The Great Songs: The Louvin Brothers – Knoxville Girl

by Eric Melin on September 8, 2010

in Columns,The Great Songs

Just listen to the lyrics! This song is sick and wrong (and fascinating). The fact that its being performed by The Louvin Brothers, a gospel/country duo comprised of real-life brother Charlie and Ira, makes it even creepier. It’s a true snapshot of the hard-fought lessons from ages ago.

Released in 1956 on their debut record for Capitol Records, called “Tragic Songs of Life,” the Louvins version of an old Appalachian murder ballad called “Knoxville Girl” became a hit three years later for the band.

Louvin_BrothersBefore that, “Knoxville Girl” is said to have been derived from the 19th century Irish ballad “The Wexford Girl,” itself derived from the earlier English ballad “The Oxford Girl.” Wherever it came from, it’s a dark and sinister morality tale about a guy who must waste his life away in a dirty jail because he killed the girl he loved.

What’s really messed up is how into detail the lyrics go:

She fell down on her bended knees
For mercy she did cry
Oh, Willie dear, don’t kill me here
I’m unprepared to die

She never spoke another word
I only beat her more
Until the ground around me
Within her blood did flow.

I took her by her golden curls
And I drug her ’round and ’round
Throwing her into the river
That flows through Knoxville town

Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl
With the dark and roving eyes
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl
You can never be my bride.

Apparently in order to learn this lesson properly, the listener must first have to experience the relish that the singer feels going while going through his despicable act. The Country Music Hall of Fame says that the Louvins’ “stratospheric vocal interplay made them probably the most influential harmony duet in country music history” and listening to this track, its evident why.

Even though these Baptists sang about the evils of temptation and sin, they were no strangers to it either, which is probably why they were so convincing. According to Wikipedia, “Married four times, [Ira's] third wife shot him three times in the back after he tried to strangle her.” He died in 1965 in a drunk-driving related car accident, but Charlie went on to have a solo career and soak up the accolades for his influential duo. He’s 83 now and suffers from pancreatic cancer.

The Great Songs series so far:

The Great Songs: Big Star – Thirteen

The Great Songs: The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset

The Great Songs: The Jayhawks – Blue

The Great Songs: Pavement – Summer Babe

The Great Songs: The Zombies – Care of Cell 44

The Great Songs: The O’Jays – Back Stabbers

The Great Songs: Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure

The Great Songs: George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today

The Great Songs: Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

The Great Songs: KISS – Deuce

The Great Songs: The Flying Burrito Brothers – Hot Burrito #1

The Great Songs: The Flaming Lips – Do You Realize??

The Great Songs: Pink Floyd – Astronomy Domine

The Great Songs: The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up

The Great Songs: Marvin Gaye – Let’s Get it On

The Great Songs: Slayer – Angel of Death

The Great Songs: Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Beyond Belief

The Great Songs: The Replacements – Unsatisfied

The Great Songs: Cheap Trick – Surrender

The Great Songs: Guided by Voices – Motor Away

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Karl Koelle September 8, 2010 at 8:53 am

Wow, that’s quite a track. Good thing Tipper was only 8 when this was released or they would have been in a world of hurt!

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2 Liz F September 8, 2010 at 9:00 am

There was a great interview with Charlie on Fresh Air (NPR) on September 2nd. Not sure if it was an older program or not, but worth checking out.

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3 Eric Melin September 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Karl- Oh, Tipper. What great company they would have been in: W.A.S.P., Prince, The Louvin Brothers – bad, bad influences…

Liz- Thanks for the tip! Here’s the link for everybody else; it’s a very good 14-minute interview from 1996 with text highlights http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129578565

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