Film and TV

The Music of True Blood, Episode 1.10: Cowboy Junkies and a Brief Lesson In Murder Balladry

Alan Ball was known for his masterful use of music in Six Feet Under. He's lost none of his touch when it comes to his current HBO series, True Blood - which happens to be set in the Louisiana swamps, not terribly far from Houston. With Season 2 just completed, Rocks Off is now working our way backwards through the episodes we missed as HBO begins reruns.

Episode 1.11, "To Love is to Bury"

The origins of the murder ballad, as well as the slightly rarer murder/suicide ballad, lies back with the Irish, the Scots, and the Scandinavians. Obstinately, they serve as a warning both of dangerous people and of the ultimate fate of evil-doers. The killer almost always gets caught in these original compositions.

So there is a point to the sad, tragic and occasionally gruesome folk tunes, but it still behooves us to ask who exactly is driven to write about it? Someone like Nick Cave, Rocks Off can understand. He is, for want of a more poetic turn of phrase, fucked in the head. The same cannot really be said of quiet little Canadian alternative sensation Cowboy Junkies.

Despite being recorded in just one day (except for one song) without rehearsing with their guest musicians, Cowboy Junkies' 1988 release The Trinity Sessions ranks high on acclaim and low on suck. The album did well in America, but subsequent releases fared well only in their native land. Still, they continue plugging away on their own label, and maintain a dedicated following.

One of the notable tracks from the exceptional work is "To Love is to Bury", which is also the name of this week's True Blood. The song in essence is the tale of a woman who kills her husband in the heat of an argument, then buries him under the tree where they held their wedding. Wracked by guilt later, she goes to the tree and commits suicide.

The song, and indeed the whole of the album, is noted for a distinct sound. Here's how you get an album to sound like that. First, you go up to the Holy Trinity Church in Toronto, which has awesome acoustics. Then, you lie and tell them you're a family of Christian singers working on a Christmas album. Start your sessions with absolutely bare-bones instrument arrangements, then gradually add more and more.

This enables you (or, in this case producer, Peter Moore) to work out the acoustic problems by the time you're ready to do the final takes with the full-band arrangements. Also, bribe security to let you finish, don't rehearse, and most important, have a singer like Margot Timmins.

Rocks Off has mentioned a few times the underlying theme of True Blood that all love will eventually lead to pain and death. Say what you want, but it is undeniable that love is the sole cause of pretty much every bad thing that happens in every single episode. In this episode, the Cowboy Junkies serenade us as Sookie's idiot man-child of a brother makes up with his girlfriend, who is a drug dealer, kidnapper and fat gay vampire-killer. (That is, she kills fat gay vampires, not that she's a vampire killer who's fat and gay.)

After passing out from a vampire-blood-induced hallucination trip, Bon Temps' resident serial killer murders her and leaves Jason thinking that he went all Sid Vicious on her while on drugs and just doesn't remember what happened.

To sum up, love is to bury. Love kills. All you need is love... if you want to die. You listening to us, Internet? Don't love.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner