Death has long been a topic of Country Music. Death predominates Country music so much (or at least it did before Country started marketing itself to teenage girls) that a sub-genre known as the Country Death Song has established itself as an anchor of Country Music history. Although most death songs deal with murdering a cheating lover and/or his/her cheater, other Country Death Songs have dealt with suicide, executions, and even sickness -- especially dying of a broken heart. Heck Columbia Records released a whole album of Johnny Cash death songs called Murder.
One of the greatest Country Death Songs is Women's Prison by Loretta Lynn with Jack White from the 2004 album Van Lear Rose. It's got it all: a woman/narrator finding her lover with a former friend and killing him, the execution of the woman/narrator, an angry prison mob, a crying mother. The opening lines really tell the story and bring you right to the present:
I'm in a women's prison with bars all around
I caught my darlin cheatin thats when I shot him down
I caught him in a honky-tonk with a girl I used to know
The door to my cell is open wide and a voice cries out oh no
On the album what really sucks you into this song is right before it is the treacly God Makes No Mistakes, which tells us that Gods ways are mysterious and we shouldn't question them. The end of that song moves right into Women's Prison and its quite difficult to tell where one song ends the other begins. But the themes are jarring: From accepting God's lot to sitting on Death Row within a few notes.
Obviously killing someone in a Honky-Tonk is quite public and the murder and her execution have obviously stirred public passions as we learn in the chorus:
The crowd outside is screamin' let the murderer die! But above all their voices I can hear my mama cry.
The music is quite jarring too. During the verses, Loretta Lynn is accompanied by some basic country guitar licks -- slow and somber. However during the chorus, Jack White really revs up the guitars to a fever pitch, matching the emotion of the crowd.
Finally after dragged from her knees from death row by an unsympathetic warden and a cold priest, the Woman is strapped into the electric chair and is electrocuted:
Now they've strapped me in the chair And covered up my eyes And the last voice I hear on Earth Is my mama's cry
What's really amazing is that an organ starts playing in the background as Lynn sings these last words and is it grows louder, Jack White mumbles Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound.... Then the guitars rev up again to their fever pitch and brings the song to an end after about a minute of some pretty frenzied guitar work.
An amazing song and amazing performance and one of the greatest examples of a Country Death Song out there. Below is a video someone, not associated with Loretta Lynn, did of the song.