451. ‘Coward of the County’, by Kenny Rogers

Oh well. The brave new world of the eighties – the world of The Pretenders and The Specials – lasts for precisely two chart-toppers. Because, as they so often do, a Country and Western song has come along to remind us not to get too carried away…

Coward of the County, by Kenny Rogers (his 2nd of two #1s)

2 weeks, 10th – 24th February 1980

It’s another homespun tale, with the exact same jaunty, acoustic plod as Lucille, Kenny Rogers’ first #1 from three years earlier. It’s the tale of a – presumably – fictional nephew, the eponymous ‘Coward of the County’. His momma named him Tommy, The folks all called him yellow…

Why is he such a ‘coward’? Well, it’s all down to a promise to his dying father, who had made Tommy swear he’d always run from trouble, always turn the other cheek. I hope you’re old enough to understand, Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man… Which was all fine, until the day Gatlin boys came to have their way with his wife, Becky.

Yes, this is a #1 single that centres around a gang rape. In some ways this is one of the most shocking chart-toppers, ever. Except, the way Rogers delivers the line – and there was three of them… – is almost funny. Not intentionally, you’d hope, but still… Yep, she’s been raped. Key change!

Long story short: Tommy decides that there are limitations to his promise, goes to the local saloon, and beats the shit out of the Gatlin boys. Hurray! And as in ‘Lucille’ there’s a plot twist. Papa I sure hope you understand, Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man… There’s something noble about that, I guess… But there’s so much wrong with this song: the vigilantism, the voiceless Becky’s rape as a plot device, the idea that men must fight or they are sissies… All wrapped up in a jaunty little tune. I’m not against dealing with tough topics in pop singles – Rogers did it excellently in his breakthrough hit ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ – but it doesn’t work here.

I’m shocked by my reaction to this song, actually. I thought I liked it… But the more I listen, the more I’m put off. The obvious comparison is to Johnny Cash’s ‘Boy Named Sue’ – both country, both about absent fathers controlling their sons’ destinies – but Cash plays his hit for laughs. The idea of a father naming his son ‘Sue’ so that he’ll have to fight is genuinely funny, and plays with the masculine conventions of country music, whereas ‘Coward of the County’ is self-righteous and predictable.

Kenny Rogers may not be appearing on this blog again, but his hit-making career was far from over. He’d have one further Top 10 in the UK, the karaoke classic ‘Islands in the Stream’ alongside Dolly Parton. He died last year, aged eighty-one. Meanwhile, ‘Coward of the County’ was turned into a TV movie and was covered – and this is 100% true, just check out this link – by Alvin & The Chipmunks. There was also controversy when it turned out that the writer, Roger Bowling, may have named the song’s villains after the band The Gatlin Brothers, against whom he held a grudge… Actually, that’d make a really good storyline for a country song. Better than this one, anyway…

13 thoughts on “451. ‘Coward of the County’, by Kenny Rogers

  1. Very insightful, thank you. Although I’d listened to the lyrics several times while it was in the charts, I’d never thought so much about the darker overtones of the storyline – and certainly did not know about the revenge business. Before I forget, looking at your image, the record label could not afford a proper quality control supervisor. The die-cut company bag reads UNITED ARTIST RECORDS, the label UNITED ARTISTS. (But then they did get into financial problems and sell up to EMI, who rebranded UA as the Liberty label soon afterwards).

  2. Ive always disliked the lyrics. Its the affrontery of peer group pressure deciding youre a coward if you dont take the law into your hands and be as bad as the people you think youre justified in beating or killing. Its one step away from dehumanising people under the excuse “well they deserved it” and turning oneself into judge jury executioner. Its the Wild West guntotin romantic fantasy. Reality is, theyd no doubt come backatcha and murder you, being as they aint in prison and he didnt kill them and his wife would prob be far worse off. And in danger.

    So its bollocks. The sentiment and the record!

  3. This song was interesting for the first couple of times I heard it. Then, it was played to death, here and I got sick of it. I’m as sick of it as I am Babe by Styx. If I never hear either song, again, it will suit me just fine. Ditto Lucille.

    Regarding the lyrics and the tone of the song, songwriters write things for various reasons. When I first heard the song, the idea of rape never entered my mind. That could make me a product of my time as this came out when I was in 8th grade. The Bowling guy, it sounds like, wanted to take a swipe at the Gatlin Brothers (for whatever personal reasons). It was 1979/1980. It was a whole different world back then. Modern application of old song lyrics might work in a remake.

    This song only served to bore us to death with plodding, lukewarm music. The lyrics didn’t invoke outrage nor were there discussions about Tommy coming back and going all “Rambo” on the others. The only reason the song was so popular was because of Rogers. He was a hot property back then.

    *yawn*

    1. It’s so plodding and dull that it’s quite easy to not properly listen to the lyrics… I certainly never did as a kid

      It’s hard not to compare it to Boy Named Sue, as they are pretty similar in theme, but Cash’s song is 100x better. Just a shame that The Gambler wasn’t much of a hit here…

  4. Pingback: 452. ‘Atomic’, by Blondie – The UK Number Ones Blog

  5. badfinger20 (Max)

    I never paid attention to the lyrics….probably because I never liked it. He seemed to be a nice guy though. I went to school with his step son…nice family.

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        No I never met him but I met Don Williams…Don’s son I grew up with and he was a jerk…Don was a great fellow though…I also had breakfast with Loretta Lynn when I was 8.

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