With Halloween upon us, we turn our attention to digging out our Blake Shelton and Dolly Parton 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 concerning erotic fixations on pickup trucks.
Here are 15 tunes with widely varying fear factors as they apply to stalkers, spirits, apparitions, murderers, religious miracles and kindred chill-inducing elements. So cross your fingers, check what's behind you and read on—if you dare.
“Two Black Cadillacs” (Carrie Underwood, 2012)
Trifling with one passionate woman is dangerous enough, but crossing two of them at once can prove fatal, as it has here to the “good man” being buried. The two surviving “black widows” are scarier than ghosts.
“The Beaches of Cheyenne” (Garth Brooks, 1995)
What's with these damn rodeo types, anyway? Have they learned nothing from “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” and “Amarillo By Morning”? Jeez! Some people! Here this young couple is living an idyllic life in California and facing a sunny future when the guy sneaks off to Wyoming to take on a bull “no man could ride.” You can guess how that turned out.
After trashing their house in her grief over her lover's death, she walks out and is never seen again. And that's where the ghost story starts: “They say she just went crazy screamin' out his name/She ran out into the ocean and to this day they claim/That if you go down by the water you'll see her footprints in the sand/'Cause every night she walks the beaches of Cheyenne.”
“Midnight in Montgomery” (Alan Jackson, 1992)
No one else in country music matches the ghostly aura of Hank Williams, who died in the back of his Cadillac at the age of 29 on his way to a concert. His funeral in his adopted hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, drew an estimated crowd of between 15,000 and 25,000 mourners and curiosity seekers before he was laid to rest in the city's Oakwood Annex Cemetery. That's the site at which the singer of this song stops by to pay his respects.
He's on his way to play “a big New Year's Eve show,” just as Williams was when he died. As he stands by Williams' grave, “a drunk man in a cowboy hat took me by surprise/ Wearin' shiny boots, a Nudie suit and haunted, haunted eyes/He said, 'Friend, it's good to see you, it's nice to know you care”/Then the wind picked up and he was gone, was he every really there.” For another Hank encounter, see “The Ride” below.
“The Ride” (David Allan Coe, 1983)
Oooooo! We shudder! So this cat is thumbing from Montgomery 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.
“Ghost in This House” (Shenandoah, 1990; Alison Krauss, 1999)
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.
“Riding With Private Malone” (David Ball, 2001)
Sometimes a stark absence can conjure up a supernatural presence. So it is with this song in which a 1966 Corvette seems inhabited by the spirit of a young soldier who bought it that year and soon after died in a war Just how strong that ghostly occupancy is becomes clear in the last dramatic verse of the song.
Highwayman” (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, 1985)
Jimmy Webb, who wrote this song, and Glen Campbell, who became the most succcessful exponent of Webb’s music, both recorded “Highwayman” before the Four Horsemen of Music Row took a crack at it and made it a No. 1 Grammy winner. 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 . . . .”
“El Paso City” (Marty Robbins, 1976)
It helps to know first the story of “El Paso,” Robbins' wildly popular 1959 hit about a cowboy who kills his lover's suitor and is, in turn, killed himself. In “El Paso City,” the singer is flying “thirty thousand feet” above El Paso when he recalls those long ago events with such vividness he thinks he might actually be the reincarnation of the doomed cowboy.
“My mind is down there somewhere as I fly above the badlands of New Mexico/I can't explain why I should know the very trail he rode back to El Paso/Can it be that man can disappear from life and live another time/And does the mystery deepen 'cause you think that you yourself lived in that other time.” Fanciful, yes; shallow, no.
“My Old Friend the Blues” (Steve Earle, 1986; Patty Loveless, 2005)
Not all ghosts are frightening. This one exudes a morose but calming familiarity. “Another lonely night, a nameless town/If sleep don't take me first you'll come around/I know I can always count on you/My old friend, the blues.”
“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 Long Black Veil” (Lefty Frizzell, 1959; Rosanne Cash, 2015)
A chilling classic in which a man goes to the gallows for a murder he didn't commit rather than reveal he was in flagrante delicto with his best friend's wife. Although she watched the hanging and “shed not a tear,” the eerie part is this: “Sometimes at night when the cold wind moans/In a long black veil she cries o'er my bones.”
Creepier still, if we're to believe the lyrics, the man who's buried is the only other one who knows of her nocturnal visits. Besides Frizzell, an insane number of other artists have recorded the song, including Joan Baez,the Band, the Dave Matthews Band, Johnny Cash, Tommy Cash and Rosanne Cash, the Chieftains and, yes, Barry White (as an instrumental). While the lady in black may not be a certified ghost, I'm sure as hell not going to trick-or-treat her.
“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.
“It's Me Again, Margaret” (Ray Stevens, 1985)
Pity the poor stalker. His life is infinitely more risky now that everyone has caller ID. It's hard to imagine a more politically incorrect foray into humor than this heavy-breather is. That makes it scarier in its own way than all your ghosts and goblins. Understandably, it was not one of his works cited when Stevens was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Stevens can't shoulder all the blame for this clinker. It was written by the late Paul Craft, a member of the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame.
“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, which delivers anything any time?
“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 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 country. In 1973, Roy Clark had a No. 27 with the song, and Johnny Cash scored a No. 2 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,” an instantly recognizable riff on the then-popular deodorant slogan, “Don’t be half safe -- use Arrid to be sure.”
Wait! Did you hear that? Someone’s at the door. Who could it be on a foul night like this?