Love gone wrong songs from the heart of Appalachia
By Marc Minsker
The penning of a classic love song can be the touchstone in an artist’s career, particularly in pop music. Think Neil Diamond or Paul Anka. But more interesting than the romantic variety is the flipside of the typical love song: those strangely-bemusing and often disturbing tunes that portray a darker side of love.
Throughout music history, there have been many purveyors of these songs, with Hank Williams being one of the masters. He could write and sing about unrequited love and dysfunctional relationships like no one else. The Mountain State has certainly had its share of “love songs gone wrong.” Below is a list of five significant tracks, all recorded by native sons in the last five decades. And if anyone knows of a comparable track by a female, please email Graffiti.
1. No More Hot Dogs – Hasil Adkins (Norton Records, 1966/1986)
“Come on baby / don’t you be late /
I want your head / I want it tonight
/ Cut you head off ’bout half past
eight / Have it on my wall ’bout half past ten”
There’s nothing scarier than a date night that includes decapitation followed by a head-mounting: all for the glory of a wall trophy. For Hasil Adkins, this is not abnormal behavior; it’s all part of the game of love. “No More Hot Dogs” was most likely recorded in 1966, though it didn’t see the light of day until Norton Records reissued it on the “Out to Hunch” album in the s. Brimming with Hasil’s rousing guitar, stomping drums, and sinister laugh, this tune is the defining moment in a genre that would become known as psychobilly music. When asked about the song and why he would want to cut off his lover’s head, the Haze joked, “cause I didn’t want nobody else to have her!” Order it from nortonrecords.com
2. Tragic Romance – Lilly Brothers
“Now I am the man you saw that fateful night / Wrapped in the arms of my sister so tight
/ She loved you so dearly and you broke her heart / For strangers from her evermore we will part”
The Lilly Brothers were a seminal bluegrass group from Clear Creek who recorded and released several important records in the 1950s and 1960s. “Tragic Romance” tells of a true love gone bad: a male lover sings about one fateful night when he encounters his beloved; she is seen with another man “a-huggin’ and kissin’ as only true lovers can.” Distraught, he packs his bags and leaves town. Years later, he meets a stranger who happens to be the brother of his beloved. In their meeting, the stranger reveals that his sister died of a broken heart when she was abandoned and that it was, in fact, the brother who was hugging and kissing her on that fateful night. A simple misunderstanding leads to heartbreak and dead lovers, complete with rollicking banjoes, guitars, upright bass, and drums. Find it for free on archive.org
3. Premarital Sex – Daniel Johnston (Stress Records, 1988)
“First you say you will/ then you say you won’t/ then you say you are waiting/for that special someone you’ll wed someday.”
Released by Texas-based Stress Records in 1988, this track and the other songs from Johnston’s debut “Songs of Pain” cassette were actually recorded in 1980 at his home in New Cumberland. Opening with a snippet of dialogue from an old film, a girl naively asks a male stranger “Is there an organ in your house?”
The song goes on to document a frustrated and angry young man who seemingly wants to be intimate with a beautiful girl only to be repulsed by her willingness to “get [her] thrills.” He then chastises her to “go ahead and take the pill” and have “premarital sex.” The song’s theme is typical for Johnston: loving a woman who seems to want everyone else but him. Purchase at iTunes.
4. Who is He and What is He To You? – Bill Withers (Sussex,1972)
“When I add the sum of you and me /
I get confused when I keep coming up with three/
You’re too much for one man / But not enough for two / Dadgummit! Who is he and what is he to you?”
Withers is one of the most important soul artists from the 1970s, and this native of Slab Fork will most likely be known for his two epic hits, “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me.” But another important track by Withers which presents a love turned sour is “Who is He?” Included on his 1972 album “Still Bill,” the song tells of a man who realizes, while walking around town, that his lover has been sleeping around. Glances from men on the street tip him off and his beloved can’t provide an explanation except to “look down at the ground.”
In the end, he calls her out, bluntly informing her “Before you wreck your old home be certain of the new.” Most importantly, Withers gets away with using the word “Dadgummit” and makes it sound so cool. Find “Still Bill” at your local record store, or, worse case scenario, go to iTunes.
5. A Man’s Got to Buy a Gun When He’s in Love – Ugly Squab (Earmud,1992)
“I’m sorry we couldn’t / talk it out this time / I’m sorry that things got / Out of line”
This low-fi indie rock act originally from Cross Lanes was on the scene between 1989 and 1992 and released several influential cassettes. Basically a one-man band, the Squab sings about all types of dysfunctional relationships, with “Man’s Got to Buy a Gun” being one of the most memorable. Singer-songwriter Chris Kochalka sings about a jealous lover who starts off with an apology only to reveal that “when my finger pulled the cold trigger / I knew right then you were gone.”
With a Brian Jones sensibility, an acoustic guitar accompanied by tambourine, and some lazy, fuzz guitar, Ugly Squab demonstrates how to write some damn beautiful melodies. Even if their live performances only consisted of a handful of shows at the legendary Gumby’s in Huntington, the Squab’s legacy remains. Check eBay for rare copies of Ugly Squab cassettes.