Song to get You Through the Week: Stan Matthews delivers murder ballad 'Rory Gene'
Victor D. Infante Telegram & Gazette Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021
Whenever the hand-wringing starts about the glorification of violence and murder in hip-hop, I think about one of my all-time favorite musicians: Johnny Cash. “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die,” sang Cash, in “Folsom Prison Blues.” Cash was never incarcerated at Folsom, and to the best of my knowledge, never actually shot anyone. He did, however, know that murder is a place where an artists can take a listener to say something about human nature. Cash, as was his way, used the song as a window into finding compassion for the worst among us. Moreover, he takes the time to really look at the person in his song, not just the persona's crimes.
Murder Ballads have been with us in the Western musical tradition all the way back to traditional European folk music, and they've always been popular here in the United States: We have, after all, always idolized our outlaws, so a song like the 19th-century ballad, “Jesse James,” mourning the famed outlaw's slaying at the hands of “the coward Robert Ford.” Naturally, this probably says as much about us as a people as it does about Western music, but the point being: Hip-hop's murder music didn't appear out of nowhere. It's tied to a tradition that's worked its way from the roots of American folk music through blues, country and rock.
All of this was what was rushing through my head when I listened to Auburn “classic country” musician Stan Matthews' newest song, “Rory Gene,” about Rory Gene Kesinger, a drug dealer, bank robber and gun runner who escaped from the Plymouth County Correctional Facility on May 27, 1973, at the age of 24. On the surface, she might seem an odd figure to immortalize in song, but in the context of the American musical tradition, she's right in line.
“Rory Gene/Rory Gene/Prettiest woman a man ever seen,” sings Matthews, his low vocals grumbling over heavy cowboy chords, and for a second, one might be led to believe this is a different kind of song, but he soon disabuses the listener of that notion: “But when she strapped on that machine gun/All the boys would turn and run.”
Kessinger, a native of Plymouth, is something of a mythical figure, and disappearing entirely after her escape has only added to her mystique. Some say she was murdered herself shortly after her escape, others say her crime spree continued under different aliases. In 1974, she was thought to be “the Lady of Dunes," an unidentified women who was found murdered near Provincetown, but 2002 DNA evidence ruled that out. Sings Matthews, “Where’d you go never to be seen/Are you buried in an unmarked grave/Or’d you escape to live somewhere far away?”
It's a captivating story, and it makes for a captivating song, one that Matthews delivers with his trademark understatement. Somehow, that just gives the song more weight, as his voices rumbles in the shadows, leaving the listener wondering what made this person who she became, wondering if she's actually still alive out there, somewhere, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, wondering what it is in us that makes us kind of root for her. We shouldn't be ashamed of that impulse. It is, after all, an American tradition.<iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/0x5m20iDAs0ydtagBGQrxf?utm_source=generator" width="100%" height="380" frameBorder="0" allowfullscreen="" allow="autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; fullscreen; picture-in-picture"></iframe>