For bluegrass fans in the Boston area, here’s a brand new album worth shouting about: Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! by Barnstar! Spearheaded by Zachariah Hickman, the exclamatory ensemble unites five members of the city’s notable acoustic scene. Although it’s a lively project overall, the tune “Barnstable County” is a rather unsettling tale written by Mark Erelli, an established songwriter in his own right who plays guitar in the band.
Hear the killer song below, then read a Q&A with Erelli to find out how it all went down.
CMT Edge: What was on your mind as this murder ballad started taking shape?
Erelli: This song originally began as a love song for my wife that I would present to her on our anniversary. The first verse actually still reads like a straight love song, but that was as far as I got with it for several years. But I couldn’t give up on it and I was on an airplane when I looked at the first verse for the 20th time, and thought maybe this wasn’t supposed to be a love song after all. What if I turned it into a murder ballad?
Once I released myself from my original intention, I finished the song in about a half an hour on the plane. And then I had to buy something for my wife, because murder ballads make very poor anniversary gifts.
You set the storyline in a Cape Cod marsh. As the song came to you, did you know all along where you’d dispose of the body?
It certainly makes sense that the body ends up in the salt marshes, which reek at low tide. But I didn’t even have time to really think through the whole arc of the story because once I turned the love song into a murder ballad, it came quickly and fairly wrote itself.
I don’t live on Cape Cod, but my wife grew up there and we go back as frequently as we can. I’d obviously been gathering details and observations of Cape Cod from all the time we’ve spent down there, which wove their way into the narrative pretty naturally… after I’d thought about the song for three or four years.
Incidentally, although this song is purely fictional, I found out after I wrote it that a high incidence of domestic violence landed Barnstable County on the cover of Newsweek back in the 80s, which was kind of eerie.
This is a very collaborative album so I wanted to ask – what do you think the fiddle and banjo parts bring out in the narrative and overall feel of this song?
Well, of course it’s a collaborative effort, we’re a band! I’m sure the song could be done just as effectively with a different arrangement, but I love the way the fiddle and banjo lend it a sort of Appalachian feel. It calls to mind several of the classic murder ballads but the setting and imagery is so different from the hollows and rivers that populate lots of those older songs. Cape Cod is such an idyllic, seaside place, and it was a fun writing challenge to see if I could present it as a credible setting for such a gruesome song.