“Billy Paul” and the Elegist of Music City

Vince Gill (promotional image, photo credit: JWright)

Vince Gill (promotional image, photo credit: JWright)

Introduction

Those of you who follow us on Facebook know that we often recognize artists’ birthdays. That’s mostly my work. With plenty of thinking about mortality in our blog posts, it’s worth celebrating the musicians that help us find our way to meaning through their art. Besides, as 2016 already has proven too often, we have plenty of other opportunities for memorials. Merle Haggard’s birthday and death happened on the same day. That was a tough day.

A birthday recognition first put today’s song on my radar, but the song stayed with me for the way it conveys the shock and enigma of loss, and for its kinship to the Vince Gill song that’s personally closest to me. Curiously, it’s a murder song that is also a memorial, and draws from Haggard himself. Exploring the song as a memorial or elegy leads to some other Gill songs, and to a personal story of mine that I’ve been holding off telling as long as we’ve been writing Murder Ballad Monday. First, we need to hear about “Billy Paul.”

“What Made You Go Crazy?”

On a Friday night in late July 2010, Grand Ole Opry stalwart Vince Gill invited his 9 year old daughter, Corrina, onto the stage to sing with him. She walked out in her flip-flops (Nashville had topped 95°F that day) for a kiss and a hug from her dad, and approached a microphone set up just for her. Gill explained that Corrina had asked him what his new song “Billy Paul” was about, after hearing a demo recording of it on the drive to school one morning. He said the song was based on a true story of the death of a friend of his. Here is their performance, both charming and chilling:

Lyrics

The song later appeared on Gill’s album Guitar Slinger, with an electric arrangement. It lacks the plaintive simplicity of the live performance at the Opry. Frankly, several of its production choices aren’t my style. Corrina kept her job as harmony vocalist on the recording, though; although Gill had to talk his wife, Amy Grant, into it. You can listen to it on Spotify here.

Gill explains in interviews that “Billy Paul” is about “a caddy at a golf course where I played every year. We got to be good friends. It was very tragic because he took a woman’s life and then a couple days later, took his own life.”

Gill doesn’t give more details about the real story. He softens and euphemizes parts of it at times, and he refers to the song at one point as “a step aside from truth.” What details he offers, though, bear a close resemblance to the final days of William “Billy” Troope. Troope, 50, was a professional golf caddy, sought by Nashville police in November 2009 for the hotel room killing of his ex-girlfriend, Wendy Sue McKinney. McKinney, 46, was a supermarket cashier and a mother of three; a grandmother as well. A few days after she was found dead, Troope plunged to his death off the balcony of another hotel room in Knoxville, when police arrived at his door.

“Billy Paul” is most immediately a song about the stunning news that a good friend, a loved one, has done a terrible thing; rather, two terrible things. The question “What made you go crazy?” aims first at the murder, and then the suicide. Separated from the context of the real case, it’s a question that portrays the murder for the listener as a sudden crime of passion—“was it true love or too much alcohol?”—and portrays Billy Paul’s self-inflicted death as one of shame and desperation. In light of the relationship history involved in the Troope-McKinney story, including at least one earlier domestic violence conviction against Troope and an order of protection, this question of true love or alcohol may seem naïve, perhaps even unfair. It conveys that sense of shock, though, and the murder’s horrific incongruity with the person the singer thought he knew.

Keith Whitley, 1955-1989 (photo credit: Christina Lynn Johnson; source: Wikipedia)

Keith Whitley, 1955-1989 (photo credit: Christina Lynn Johnson; source: Wikipedia)

More fundamentally, “Billy Paul” is an elegy; not a tribute, but a lament. Gill mentions in his introduction to the Opry performance that he often writes songs for loved ones who have passed away. The most famous of these, “Go Rest High on that Mountain,” he wrote in memory of Keith Whitley, who died at 33 of alcohol poisoning, and Bob Coen, Gill’s older brother, who died of a heart attack after living for years with brain damage caused by an auto accident. Guitar Slinger also includes “Buttermilk John,” in memory of one of Gill’s former bandmates, John Hughey.

Gill doesn’t write many murder ballads, but he writes many elegies. In “Billy Paul” we can look at one genre in light of the other.

Pete Seeger’s “Those Three Are On My Mind,” is an elegy for the slain civil rights workers of Freedom Summer: Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. In that song, Seeger’s lament develops in the context of democratic values and laying down one’s life for another, and articulates the glory and promise of their youth as well as the sadness of their families.

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