The popularity of songs of tragedy and murder in country music has a long history. Tales of disaster, confessions from killers and songs of madness and depravity have all found a home in the hallowed halls of "good old down-home music." But while the annals of hillbilly-dom are littered with the bodies of Knoxville Girls and Pretty Pollys, the king of all hillbilly murder ballads is a simple honky-tonk shuffle whose title cuts right to the heart: "Psycho."
Leon Payne's "Psycho" is a masterpiece of both gruesome excess and understatement. Payne is the author of such classics as "I Love You Because," "Lost Highway" and "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me." The song is a confession of sorts as its narrator calmly tells of dispatching his ex and her new beau, strangling a puppy, beating a little girl to death with a wrench and more hinted-at horrors. The put-away line comes in the chorus with the solemn (and rather rhetorical) question of, "Do you think I'm psycho, Mama?"
Over the years, the story of the song's origin has become as twisted as its subject matter, with many outright falsehoods spreading across the Internet. The most common story is the song was a direct reaction to the mass-shooting rampage perpetrated by Charles Whitman on the University of Texas campus in August 1966. Other sources say the song was inspired by either the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho or Robert Aldrich's 1964 Southern gothic, Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte.
"The movie story came from my mother, and she was known to exaggerate at times," says Myrtie Le Payne, Leon Payne's daughter. Since both Payne and his wife were blind, their daughter did accompany them to movies and whisper descriptions of what was happening onscreen, but cinematic horrors were not the direct source for "Psycho."
After years of people asking her about the song, Myrtie Le recently tracked down the true story. "Jackie White was my daddy's steel guitar player," she says. "He started working with him in 1968, and the song came out of a conversation they had one day."
According to the story related by White, in the spring of 1968, he and Leon Payne were discussing the Richard Speck murders. Speck murdered eight student nurses in Chicago in July 1966 and was convicted and sentenced to death the following year. Being a history buff, Payne was familiar with the cases of many notorious mass killers, and the discussion soon turned to other famous cases — Charles Whitman, Ed Gein, Mary Bell and Albert Fish. That conversation directly inspired the song, and Payne immortalized White's contribution by naming the boyfriend killed in the first verse after him, along with working in references to some of the murderers they had discussed in lines like, "Can Mary fry some fish, Mama?"
Another popular falsehood is the claim that Payne stipulated the song could not be recorded until after his death. "I don't know of any songwriter who writes a song and then says, 'Don't record this,' " Myrtie Le says. "When Daddy wrote a song he had someone in mind to record it. He would call them and actually sing the song over the phone to them. He was quite the song pitcher."
Myrtie Le thinks her father probably had fellow Texan and old friend Eddie Noack in mind for the song when he wrote it. In any case, Noack recorded the first and quintessential version of "Psycho" in the fall of 1968 for the Nashville-based independent label K-Ark Records, well before Payne's death from a heart attack in September 1969.
"Psycho" was revived in 1974 by Michigan country singer Jack Kittel, and then by Elvis Costello, who recorded a live version in 1979 and a studio version in 1981 for the Almost Blue sessions. In 1984, Australian pub rockers Beasts of Bourbon also cut a version, and Teddy Thompson recorded the song for the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Psycho.
Although the song "Psycho" initially sank into obscurity, today the various versions can be easily found on YouTube (including several live performances by horror-fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and his wife, musician Amanda Palmer). It's also become a favorite cover song for many alt-country bands that skew to the weirder and darker side of country. Thus proving a great country song will always find its audience, once the world gets weird enough.