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Audiences Love This "Murder Ballad" Show Idea

Here’s a simple recipe for a Halloween-inspired acoustic concert in Americana/folk/blues/country genres.

Every time I’ve hosted one of these concerts, it’s gained great attention and held an audience for the entire evening.

The show is a themed concept called “13 Dead People: An Evening of Murder Ballads & Killin’ Songs” and features the gimmick promise that at least 13 people will die in the lyrics before the end of the night. (The last time I hosted this show, our body count was over 18 million people. That show appears at the bottom of this story.)

It works well whether you have known performers or those you’re trying to introduce to a new audience.

BACKGROUND: Murder ballads are an essential part of traditional folk music and appear in many genres of music. From Dock Boggs’ “Pretty Polly” to Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” to the Violent Femmes’ “Country Death Song,” these tunes focus on the events of a murder and sometimes the aftermath.

Most acoustic musicians have one or two of these in their repertoire. The 13 Dead People concert also contains “killin’ songs,” which is a broad category of tunes that simply have someone dying in it. These songs can be about anything, just as long as there’s a corpse at the end.

EXTRA: What are your favorite murder ballads to cover? Post them in the comments below!

Setting Up the Show:

1. Invite three or four solo acoustic acts to participate. Make sure they each have a few murder ballads or songs with deaths in them. It’s a good idea to have them share their set lists with each other so nobody repeats the same song. Make sure to see if there are at least 13 deaths in the song list.
2. Position the artists together in a “Nashville round” setting on the stage. This means everyone will sit beside each other the entire show and take turns going back-and-forth as the concert progresses.
3. Choose one artist to be the host of the evening. They will provide introductions and keep everything moving at a fast pace.
4. The gimmick: Place a large chalkboard or dry-erase markerboard on stage along with chalk/markers. At the end of each song, the host will ask the performer, “How many people died in that song?” The host then gets up and puts tally marks or a big red X for each death.

Why this show so special: Having a central theme to a concert keeps the audience’s attention. The absurdity of a body count board on stage just adds to the entire concept. But most of all, storytelling and murder ballads are captivating in any format. Having all the stories fit into one theme is the glue that holds everything together.

Watch the last 13 Dead People show I organized. It stars Kansas City singer/songwriter A.J. Gaither, Seattle busker Ronn Benway, New Hampshire cigar box guitar icon Ben “Gitty” Baker and me, Shane Speal. At the midway point, Gitty invited a couple of local musicians to add to the body count with some traditional Irish songs. As host, I opened the show with Ralph Stanley’s “O Death.” It was a magical night.

Shane Speal is "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.