Murder ballads generally adhere to a strict formula it seems. They explain who the person being murdered is, why they got murdered, and finally how the killer is brought to justice. The most essential part though (other than, y’know… the murder) has got to be the motive, and that is precisely why “Knoxville Girl” is so fucking unsettling. It begins like a love song, with the narrator picking up his sweetheart to go for a stroll, and only a few lines in she’s screaming as he beats her to death with a stick. He doesn’t have any motivation, and our only insight into how he felt about her comes at the end as he wastes away in prison when he says he loved her. It never gets too gory, but a line like “She never spoke another word, I only beat her more, until the ground around me within her blood did flow,” sounds deeply disturbing when sung in the melancholy tone the song is famous for.
Pick any version you like, damn thing is nearly 100 years old so there are quite a lot to choose from. A lot of people go for the Nick Cave version, but for me nothing beats The Louvin Brothers version. These two brothers, Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, sing it so well because they depict the murderer in possibly the most unhinged way. They do that by singing it as a sad love song. If you heard their version and didn’t pay attention to any lyrics, it would sound like a broken-hearted ballad for the one that got away. They have the narrator reminisce the beating of a young girl to death, then dragging her bloody corpse by the hair and tossing it into the river as a sad memory of lost love. “Knoxville Girl” is the murder ballad at its absolute best, and this is the definitive version.