It’s Halloween, which means it’s a fine time to talk about the greatest country and western song, hands down, ever. Now, I’m sure you’ve been mislead into believing that it’s something like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or something by Hank Williams or, hell, “Red Solo Cup.” But no.
The greatest country song, ever, is “The Long Black Veil.”
It is literally the perfect country song. It contains all the elements a country song should have — infidelity, murder, and people needlessly suffering because of outdated senses of honor. It sounds like it could be an ancient Appalachian ballad, even though Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin wrote it just over sixty years ago. Almost everyone who sings it manages not to butcher it. And, best of all (and appropriate for today), it’s sung from the perspective of a skeleton.
In Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles (in which the song comes in at an inexplicable 222), David Cantwell writes, “ ‘The Long Black Veil,’ in which a man can’t clear his name because to do so would require admitting that he’s been ‘in the arms of [his] best friend’s wife,” is a gothic cheating song — where love and guilt stretch beyond the grave and mourning never ceases.” Yes, this is it exactly. The song conjures up the most tender sore spot imaginable and then lets you wallow in the painful pleasure of poking at it for three whole minutes.
Lefty Frizzell did the first and best version. His voice is as beautiful as it ever was, though you can hear a kind of hiss on some of his s-es, at the end of “hills” and “knows” that sound like he might have been nursing a hurt jaw. The accompaniment is sparse — just a simple guitar and an occasional crying fiddle. Unlike most other versions, producer Don Law resisted the temptation to use the music to hit you over the head with the spookiness of the song.
But over the years, there have been some really interesting takes on it. Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell did a great version, where Mitchell sings like she’s haunted herself. Dave Matthews does a very “Dave Matthews” take on the song that is worth it to hear Emmylou Harris’s voice cutting through all the ridiculousness. And probably my favorite cover is, weirdly enough, Mick Jagger and the Chieftains, who make the song sound like it’s a thousand years old.
I envy those of you who’ve never heard it before, because the chills you’re about to get come only the first time you hear the song: