Oct 08

KENNY ROGERS – “Coward Of The County”

FT + Popular73 comments • 6,962 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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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?)

  6. 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.


  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 72
    Mark M on 16 Jan 2020 #

    No mention of Kenny in Ken Burns’ documentary epic Country Music, at least in the merely eight hours BBC edit, half the length (I think) of the US cut. Burns’ agenda, not unpredictably, seemed to create a vision of country comfortable for the liberal viewers of PBS (Or indeed, it occurred to me, not dissimilar to the kinds of country endorsed by Radio 1’s Andy Kershaw back in the 1980s). So much Johnny Cash, no place for Don Williams. Rosanne Cash, yes, Barbara Mandrell no. Amid the many tales of incredible rural poverty, a warm welcome for posh-boy interlopers Gram Parsons and Kris Kristofferson. The one surprise hero of the piece being Freddie Mercury-superfan Garth Brooks, who Burns is suggesting is, when you get past the showmanship, a solid and sincere craftsman (not convinced, but at least unexpected).
    Predictable but necessary: Burns’ emphasis on country’s black as well as white roots.

  13. 73
    Gareth Parker on 5 Jun 2021 #

    Routine stuff from Kenny. 4/10 from me.

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