Oct 08

KENNY ROGERS – “Coward Of The County”

FT + Popular71 comments • 5,016 views

#451, 16th February 1980

There’s a term in comics criticism, “Women in Refrigerators Syndrome”. It’s applied when the murder, rape, torture or otherwise abuse of a female supporting character provides the impetus for a male hero’s character development. This being superhero comics, “character development” and “whuppin’ the villain’s ass” are generally synonymous. “Coward Of The County” is women-in-refrigerator pop: the hero may have the best of motivations for being yellow, but yellow is what he is, until his girlfriend is gang-raped and he discovers his inner man.

It’s an unpleasant, manipulative record, a country version of that old liberal-baiting (or Christian-baiting) hypothetical – well, what if it was your wife/daughter….? Of course, it’s a very well crafted track – it hooks you into its story, Rogers is on fine avuncular form, and its rolling country groove is easy on the ear. But I just can’t sit comfortably with its message or the tools it uses to get that message over: since I have no problem with some fearsomely conservative modern country music, and adore string-pulling schlock like Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear”, I’m guessing it’s the deadly combination of tawdriness and sententiousness that hits me like a Daily Mail scare story.



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  1. 51
    Martin Skidmore on 23 Oct 2008 #

    I hated this record, as I hate the kind of usage in comics and elsewhere that Tom mentions: when a woman’s suffering is not related to her at all, but is just an excuse for the hero to kick ass. Loathsome.

    I’ve never much cared for Kenny Rogers either – too smooth and bland, not my kind of C&W. Combine that with such hateful ideas, and I’d give this 0, if that score exists here.

  2. 52
    Malice Cooper on 23 Oct 2008 #

    It wasn’t enough that he forced the wretched “Lucille” on us. He had to do it again and get an equally hideous number one that sounded more like a number 2.

    UGH !

  3. 53
    wichita lineman on 25 Oct 2008 #

    Thanks Lee, very nice piece on Bobbie G. I love the idea of her baking apple pie in her jump suit on an autumn day like this.

    Before we fully consign Kenny R to the dumper, a thumbs up from me for his Eyes That See In The Dark album. All Barry Gibb written/produced, inc. Islands In The Stream.

    Roger Bowling is the writer responsible for COTC and Lucille, as well as Billie Jo Spears’ Blanket On The Ground, What I’ve Got In Mind and 57 Chevrolet, and something called Always One Redneck Away From Loving You. He died in 1982 of unknown causes. Dare I suggest embarrassment?

  4. 54
    Malice Cooper on 25 Oct 2008 #

    Wichita, I actually like “Blanket on the ground” and got it for my 9th birthday !

    I don’t know what Mr Bowling died of but it certainly wasn’t good taste.

  5. 55
    claudina on 16 Nov 2008 #

    This is a song promoting nonviolence, and shows that darkness can’t drive out darkness, but light can do it.

  6. 56
    wichita lineman on 16 Nov 2008 #

    Light sabres? Can’t see how else ‘Old Yella’ won the day.

  7. 57
    Mark G on 17 Nov 2008 #

    “Blanket on the ground” = shagging in a field, “57 chev” = shagging in a car, “What I’ve got in mind” = shagging generally.

    What did he die of? Answers on a postcard…

  8. 58
    Jesse F on 28 Jun 2009 #

    I never heard this song until I heard it being discussed by Norm MacDonald and friends on the Adam Corolla show:


    “Here’s what I would say: “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” is depressing stem to stern, soup to nuts, all the way through—but it doesn’t deliver the knockout blow that “Coward Of The County” does. Now, I don’t want to step on it, but it does involve gang rape.”

    This really was the best possible context for me to encounter this jaw-dropping work.

  9. 59
    punctum on 9 Oct 2009 #

    Two things spring immediately to mind; firstly, the bungled rescue of the hostages in Iran under the presidency of Carter which occurred at around this time, the fallout from which contributed in a very major way to the coming of Reagan at year’s end; and secondly, the truly noble and dignified response – which really should shame us all – of the Amish community to the shootings in Pennsylvania around three years ago. The latter in particular is I think the deepest and truest proof that we, as a community, do not have to act as our purported destroyers act, and that this is precisely why we are known as a “community.” It is horrible beyond words, but yet the society, the way of living, continues unhindered, with no thought of physical reprimand or public hand-wringing. To say nothing of Gandhi or Luther King.

    On this background it’s perhaps easy to understand why I find “Coward Of The County” so offensive, and listening to it for the purpose of this blog an unusually upsetting experience. No doubt it was intended as nothing beyond a simple update on the old country/cowboy worm-has-turned routine, and 30 years previously would, with equal lack of doubt, have been bellowed out of the luminous lungs of Frankie Laine. But the song, with its theme of the pacifist told to live as such by his otherwise nogoodnik father but who finally has to turn to violence under Promethean provocation, is chilling in its seemingly whimsical acceptance of the argument that violence justifies violence, such that uxorial rape can only be responded to by dispatching her chortling assailants (“there wuz three of them,” hisses Rogers like a salivating snake).

    Rogers sings this bloody and unforgivingly cynical song as though out for a pleasant afternoon’s fishing, his voice characteristically loitering half a beat behind the rhythm and changes. But the message it projected at the time was unwittingly Reaganite, exactly what its core audience was rabid to hear; an eye for an eye, whatever the circumstances. At least the killers of “I Did What I Did For Maria” and “Indiana Wants Me” recognise the wrongness of their actions and realise the price they must shortly pay. But the message of “Coward Of The County” appears to be: shoot the fuckers anyway, morally we are right (feel free to capitalise that “right”) – and then, as Eastwood mournfully points out to Hal Holbrook in Magnum Force, such thinking ends up making people shoot their next-door neighbour because their dog just peed on their lawn. The lesson still hasn’t been learned, and I don’t suppose ever will be until it’s too late.

  10. 60
    Pascal Redfern on 10 Dec 2009 #

    Again. Over analyzing. A good song and a good story. You, at least remember it because it does have a story. Most song, you don’t know what the purpose is.

  11. 61
    wichita lineman on 10 Dec 2009 #

    Good call on Indiana Wants Me, Punctum. The crime seems to be impacted by its opening line “If a man ever needed dying, he did”. Huh? No kind of explanation, just blind and dumb revenge, and the perpetrator has to face the consequences by the end of the song knowing he’ll never see his wife home and baby again. Coward Of The County would sound quite different if it ended with the sirens and police radio that gradually swamp R Dean Taylor.

  12. 62
    Mark G on 10 Dec 2009 #

    Whoa, people!

    The guy did not kill the gatlin boys! He ‘beat ’em up’

    Just to prove that he was ‘man’…

    Otherwise, what Punctum said.

  13. 63
    thefatgit on 10 Dec 2009 #

    I wonder why we like old fashioned retribution in Hollywood movies (Unforgiven, Death Wish etc.) but not in music. It’s a truly bad song and I have never seen the film it spawned. The subject matter seems ever familiar. Like some kind of modern fable.

  14. 64
    malmo58 on 13 Jan 2012 #

    #25 Tom – be careful correcting people over 60s hits that were #1 on the NME charts but not on the Record Retailer one which is now canon!

  15. 65
    Erithian on 14 Jan 2012 #

    Malmo58 – to be fair, I think Tom was speaking mainly in the context of 70s/80s songs there!

    You appear to be new on here – if so, welcome! – so regarding NME charts and how the Record Retailer one came to be canon, you might like to read the concise account by Marcello (who’s in hospital at the moment and we’re all sending our love) on the “School’s Out” thread – comment no. 31 onwards.

    (Wales and Northern Ireland both played World Cup matches in Malmo in 1958, am I right?)

  16. 66
    Lazarus on 25 Feb 2015 #

    Here’s an odd one – the new improved officialcharts.com has ‘The Gambler’ as a #22 hit in 1985, although it doesn’t appear in my Guinness book, nor is it listed as a UK hit on his Wiki entry. I remember the spring of ’85 pretty well and I think I would remember if Rogers had had a hit around that time. My understanding is that the song, although one of his best-known, has never charted in this country.


  17. 67
    lockedintheattic on 25 Feb 2015 #

    If you click the cross next to the entry of The Gambler it expands the page to show the full char run – revealing that it peaked at 81 in 1985 (therefore missing the top 75 cut for the Guinness books) but re-entered the chart in 2007 when it peaked at 22.

    Why? Well it was the unofficial team song of the England Rugby team during the 2007 world cup, and got a lot of airplay off the back of that.

  18. 68
    Lazarus on 25 Feb 2015 #

    Ah thank you, the mystery solved. The 1985 release – when it was already seven years old – was doubtless to promote the ‘Kenny Rogers Story’ compilation. I do recall the song having some sporting significance (the England cricket team in Sri Lanka adopted ‘Ring of Fire’) but I’d pretty much lost interest in the charts by then – my last Guinness goes up to 2002.

  19. 69

    And the most predictable (and depressing) political endorsement of the year iiiiiiisssss….. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/dec/21/kenny-rogers-donald-trump-country-music-christmas

  20. 70
    Dalben on 8 Sep 2016 #

    I really liked this song when I was a kid (long after it first came out) because I thought it was a good message of how you didn’t have to fight to prove your macho, or tough, or a worthwhile person, but if you were a good person you would fight to protect your family or bring someone justice. It was actually many years later when I realized Tommy doesn’t actually protect Becky or bring the Flash
    Gatlin brothers to justice. I guess in my head I always imagined he stopped them front escaping and they were eventually arrested and tried, but that’s just an invention of my own mind not supported in the song. I mean even of he killed them it might not be the most moral ending, but at least it would make sense as a revenge story. The way the song is written it sounder like Tommy breaks his lifelong vow of Pacificism and a couple hours later the Gatlin boys wake up with some bruises and a headache and go about their lives like before. How does that make any sense? It almost seems like the moral of the story is calling you a coward is a small insult and you can let it go, but raping your woman is a big insult so you have to beat someone up to show your a man. Sigh, and I liked it so much both for the music and what I thought was the message behind it. Heck from the way the song is written in feel like the whole not fighting I response to insults, but you should fight to protect people is still the message that the song was meant to give, but they just didn’t do a good job actually simporting that idea with what the lyrics actually say.

  21. 71
    Girl with Curious Hair on 25 Sep 2016 #

    according to wikipedia, this song was covered by the chipmunks. interesting choice. i can only guess that the world of kids’ novelty records was a much darker place back in the day.

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