (probably) murders them all. The moral of the story?
Sometimes you have to fight when you’re a man.
This song was turned into a TV movie featuring Kenny Rogers himself as Uncle Matthew and set in WWII which aired in 1981. It hit number three on the Billboard top 100 in 1979.
Did we miss any? There’s never too much of a good thing, so please turn us on to more disturbing country in the comments below.