When Martina McBride’s dramatic “Independence Day” video was in heavy rotation on CMT in 1994, a young Stephen Wilson Jr. became transfixed with its blazing, black-and-white portrayal of domestic violence.
“It hit home for me,” Wilson says now. “It was very impactful, because I knew exactly what that song was about. I was living it, so every time that video would come on, I was just locked into it.”
The product of a shotgun wedding between two 18-year-old parents who were not, in Wilson’s estimation, ready for the responsibility of a child, he ended up in his father’s custody in Indiana, following in his dad’s footsteps by taking up boxing at age 7. When he visited his mother in a double-wide trailer in Smyrna, Tenn., he witnessed — or simply knew — she was being physically abused by the men who shared her life.
With “Holler From the Holler,” a song and video he premiered May 6, Wilson delivers a series of images even more gruesome — and more graphic — than “Independence Day,” with grinding, razor-like guitars providing the soundtrack to a blood-spattering murder by a teenage boy who saves his mother from a horrific suitor. “It’s utterly real,” says “Independence Day” songwriter Gretchen Peters of Wilson’s “Holler.” “I just believed it from the first chord.”
“Holler” is indeed based on Wilson’s real-life experiences, though the murder part is simply a fantasy, a representation of what he thinks would have been a fair outcome for the men who brutalized his mother. Co-authored with Craig Wiseman (“Live Like You Were Dying,” “Summertime”), “Holler” has had an emotional impact on Wilson.
“That song for me ended up becoming very cathartic, and very much a healing modality,” he says. “When I sing that song live, I feel different each time I sing it — like a little bit better — and if it does that for me, maybe it does it for somebody else. Maybe they’ll get out of that situation, instead of just wallowing in it.”
“Holler From the Holler” and “Independence Day” are part of a line of violent country songs that extends to the genre’s earliest days, when numerous murder ballads — including Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Little Mary Phagan,” a 1925 recording based on the 1913 rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl — reframed the era’s headlines. The genre’s violent tales include the robberies in Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl” and Ricky Van Shelton’s “Crime of Passion”; the fistfights in Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and Bobby Bare’s “The Winner”; the gang rape in Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County”; the domestic abuse in McBride’s “Concrete Angel” and Jason Michael Carroll’s “Alyssa Lies”; and the deaths in Garth Brooks’ “Papa Loved Mama,” Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” Johnny Paycheck’s “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone To Kill” and a series of Carrie Underwood releases — “Two Black Cadillacs,” “Church Bells,” “Blown Away” and the metaphoric “Little Toy Guns.”
“I kill people in my songs,” Underwood said with a laugh in 2015. “I have characters that often are terrible.”
Songwriter Chris Tompkins, who penned “Blown Away” and the revenge-vandalism classic “Before He Cheats,” says he never sets out to create violent narratives, but doesn’t resist them either. “We’re just kind of authors writing [mini-]novels,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a Stephen King novel. Sometimes it’s a Danielle Steel novel.”
And while many of those brutal stories are dramatic — similar to Reba McEntire’s rendition of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” or Lefty Frizzell’s “The Long Black Veil” — others can take the same tack as the movie Pulp Fiction, painting antisocial behavior with a humorous brush, as in Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Ashley McBryde’s “Martha Divine,” in which a woman knocks out a rival with a shovel and buries her alive.
The song’s challenge, McBryde says, was “trying to make you still want to root for this psychotic young woman that obviously has murderous intentions. She’s rightfully angry, and she’s a little bit psychotic, but you still want to make sure everybody’s rooting for her at the end.”
Violence is not generally a laughing matter, though, and Wilson’s “Holler From the Holler” arrives at a timely juncture during National Mental Health Awareness Month. Domestic abuse increased during the pandemic; the Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, mass shootings are the latest in a tragic American trend; and more violence is expected after a forthcoming Supreme Court abortion ruling, according to CBSNews.com.
Violence in music has generated controversy for several decades, particularly with genres such as death metal or drill rap that amplify their messages with dangerous sonics. A 2003 study by the American Psychological Association suggested that violent lyrics can increase aggression in listeners, though it also indicated that those attitudes tend to soften when attention turns after one violent song to less-intense entertainment. Thus, an occasional homicidal track is less likely to have an effect than a steady diet.
“Everybody from my generation just about listened to early gangsta rap stuff, and that stuff’s very violent,” Tompkins says. “But if you’re going to get violent in country — like with ‘Before He Cheats’ or ‘Blown Away’ — you kind of have to understand where the girl’s head’s at.”
That’s likely one reason why country music, despite its historic strand of vicious material, is rarely mentioned in general discussions about the effects of violent songs. “With country music, there has often been a kind of morality tale attached to those,” Peters says. “At least the guy who murders the girl in the old-time-country murder ballad regrets it — the ‘Oh, what have I done’ sort of thing. I’m not saying necessarily that’s a good thing, but that kind of a song could possibly have a very different effect on someone than something that’s just a siren call to go fuck some shit up. I just think there has to be nuance there.”
In essence, if the violence is an understandable reaction from a beaten-down underdog, it’s more likely to be accepted than one in which the brutality is treated by an aggressor as sport.
With “Holler From the Holler,” Wilson’s protagonist certainly fits that description, and the video includes opening and closing billboards for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE, underscoring the intent behind the piece’s emotional ride.
“Sometimes you got to show the train hitting the car on the tracks before someone actually moves their car off the tracks,” Wilson says. “The 799-SAFE number is moving the car at the end of the video. Or at least the first step.”