Those familiar with the country music genre know its subject matter goes well beyond the presumed pickup trucks and alcohol. Dark country songs detailing bad breakups, cheating spouses, senseless slayings, and more pretty much set the standard for decades. It wasn't until more pop-infused acts entered the country realm in the 1980s and 1990s that the industry started trending toward upbeat and up-tempo music. What the change meant for country music remains up for debate, but this much is certain: The genre's saddest songs continue to haunt listeners. While less prevalent today than in the past, heart-wrenching country ballads dip into sorrowful situations that take years to heal.
Johnny Cash's "I Hung My Head" is a somber dirge sang from the point of view of a man who shoots and kills a stranger for no other reason other than to practice his aim.
Captured and sent to the gallows, the killer experiences "a trick of the brain" that makes him believe his victim will return and the two will ride off together to kingdom come. At least the spirit sounds forgiving.
"Whiskey Lullaby" tells the story of a man who, after having his heart broken by the love of his life, drinks himself to oblivion. But his lady love fares no better. She blames herself for his passing and nurses her own alcoholism, until finally, the bottle kills her, too.
Martina McBride's "Concrete Angel" is a gut-wrenching tune about an abused girl and the world's failure to protect her. Teachers, neighbors, and other adults all turn a blind eye, and the girl eventually dies by the hand of her aggressor.
With lyrics like, "A broken heart that the world forgot," the song is as much a rebuke of society's inaction as it is a tearjerker.
Originally recorded by Vicki Lawrence, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" got a second, more countrified wind when Reba McEntire released her version in 1991. Songwriter Bobby Russell (Lawrence's former husband) pulls off something close to genius in this macabre musical whodunit.
It's a dark song about backwoods people, a mysterious murder, a cheating wife, a sister's love, and a brother's sacrifice. The real killer's identity isn't revealed until the last line of the last verse, and it's a thrilling and twisted path to get there.