15 Years After “Murder on Music Row”

Does the Message of the George Strait/Alan Jackson Duet Still Ring True for You?

(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the release of George Strait and Alan Jackson’s recording of “Murder on Music Row.”

Have times changed for the better? You be the judge.

In case you’re not familiar with the song, it was first released as the title track of Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time’s 1999 bluegrass album. Written by Cordle and Larry Shell, the verses begin:

Nobody saw him running from 16th Avenue
They never found the fingerprint or the weapon that was used
But someone killed country music, cut out its heart and soul
They got away with murder down on Music Row

The almighty dollar and the lust for worldwide fame
Slowly killed tradition, and for that, someone should hang
They all say “not guilty,” but the evidence will show
That murder was committed down on Music Row

The explanation is expanded in the chorus:

For the steel guitars no longer cry and fiddles barely play
But drums and rock ‘n’ roll guitars are mixed up in your face
Old Hank wouldn’t have a chance on today’s radio
Since they committed murder down on Music Row

Ironically, the version by Cordle and his band created an instant buzz among many people working in the music industry on Music Row, but everyone was shocked when Strait and Jackson recorded it. As opposed to some of the older artists who were bitching and moaning that country radio no longer played their records, Strait and Jackson were in their prime, and the message of “Murder on Music Row” came across more as a social commentary than a bitter criticism.

Compared to their other singles at the time, “Murder on Music Row” only reached No. 38 on Billboard’s country chart, but it did win Strait and Jackson a vocal event trophy at the CMA Awards that year. The CMA also honored Cordle and Shell with its song of the year honor.

So where are we now? Decide yourself by looking at the top singles on the Billboard country airplay charts from 1999 and 2014. (Strait and Jackson recorded “Murder on Music Row” in 1999, and 2014 is the most recent compilation of a full year of radio airplay.)

1999
1. “Right on the Money,” Alan Jackson
2. “Wrong Again,” Martina McBride
3. “Stand Beside Me,” Jo Dee Messina
4. “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” Mark Chesnutt
5. “No Place That Far,” Sara Evans
6. “You Were Mine,” Dixie Chicks
7. “How Forever Feels,” Kenny Chesney
8. “Wish You Were Here,” Mark Wills
9. “Please Remember Me,” Tim McGraw
10. “Write This Down,” George Strait

2014
1. “Beat of the Music,” Brett Eldredge
2. “Lettin’ the Night Roll,” Justin Moore
3. “Where It’s At (Yep, Yep),” Dustin Lynch
4. “We Are Tonight,” Billy Currington
5. “Ready Set Roll,” Chase Rice
6. “Dirt,” Florida Georgia Line
7. “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight,” Cole Swindell
8. “Sunshine & Whiskey,” Frankie Ballard
9. “Whiskey in My Water,” Tyler Farr
10. “Leave the Night On,” Sam Hunt

You may recall that Chesnutt’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was a country remake of the Diane Warren song Aerosmith recorded for the 1998 film, Armageddon. Chesnutt remains one of the greatest honest-to-God honky-tonk vocalists ever, and it’s probably a safe bet that someone at his record label lobbied hard before he agreed to cover the Aerosmith hit.

As it turned out, Chesnutt’s version spent two weeks atop Billboard’s country chart, but he has never scored another Top 10 single after that. I’m not implying a cause-and-effect here. Instead, I’m just pointing out that whether or not country music was ever actually murdered on Music Row, there’s always somebody angling to mingle the genres to get a hit.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.