NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Subject Was Murder

"Psycho" and Other Songs Explore the World of Violent Killing

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Here at the shop, things have been busy lately with wrapping up a show that I’m partial to, since it deals with a subject that’s been a central theme throughout country music’s history. That subject is murder.

Controversy: Murder They Wrote, the show premiering Saturday (Feb. 7) at 10 p.m. ET/PT, deals with songs about murder and killing and shooting and cutting and stabbing and drowning and poisoning and hanging and bludgeoning and so on. Murder has not been exclusive to country music (it was a staple of the Scottish-Irish ballads that traveled to Appalachia and formed the basis of much of early country), and the murder storytelling tradition of course goes back all the way to Cain and Abel. But country has excelled in it, wallowed in it, if you will, and truly treasures and appreciates and savors a good murder song.

There are even a few great murder albums. Johnny Cash — who made murder into big music box office when he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” in “Folsom Prison Blues” — recorded his superb Murder, which is available as both a separate album and as part of the Love God Murder package and which includes liner notes by both Cash and twisted film director Quentin Tarantino.

Cash’s soulmate Nick Cave’s 1996 Murder Ballads album remains a classic of the genre. The long-lost Cash-Cave duet of “Cindy” (not a murder song) is on Cash Unearthed, and Cash recorded Cave’s eerily morbid electric-chair song “The Mercy Seat” on his American III: Solitary Man. Great stuff.

Back to Murder They Wrote. In this context, it’s fascinating to isolate and look at one specific event in history and study the music that is inspired by it. In one case in particular here, an architecture student more or less ushered in the modern era of mass murders. Charles Whitman was a former Eagle Scout, ex-Marine and model student at the University of Texas in Austin who one night in 1966 killed his mother by strangulation and stabbed his wife to death. The next morning, he packed up his Marine footlocker with guns and ammo and food and survival tools and equipment and marched off to school. At UT, he hauled his gear up to the top of the 28-story UT library tower — then the tallest spot in Austin — locked the observation deck doors and went to work.

He was a superb sniper and started picking off people as they walked or bicycled to class. No one initially knew what was happening as death rained down from the sky. Before cops finally broke through to the roof and shot him down, he had killed 16 people, wounded 30 more and forever traumatized a university campus and a city.

On this show, there wasn’t time to dwell in depth on all the songs that were written about or inspired by the tower massacre, because there were several. Whitman left notes indicating that he knew there was something wrong with his brain and had tried and failed to get help. Although all of the songs allude to that fact, one (“The Ballad of Charles Whitman”) mentions, “There was a rumor about a tumor/nestled at the base of his brain.”

As a student at the University of Texas after the fact of the shootings, I was able to witness firsthand the debut of and effect of that last-mentioned song about the tower sniper. Richard “Kinky” Friedman was a UT graduate who had served in the Peace Corps in Borneo (where he likes to say he introduced the Frisbee as his contribution to local culture). After returning to Austin, he formed the country group Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. Kinky (I can call him that because we became good friends) was and is a gifted songwriter who early on learned that extreme songwriting gets attention. At his first Austin shows, feminists were shouting him down over the song “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.”

But when Kinky unveiled “The Ballad of Charles Whitman,” he unleashed the full furor a song can bring. “Ballad” is a biting examination of the culture that produced Whitman, with him singing, “There’s still a lot of Eagle Scouts around.” But the stark reality of the song affected audiences in Austin like nothing I’ve seen before or since. There were usually people in the audiences who had had friends or relatives shot in the Whitman massacre, and audience reactions often ranged from tears to screams to anger and fury and occasional attempts to attack Friedman.

The late folk troubadour Harry Chapin wrote and recorded a nine-minute and 55-second mini-opera about the shootings. Titled “Sniper,” it’s an eerily effective mini-opera, complete with sound effects, and it manages to insinuate itself inside the sniper’s mind as he goes about his business.

In San Antonio, news of the tower shootings greatly affected Leon Payne. He was a blind songwriter and singer who had written the great country standards “Lost Highway” and “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me,” recorded by Hank Williams. Payne’s “Psycho” is unlike anything else he wrote and indeed is very much unlike most other country songs ever written. It’s been recorded a few times, most effectively by Elvis Costello, who cut it live at Hollywood’s Palomino Club and released it as the B-side of “Sweet Dreams” on a UK-release single. It also appears on his album Almost Blue.

The dark tale is told matter-of-factly — which only accentuates the horror — as the song’s pace gets faster and faster, and Costello’s voice grows darker and darker. It’s the story of the frenzied Whitman of the night before his calm sniper spree. And it ends with the chilling line: You think I’m psycho, don’t you Mamma/Mamma, why don’t you get up?

“Psycho” remains the most chilling song I have ever heard. It can still make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And that, my friend, is the indicator of a good and powerful song.