Charlie Louvin sidebar – Murder, She Wrote
“You know, it’s about Knoxville, Iowa.” That’s what one of my musician friends told me.
Well, not quite. But it’s not about Knoxville, Tennessee, either, even though that’s the common misconception. A haunting, tragic folk song about a man who murders his girlfriend and dumps her body in a river, “Knoxville Girl” actually originated in England. Precisely when and by whom it was written is unknown; the song has always been credited merely as “Traditional” whenever it has been recorded.
And it has been recorded several times — most notably by the Louvin Brothers, who put it on their 1956 album Tragic Songs of Life. They had a Top 20 country hit with it three years later, when Capitol finally issued it as a single upon hearing that another brother duo, the Wilburn Brothers, was about to record it. (The Wilburns’ version, as it turned out, also reached the country Top 20 that year.)
More recently, it has been revived by Nashville neo-traditionalists BR5-49, who included it on their Live From Robert’s EP earlier this year; and Boston alt-rockers the Lemonheads, whose electrified version appears on their new album Car Button Cloth, released last month. Others who have recorded the song over the years include the Stanley Brothers, the Outlaws and Mac Wiseman.
My first exposure to “Knoxville Girl” was the Wilburn Brothers’ version. Teddy and Doyle Wilburn had a television show that was on before Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and after the Bonnie Lou & Buster Show on Saturday afternoons. The first time I heard it, I was probably five or six years old. I was fascinated that as a Knoxville Girl, there was a song written just for me. My grandmother, ever the optimist, said “You hang out in bars, that’s what will happen to you.”
In seventh grade, I had an English teacher who made an effort to expose her class to Appalachian folk ballads. She was particularly drawn to more morbid songs such as “Barbara Allen” and “Tom Dooley”, and it was here that I first heard the Louvin Brothers’ version of “Knoxville Girl”. “It’s the most requested song the Louvin Brothers ever did,” Charlie Louvin said in a recent interview.
Charlie explains that “when it was first written, it was called the ‘Wentworth Girl’; that’s a little town in England. And then there’s a Knoxville in England; they call it Knoxville Town. And later, when that song was brought to this country, was called ‘Knoxville Girl’. But everybody thought it was talking about Knoxville, Tennessee. They’ve got a river right there by Knoxville, so everything fits.”
Several other acts have included the song in their live sets over the years, particularly bluegrass greats such as Jimmy Martin and the Blue Sky Boys. When BR5-49 played the song recently at the Mercury Theatre in Knoxville, a couple hundred patriotic Knoxvillians removed their ball caps and held them over their hearts. And when Elvis Costello stepped on to the stage at the Ryman Auditorium at a recent Nashville show, he looked around and said, ” I feel I ought to be playing ‘Knoxville Girl’ or something.”
Another band that knew the song well was the Jayhawks, though singer-guitarist Gary Louris says that “I think we performed it maybe only once.” Louris, however, took things a step further, writing a sort of sequel to “Knoxville Girl” that was called “Bloody Hands”. “I always thought that was a really strong song of ours that never quite made it onto a record,” he recalls. “It had to do with the woman actually having bore the man a child before he killed her — and, in fact, maybe that was part of the reason for the murder, was that they had had an illegitimate child, and he couldn’t handle it. The song had to do with [the daughter] coming back, growing up and waiting for him to get out of prison, and basically avenging her mother’s murder.”
Of the original “Knoxville Girl”, Louris says he and his bandmates were initially attracted to it because “it represented the twisted dark country side that belied the whole goofy stupid country stuff you’d often hear. It was really a sick, twisted song, and I think that appealed to us, in that it showed how complex a country song could be.”
(No Depression co-editor Peter Blackstock contributed to this story.)
This article appeared as a sidebar to the Charlie Louvin article.