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Track 145 Captures Outlaw John Murrell in Song

4/24/20

The Sequatchie Valley based bluegrass band Track 145 recently captured in song the story of the infamous outlaw John Murrell, who was laid to rest in Pikeville, Tenn., in the mid-1800s after a lifetime of outrageous criminal behavior.

Murrell was so notorious that Mark Twain referenced him in his books “Life on the Mississippi” and in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” when Tom, Huck and Injun Joe search for Murrell’s lost treasure. His antics have been featured in books, movies and folklore tales that circulate to this day.

Murrell was born in 1806 in Middle Tennessee to a father who was a preacher and a mother who taught him to steal. As a teenager, he was convicted for horse theft and sentenced to six years in jail. The letters “HT” ( for horse thief) were branded on the base of his thumb. Once he was released, he joined a band of outlaws along the Old Natchez Trace, a historic trail extending from Southern Mississippi to Nashville.

Murrell was captured near Florence, Ala., in 1834 with the help of Tom Brannon, a local slave. Murrell had tried to recruit Brannon into his group of outlaws, but instead Brannon told the police of his whereabouts and was awarded $100 (the equivalent of over $2,000 in today’s standards). Murrell was convicted of stealing slaves and incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville from 1834 to 1844.

It is reported that Murrell reformed while incarcerated. He also contracted tuberculosis and was granted an early release in April 1844. He died seven months later at the age of 38 in Pikeville, Tenn. Murrell was buried in the old Smyrna Cemetery north of Pikeville in the Sequatchie Valley of Southeast Tennessee. But the story doesn’t end there.

Just days after his burial, his corpse was discovered, dug up with the head removed. His skull was never found.

Nearly 180 years after Murrell’s death, the bluegrass band Track 145 based in the Sequatchie Valley recently released a song about the notorious bandit called “John Murrell.” The bluegrass tune includes lyrics like “all his evil deeds ran like poison through his veins” and “after serving time Pikeville became his home.”

Track 145 provides great instrumental performances as well as award-winning lead vocals and amazing harmony vocals. Their repertoire includes traditional, progressive and gospel bluegrass songs as well as “grassed up” pop songs. The Tennessee band frequently performs at venues in the Smoky Mountains region, including Blake Shelton’s restaurant Ole Red and Dollywood’s Barbeque & Bluegrass event. They were the first band to record “Rocky Top” in the original Gatlinburg room where the lyrics were written in 1967. In the Chattanooga area, the band has performed as part of the “Bluegrass Underground” series at The Caverns and at the Songbird Museum in Chattanooga.

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John Murrell gravestone at Smyrna Cemetery

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Image of John Murrell (c. 1835)

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Historic Marker in Florence, AL