In a previous Sing Me A Story I looked at Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler“, a short story about a man who meets a gambler and gets some advice before he cashes in his last chip. This is not the only example of a good musical narrative, and it may not even be the best. Rivaling “The Gambler” is “Coward Of The County”, a single off his 1979 album Kenny. This was his second album and one of his crossover hits outside of country music.
As I’ve noted in quite a few previous Sing Me A Story articles covering country music there’s just something about this style that allows for a full on traditional narrative. Rather than just scenes from an incident or a series of incidents with a common theme this is a story on it’s own, which may be why, along with “The Gambler”, “Coward Of The County” had a movie. In both song and movie, Rogers portrays the uncle of a boy named Tommy, whose father dies in prison. Wanting his son to avoid his mistakes he makes the boy promise not to follow in his footsteps, but that promise is challenged when…well, let’s let the song tell the story.
We should probably acknowledge the parts we don’t know. We don’t know when this story was set. If it was closer to modern day you might wonder why Tommy didn’t go to the police. If it’s in the Old West, which I believe the TV movie was set in, why not get the Sheriff or Marshal. Was this a town where the Gatlin boys ran things or just one that hadn’t established a sheriff? Granted these are the questions of a critic since focusing on that misses the point of the song.
We also don’t really know what Tommy’s dad was in prison for. He dies in prison but that doesn’t mean he had a life sentence…at least not by the judge. Obviously life had other ideas. He tells Tommy not to do what he’s done but what was that? Did the man get into fights and kill someone? Was he a bank robber? The song doesn’t really tell us, but again it’s not the point and songs only have so much time. If Kenny’s character raised the boy after his brother’s passing we know there was no mother unless he took her in as well. She’s not mentioned. The important detail was that Tommy kept to the promise and walked away from trouble. The key element there being “when you can”. If there is no law present then Tommy was the only one to avenge Becky’s rape. We also don’t know if the Gatlin boys were killed off, though I read that in the movie they’re actually arrested and locked up. This could be the result of the family hour, depending on when the movie aired…I think it was on CBS.
This was a fight that Tommy felt couldn’t be avoided. As he says at the end “sometimes you have to fight when you’re a man”. That doesn’t mean going to the level of his father but more that he had something to fight for rather than fighting just to prove you’re a man. Becky accepts him for who he is because she knew there’s more to being a man than fighting, and sometimes it takes more courage NOT to fight, especially when everyone already thinks you’re a coward. Presumable this did not start a new direction in Tommy’s life. He may never have to fight again, but as someone in one of the articles I used for research pointed out the song ends with a repeat of the first line of the song, “everyone considered him the coward of the county”, emphasis on considered, past tense. It’s not that Tommy was a coward, it was that he knew that “it won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek”. There’s a time to avoid fighting but as Tommy learns, and hopes his late father understands, there is a time when you have to fight.
A fun (depending on who ask) fact about the song were the names chosen for the cast. While the father and Kenny’s uncle character are unnamed, along with Tommy we have Becky and the Gatlin brothers. According to Songfacts this became an issue for some of Kenny’s contemporaries.
The evil brothers in this song are the “Gatlin Boys.” In real life, Larry, Steve and Rudy Gatlin were a popular trio who performed as “Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.” Not only that, Larry Gatlin had dated a girl named Becky, which was the name of Tommy’s girlfriend in the song.
“After it came out, we started getting accused of being rapists,” Larry Gatlin said. “I think they could have showed a little good taste and used somebody else’s name.”
The songwriters made the dubious claim that the name was chosen because they “liked the sound of it,” and that it had nothing to do with the actual Gatlin brothers. “We tried some other names like the Barlow boys, but they just didn’t have the grit of the Gatlin boys,” Wheeler said.
Genius.com had this to say about the choice however, when asked what the artists think of the song.
Kenny Rogers has said if he realized the connection between the Gatlin Boys connection, and if he had, he would have asked for the name to be changed.
On a side note, Larry Gatlin has praised this song, saying “It’s a good song.”
Sorry to hear the Gatlins went through that, but coincidence or just the name they were inspired to go with the song is indeed good both as a song and as a story. It sticks to its theme, tells the story well, and while there are questions the point of the song comes through nicely. Sadly one of the writers, Roger Bolling, committed suicide in 1982. He and co-writer Billy Ed Wheeler were initially inspired by…My Fair Lady?
Billy Edd Wheeler had success as a songwriter with The Kingston Trio’s “Reverend Mr. Black” (#8, 1963) and the Johnny Cash song “Blistered” (#50, 1969). In 1979 he got a call from Roger Bowling, who co-wrote Kenny Rogers’ hit “Lucile.” They set out to write a story song, and Wheeler had an idea for an underdog tale. “For some strange reason, I was thinking of My Fair Lady, he said in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music. They took this little cockney girl from the poor part of England and were going to make her over and teach her how to speak and be like a princess.”
The plan shifted when Bowling came up with the title “Coward Of The County,” which had great alliteration. They started thinking about why this guy would be labeled as such, and came up with the story of his dad dying in prison and telling him, “You don’t have to fight to be a man.”
“We were trying to figure out how Tommy, the son, would have a change of heart,” said Wheeler. I had him in church praying to his father or getting a vision.”
That got too complicated, so Bowling suggested that Tommy take down his father’s picture from the mantle to communicate with him. They finished the song in a weekend and made a demo that they pitched to Rogers, who recorded the song.
Good thing he did. “Coward Of The County” is a perfect song for Rogers’ style. I don’t think, for example, Johnny Cash could have done it the same way any more than I could hear Rogers’ performing “Ring Of Fire”. This is a good example of how to tell a story in song, and why country music is so good as such ballads.