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Jun 08

KENNY ROGERS – “Lucille”

FT + Popular70 comments • 3,622 views

#406, 18th June 1977

For a long time all I knew of “Lucille” was the mournful swing of its chorus, and it struck me as quintessential country – catchy, corny, sentimental. Listened to in full, though, it’s a stranger creature, an uncomfortably unresolved study in being a minor character, the intruder in someone else’s drama. Rogers is a barfly with his sights on a pick-up who ends up hearing both Lucille’s side of her story and a snatch of her ex’s, and is left confused and (literally and metaphorically!) impotent.

Who’s the listener meant to sympathise with? Is Lucille untrustworthy? Is her husband’s collapse emotional blackmail? I get the feeling Rogers is probably not on Lucille’s side, but the songwriting is skilled enough to leave it open, and the impression that lingers is of Rogers’ own character, his detachment shaken by fear and doubt.

Unfortunately Rogers’ smooth-as-polished-wood delivery can bring out whatever pathos lives in the song, but none of its doubt or darkness, so I have to concentrate pretty hard not to let “Lucille” just wash over me. It’s a more interesting song than it seems, but not a better one.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    “For a minute I thought I was dead.”

    The Pistols came and went, and the chart went serenely back to quiet middle-aged despair. Anyone over forty in 1977 could have instantly identified with the barroom scenario in “Lucille,” where the woman comes up to the stranger and pleads – or does she? – “I’m hungry for laughter, and here ever after/I’m after whatever the other life brings.” And then this man comes over to join them (“His big hands were calloused/He looked like a mountain”) and instead of beating the shit out of the stranger, ignores him altogether, turns to the woman and starts weeping about the four hungry children and the crop in the field which she has left behind. He leaves, and the woman and the stranger walk to a “rented hotel room/We walked without talking at all,” but when it comes to coming, he cannot; the words he’s heard, the ruined lives he’s glimpsed, make him turn away in secondhand grief. Despite the woman’s name being Lucille and not Ruby – but how do we know? – this could be what happens to Ruby after she slams the door on her crippled, dying husband and takes her love to town; the tragedy seen from the opposing perspective.

    Rogers’ softly hoarse tenor has always conjured up the thought of the voice being entangled in the ash being dispassionately tapped off the end of someone else’s cigarette. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” number two for six weeks in late ’69/early ’70, is one of the most pitying yet pitiless of country-pop songs; the Vietnam veteran is powerless to stop his wife from doing whatever the hell she wants, or treating him like an inadequately flushed turd in the toilet bowl of her life. There is such clenched rage in his ideation of shooting her dead – what has he to lose, he’s gonna die soon anyway? – and such heartrending vulnerability in the final plea – or is it a threat? – of “for God’s sake turn around.” It is infinitely more frightening than the tacky peepshow that is “Delilah.”

    “Lucille” is far less radical, but Rogers sings it as someone who’s too experienced and too exhausted to do much more of anything. Coming after “God Save The Queen” – and I note how “Lucille” had fallen from 2 to 3 the previous week, then reversed back up to number one; some darkly muttered that the chart positions had been swapped, but I fear we are venturing into grassy knoll territory here – it is a marked turning of the back towards anything that might bring light, life and real love; back into a defunct and pointless past. As a cod-country chart-topper it was obviously a considerable improvement on “No Charge” or “Mississippi”; as a 1977 chart-topper it suggested that even more radical surgery had to be undertaken so that pop might still live. This time, “Lucille”’s hurting wouldn’t and couldn’t heal.

  2. 2
    Mark G on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Of course, all vulnerability is lost once it became a singalongacrowd anthem in pubs…

  3. 3
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I blame Sydney Devine.

  4. 4
    mike on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Country and Western was big in South Yorkshire, and the regular C&W nights in our village hall, fractionally over the border into North Notts, were a big draw. I went along one night and watched the band and the ensuing disco from the shadows, baffled and disorientated at how the phenomenon was so big and yet so under the radar in terms of media representation.

    (You can hear the echo of those times in the music of Sheffield’s Richard Hawley, who cut his musical teeth in local C&W bands of the same period.)

    The C&W crew round our way loved Don Williams (“I Recall A Gypsy Woman”), Billie Jo Spears (“Blanket On The Ground”), and of course they adored “Lucille”. As for me, I couldn’t even be arsed to follow its story.

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I’d never knowingly heard this before Dale played it yesterday! I was pleasantly surprised. It is a really interesting and nuanced story. The narrative gives you a vivid sense of the three characters, and there’s an interesting ambiguity to its lack of a comprehensive conclusion that a marginally more sentimental song would have. The tune’s a bit antiseptic, though.

    I don’t think that I’ve ever met anyone under 40 who’s ever given much thought to Kenny Rogers, despite his massive success. It’s real parents’ music, isn’t it?

  6. 6
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Except maybe for “Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In”…

  7. 7
    rosie on 9 Jun 2008 #

    READ ALL ABAHT IT! PEOPLE STILL BUY NAFF SENTIMENTAL RECORDS SHOCK HORROR!

    Move along there please. Nothing to see here. Thank you!

    One of my gods? Come off it! Although I don’t mind this as much as I do a lot of this genre. The whining self-pity is missing, well, it’s not missing but it has been removed from the protagonist, so that the song becomes a narrative, a slice of Mid-West life. Having seen the Mid-West I can believe that this kind of scenario happens – it might have scripted by Sinclair Lewis. But it really doesn’t grab me. There’s real human drama there but Kenny, as Tom suggests, is just too suave to carry it off.

    Parents music? Well, I’m a parent, probably old enough to be a parent of many Populists, and it’s not my music. Certainly not my parents’ music. I think I know the sort who did buy this sort of thing – yesterday on a bus back from a toughish walk in the Yorkshire Dale (so we’re not talking the old and decrepit here) the pair in the seat behind me were talking about just this kind of thing. Not my age, a bit older. Probably about as much older than me as I am older than Marcello. So, in mid-to-late thirties in 1977. The sort who might once have bought classic Elvis, or the Everlys, or Connie Francis. Or, for that matter, similarly-titled (and far superior, and far more radical, and far more influential) pieces by Little Richard on the one hand and B B King on the other.

  8. 8
    mike on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Weirdly, Merrill “respected solo artist in his own right” Osmond has of late morphed into a Kenny Rogers doppelganger.

    (Except for when he does his “cruising the front of the stage for floral tributes, why how kind of you, thank you so much” routine, at which point he morphs into our dear departed Queen Mum.)

  9. 9
    Doctormod on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Billy #5–

    I’m well over 40 and even back in the late 60s I thought Kenny Rogers was for a generation older than I. (As a teenager I imagined “Just Dropped In . . . ” was what it would sound like if parents dropped acid and pretended to be hip.)

    So, then, from your point of view, it might actually be grandparents’ music.

    (BTW, if you’ve seen what KR looks like after his botched plastic surgery, he looks more like great-grandpa.)

  10. 10
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Sinclair Lewis? Stephen “Blakey” Lewis morelike.

  11. 11
    mike on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Re #7 and #4: it’s scientifically proven, then: Kenny was Big In Yorkshire!

  12. 12
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I told you already, it was our fault! The SCOTS!

    (this was actually a bigger hit here than in the States where it stopped at #5 or thereabouts)

  13. 13
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    All this sentimental keech and tollie when us youngsters were checking out hip Glasgow bands like Johnny and the Self Abusers JOHNNY BEATTIE MORELIKE!

  14. 14
    Billy Smart on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Hm, I think that I might be able to spin a theory out of “parents’ music”…

    I’m 35, and am generally basing this theory around my own generation.

    There is some music that parents listen to that their children inherit a taste for (Abba, most obviously, but also Fleetwood Mac, Carpenters, etc), but some music (Kenny Rogers or Linda Ronstadt, say) which they don’t pick up on.

    You can see this pattern forming at the present day if you observe undergraduates at a 90s or 80s disco, where its the music of their parents heyday being played – They respond to some songs, but reject other ones.

  15. 15
    DJ Punctum on 9 Jun 2008 #

    “Islands In The Stream” rather than “I Could Be Happy” – and that’s why G**lty Pl**s*r*s must DIE

  16. 16
    Dan R on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Lucille’s a decent story, as Billy says, but a dull tune, and in his vocal KR has his eye to offending no one, so the tone of regret moralistically overtakes the alternative and unsung version of this song which is about male guilt, impotence, loneliness, the dread sickness of betrayal. Kenny almost makes it sound as if he is pleased that he didn’t ‘do it’.

    I wonder if this relates to the byzantine Southern US rules – prompted by the need to compromise between desire and the baptist churches, I guess – about what counts as sex or not, getting to first base, and so on – a tradition which would come dreadfully unstuck twenty years later in the legalistic word-parsing of Bill Clinton (‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lucille’).

  17. 17
    jeff w on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I refuse to post on the last thread on principle. But I am following it (and much enjoyed both Tom’s post and MC’s lengthy first comment). All I will say is that the establishment conspiracy to keep the corrupting influence of “God Save The Queen” from us impressionable kids worked: it wasn’t until Christmas 1979 that I heard the song for the first time (under the bed covers, listening secretly to Peel’s Festive 50 rundown).

    As for Kenny R, I think you’ll find it works a treat if like me age 12 you (deliberately?) mishear the “four hungry children” line as “four hundred children”. Strewth dude! And strewth, Lucille, for that matter.

  18. 18
    wwolfe on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I have one indelible memory associated with this song. Two of my co-workers and I were on coffee break with our boss one morning. We stopped at a small cafe run by a young woman who had immigrated to Los Angeles from South Korea, thus explaining her choice of radio stations to play in the cafe – namely, one that broadcast popular songs sung in Korean. One morning, “Lucille” came on the speaker, and when it reached the chorus, the entire place spontaneously joined in. (In English, I should add.)

    It’s the one time this song made me happy.

  19. 19
    LondonLee on 9 Jun 2008 #

    At least we can’t say “this is why punk happened” about this one.

    We used to sing that “four hundred children” line too, and follow it with “and a wife on the pill”

  20. 20
    Tom on 9 Jun 2008 #

    It’s like punk never happened. :(

  21. 21
    Dan R on 9 Jun 2008 #

    It’s like puns never happened

  22. 22
    crag on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Can’t believe everyones giving Kenny such a hard time! I’m not a parent and am the same as Billy next Sunday(wooh!) but i think is a fine song with KR’s vocal showing just the right mix of sentimentality, sincerity and grit(Kenny Rogers=the Country Rod Stewart, anyone?)
    Neither my mum nor dad had any enthusiasm for KR and i cant recall where my affection for him began but this deserves a 7 for me, even if its my least favorite of the “big 4” Rogers hits- nothing tops “Ruby” IMO.
    PS anyone interested in hearing a great example of ‘edgy Ken’ whos bored w/ Just Dropped in should check out Tulsa Turnaround- Country Rock at its best- they sure dont make em like that anymore…

  23. 23
    Mark M on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Not my parents’ (or indeed, grandparents’) music in any way, but I have plenty of time for Kenny, and this is a decent song with a narrative (good) and a proper surging but mournful chorus (also good). Kenny, I can report, was pretty big in Mexico, too…

  24. 24
    Waldo on 10 Jun 2008 #

    I had foolishly entertained a rare hope of beating Marcello to the punch with the following “hit parade” factoid, MC being a guy whose seemingly uncanny talent for reciting historical chart positions by rote appearing as fervent as my own far less laudable talent for getting severely bladdered on obscene quantities of wines of varying vintages and qualities with my Magic Flute buddies. “Steward! Pass the chalice!” But, alas as ever, the bugger was there ahead of me, even if he only mentioned what I was going to bring up very fleetingly.

    “Lucille” is a rare example of a record seemingly peaking at number two, falling down but then doing a 180 and going to the top. Dale in fact had been wrong when he claimed that it had come down from the top the previous week. Indeed it had not. “Lucille” had in fact been up at number two and then had fallen down to three, as I’ve mentioned. It then went to the top. It’s curious how this record has never been mired in the “Keep GSTQ away from the top” scandal. I suppose it is simply because by this time the significance had gone away because so had the Jubilee.

    Apart from all this meaningless shite, I have little to offer on this one, save (as has also already been mentioned) the opportunity it gave for those fond of the concept of misheard lyrics: “You’ve picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. Four hundred children and a crap in the field…” etc. Otherwise, just a gentle country stroll and rather a dull one, really.

    What I must say is that Kenny was never very lucky with women. First Ruby is almost certainly lost to the good old boys down the saloon (mind you, Rogers was of course an irreparable raspberry, his gin-gans having been shot off by the Viet Kong, so you can’t really blame the slapper) and now Lucille has fucked off too. Poor Kenny. I think it was the beard, you know. We’ll be hearing from him again but Waldo would have left the Popular building by then. Praise be!

  25. 25
    wichita lineman on 10 Jun 2008 #

    I’m surprised that people are lumping the First Edition era in with solo KR. Ruby (which – I’m sure someone may confirm this – was a no.1 on some chart or other) stomps all over this. Aside from the impotency issue, the story of Lucille is of a one-dimensional bad woman, with her ex a blubbering ape. Ruby makes me think of Fat City, or something from ‘New Hollywood’, as America began to crack and crumble on the cusp of the 70s. You certainly feel sympathy and pity for both characters; the war as a “patriotic chore” is a neatly non-commital line, too.

    Production wise it’s no contest. Anyone know how they created that wooden, waggony rhythm track on Ruby? I can’t think of any other record that sounds like it. Lucille, meanwhile, sounds like someone’s pressed the ‘c&w’ button the way that UB40 used to press the ‘reggae’ button.

  26. 26
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    “Ruby” indeed made number one on the NME chart.

  27. 27
    vinylscot on 10 Jun 2008 #

    KR never meant much to me. I quite enjoyed “Ruby”, “Something’s Burning”, and to a lesser extent “…Condition”, but that’s about par for the course as far as I’m concerned, liking about three songs by a performer I don’t particularly like… maybe I am too easily pleased.

    A little meme no one seems to have recalled here – If you go to Google and search “Kenny Rogers lookalikes”, then view the first site, you should have a good laugh. This was widely circulated a few years ago so you may already have seen it, but it’s worth ten minutes of your boss’s time!

  28. 28
    mike on 10 Jun 2008 #

    I’m guessing that “Lucille” was heavily featured on Sheila Tracey’s C&W-oriented Trucker’s Hour on Radio 2, which had been going out in the middle of the night since 1976…

  29. 29
    DJ Punctum on 10 Jun 2008 #

    The ORIGINAL “hello to all you truckers out thaar.” It was always either “I Recall A Gypsy Woman” or Ray Conniff doing “Yes Sir That’s My Baby.”

  30. 30
    Drucius on 10 Jun 2008 #

    A godawful song compared to Ruby, as has been noted. At this point my only relationship with the charts was watching TotP hoping The Saints would be on.

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