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…

406. ‘Lucille’, by Kenny Rogers

So, while The Sex Pistols perhaps should have kicked Rod Stewart off the top, in the end he was replaced by another crazy-haired, middle-finger sticking punk rocker… Only kidding, he was replaced by Kenny Rogers.

Lucille, by Kenny Rogers (his 1st of two #1s)

1 week, from 12th – 19th June 1977

The two main sounds of the mid to early-late seventies, since glam died, have undeniably been disco and slushy soft-rock. But coming up behind, in the bronze medal position, surprisingly, is country and western. We’ve had Tammy Wynette, Billy Connolly as Tammy, J. J. Barrie, Pussycat… and now a proper legend of the genre.

Country music is often sad; and yet often ridiculous. It is a melodramatic genre. And the opening line of this record is up there with some of the very best. In a bar in Toledo, Across from the depot, On a bar stool she took off her ring… Talk about setting a scene! A tawdry tale is told, as the singer approaches this beautiful, sad woman.

She’s been living on dreams, she’s finally had enough, she needs more out of life… Kenny’s about to make his move, when in through the barroom doors strides Lucille’s ex. The big hands were calloused, He looked like a mountain, For a minute I thought I was dead… As silly as all this is, when Kenny Rogers is on form he tells a story like no other.

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille… The story spins on its head. Four hungry children and a crop in the fields… We assumed she was the victim, finally breaking away from hardship and abuse… But is she? Kenny takes her to a hotel, but when the time comes to do the deed, all he can hear is her estranged husband’s voice… This time your hurtin’ won’t heal…

What this song really needs is a third and final verse. Who’s really to blame? Who’s telling the truth? Does she go back to her family farm? Does Kenny get his leg over? We need closure! Instead we get the chorus and a slow, slow fade. He may have set an excellent scene; but Rogers needs practice in wrapping up a story. Thankfully, come his next #1 single – yes, he has more than one – he will have mastered the art of storytelling, and produced a classic.

If it weren’t for the pretty gritty subject matter, I’d describe this as a lullaby. The guitar sways and soothes, while the bass keeps time like a metronome. Many Kenny Rogers hits I can think of do this, hide a tough subject matter behind a soothing rhythm: ‘Ruby’, ‘The Gambler’, his aforementioned 2nd chart-topper… ‘Lucille’ was his first big smash since breaking with his band The First Edition, and it set him off on an extended run of hits.

I was going to ask why on earth this record made #1, for a near forty-year-old country singer. But perhaps we’re past that. ‘Lucille’ made #1 simply because country and western music was a very popular genre at the time. It’s not an ever-present, but this is far from the last time we’ll be hearing it…