As Halloween approaches, as we all turn our attention to shopping for Taylor Swift and Jason Aldean masks, it’s a good time to remember that country music has always been congenial to strange and scary songs — and not all of them centered on an erotic fixation with pickup trucks.
Here are 10 country tunes about spirits, apparitions, religious miracles and kindred chill-inducing experiences. So cross your fingers and dive in.
“Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend),” Vaughn Monroe (1949)
Now generally referred to as “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” this tale of encountering a phantom trail herd of cattle was a crossover hit for the mellifluous Monroe, who rode it all the way to No. 1 on the pop chart and to No. 2 on the country listings. Folksinger and actor Burl Ives charted it a week after Monroe and saw his take rise to No. 8 on the country chart. In 1973, Roy Clark hit No. 27 with the song, and Johnny Cash scored a No. 2 single in 1979. The “old cowboy” who witnesses this celestial miracle is told he must change his ways or else spend eternity “tryin’ to catch the devil’s herd across the endless skies.” Spike Jones, the Weird Al Yankovic of his day, had some fun with the lyrics. In his version, when he gets to the line that describes the spectral trail riders — their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all wet with sweat” — you hear a voice intoning, “Don’t be half safe,” a riff on the then-popular deodorant slogan, “Don’t be half safe. Use Arrid to be sure.” Adding to the musical mayhem, the voices on the Jones version sound half drunk (thus explaining the vision) and half Yiddish (reducing the vision to just another one of life’s annoyances.)
“Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair),” the Browns (1960)
In 1952, Harry Belafonte recorded this story of a little girl who miraculously gets the hair ribbons she longs for. But his recording was never released as a single. The Browns — Maxine, Jim Ed and Bonnie — still riding high on the mammoth crossover success of their 1959 hit, “The Three Bells,” followed it with “Scarlet Ribbons.” Their single went to No. 7. “All the stores were closed and shuttered/All the streets were dark and bare/In our town, no scarlet ribbons/Scarlet ribbons for her hair.” Could this have been the inspiration for Amazon.com?
“Bringing Mary Home,” the Country Gentlemen (1965)
“She must have been so frightened, all alone there in the night/There was something strange about her, and her face was deathly white/She sat so pale and quiet in the back seat all alone/I never will forget the night I took Mary home.” In folk music scholarship, “Bringing Mary Home” belongs to the category called “the vanishing hitchhiker.” But on a personal level, it’s virtually impossible to sing these lyrics without getting a lump in your throat. The teller of the story explains how he picked up this “little girl” on a lonely road at night and took her to “the driveway where she told me to go.” You’ll have to listen to the song to get the rest of the story. “Bringing Mary Home” was co-written by the late John Duffey, mandolin player for the Country Gentlemen. This is the only song that fabled bluegrass group ever charted in country. It went to No. 43.
“Phantom 309,” Red Sovine (1967)
This isn’t a song, properly speaking, since Sovine speaks rather than sings the lyrics. Here, the hitchhiker is real, but the trucker, Big Joe, who picks him up in the rig he calls Phantom 309, turns out to be a bit vaporous. The folks at the truck stop will tell you why.
“The Ride,” David Allan Coe (1983)
Oooooo! Scary. So this cat is thumbing from Montgomery, Alabama, to Nashville, lugging his guitar, when a skinny guy driving an “antique Cadillac” stops to give him a ride — not to mention a few useful tips about achieving and surviving stardom. If you haven’t already guessed who the driver is, he’ll tell you himself at the end.
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson (1985)
Jimmy Webb, who wrote this song, and Glen Campbell, who became the most successful exponent of Webb’s music, both recorded “Highwayman” before the Four Horsemen of Music Row took a crack at it and made it a Grammy-winning No. 1. The song recounts the stories of an English highway bandit, a sailor and a dam builder, each of whom dies violently. Then we hear from the pilot of a “starship” searching for the edge of the universe who may have embodied all these men is his past lives. “I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can/Perhaps I may become a highwayman again/Or I may simply be a single drop of rain/But I will remain/And I’ll be back again and again and … .”
“I’ll Come Back as Another Woman,” Tanya Tucker (1986)
Listen, buddy. You can’t just ditch this lady and think you’re home free. She swears to that. “I’ll come back as another woman/One with all the secrets to your heart/I’ll come back as another woman/I’ll be the one you burn for that you reach for in the dark/I’ll be the one that breaks your devil heart.” Take that!
“Ghost in This House,” Shenandoah (1990)
With the fracturing of love, the one who remains and the one who’s gone are both reduced to spirits — one tormented, one composed entirely of memories. “I’m just a whisper of smoke/I’m all that’s left of two hearts on fire,” sings the one who’s been left behind. Two of the greatest voices ever to grace country music made pure crystals of this Hugh Prestwood classic — Marty Raybon, as Shenandoah’s lead singer, and Alison Krauss in a cut on her 1999 album, Forget About It.
“The Little Girl,” John Michael Montgomery (2000)
Raised by a drunken, violent father and a drug-addled mother, the little girl of this song knows none of the comforts or iconography of religion. So how is it that after she’s placed in the care of a loving couple who take her to church for the first time she recognizes the picture of Jesus? This is a harrowing, heartbreaking song to listen to — but utterly worth the pain.
“Riding With Private Malone,” David Ball (2001)
Sometimes a stark absence can conjure up a supernatural presence. Such is the case in which a 1966 Corvette seems inhabited by the spirit of a young soldier who bought it that year and soon after died in battle. Just how strong that ghostly occupancy is becomes clear in the last dramatic verse of the song.
Wait! Did you hear that? Someone’s at the door. Who could it be on a night like this?