The song was a revolution from George Strait. And it took on new life after Strait and Alan Jackson performed the song 21 years ago.
The two performed “Murder on Music Row” at the 1999 CMA Awards where it would then become a traditional country song. This meaning, fans used the voices of Strait and Jackson to rally against country music that they felt leaned toward “pop.”
Rallying Cry for Country Music
According to Wide Open Country, the song was claiming that traditional-sounding music from individuals like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard just didn’t fit the charts. The song pointed out the gap between artists like them and other such as Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney.
The song barely made it onto Billboard Hot Country Songs’ top 40 list. However, the song did win CMA’s Vocal Event of the Year and Song of the Year. Country music as a genre has always done its share of gatekeeping. What some artists consider “traditional” has shifted out of the popular eye and was replaced with a hybrid of rock, pop, and many other genres.
Beyond being a rallying call for traditional, bluegrass country, the song has become a multi-generational hit. Most recently, Dierks Bentley and George Jones paired up to take on the song.
The song is a work of fiction. It describes the tragic death of traditional country music right on 16th Avenue in downtown Nashville.
“Nobody saw him running from sixteenth avenue / They never found the fingerprint or the weapon that was used / But someone killed country music, cut out its heart and soul / They got away with murder down on music row.”
While the song called out the industry as a whole, it still became a commercial and critical success.
An Actual Murder on Music Row
The connection between this song and an actual murder is quite dark.
In 1989, Kevin Hughes, an employee of “Cashbox Magazine,” left a recording studio on Music Row when a masked gunman appeared and shot him in the back of the head.
Hughes was walking out with Sammy Saddler, who was shot but recovered. However, the lyrics of the song ring even clearer at that moment. He fled with no description and without any fingerprints in sight.
The murder was a mystery before record producer Richard D’Antonio painted a huge target on his back. It all had to do with industry drama. Essentially, D’Antonio wanted a data-driven and scientific approach to rankings.
According to AP News, Hughes was murdered because he was trying to create a business in which artists could bribe their way to the top. The charts at the time were done by hand, rather than a computer, only intensifying the likelihood of false results.
D’Antonio received a life sentence in prison.
Now, country artist Sammy Sadler continues to try to thrive in country music after the situation. This year he released “In America.”