I was driving to San Diego this morning to drop my daughter off, and I listened to some Kenny Rogers on the way. Me and Kenny go way back to the 70s, when he was an ubiquitous hit-making machine; if you grew up then, you knew Kenny and could sing along to his (sometimes horribly brutal) songs. On more than one occasion I’ve though about how his songs not only tell stories, they usually tell horrible stories that go far beyond the usual sadness of sad country songs. I decided to dissect one of the more brutal songs, line by line. So, here is “Coward of the County”:
Everyone considered him the coward of the county –
Either this is a really small town – the most likely scenario – or this guy who we just met and know nothing about, was such a horrible coward that everybody not only knew about it, but recognized his yellowness. He must have been afraid of butterflies or something.
He’d never stood one single time to prove the county wrong –
Evidently, he’d had plenty of opportunities to “prove the county wrong” but opted not to. This county evidently takes its values of manliness and non-cowardice seriously.
His mama named him Tommy, the folks just called him yellow –
Obviously, we are somewhere in the South where people call each other yellow. And if this was the case, they might have called him “yellow” because he was some sort of Asian. You never know. Or he could have been one of those Mexicans who look kind of Asian and was suffering from mistaken identity. We need some clarification, Kenny! Help us out.
But something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong.
What? Wait a minute, Kenny, you were there in this small town the whole time? Why didn’t you step in and stop the name-calling? You had the feeling they were wrong! I thought you stood up for the little guy, Kenny. I’m pretty disappointed right now.
He was only ten years old when his daddy died in prison –
Hmm, what was he in prison for? This being a country song, I’m assuming it was for something he didn’t do, or was forced to do by some evil person. He was wronged!
I looked after Tommy, ’cause he was my brother’s son –
I’m sure that’s all you were doing, looking after Tommy. Um hm. No wonder you didn’t speak up for him, you were too busy nailing his wife while he was in prison! God damn you, Kenny. I’m sure you seduced her with your awesome beard.
I still recall the final words my brother said to Tommy –
Maybe he said “Kill that fuckstain of a brother of mine for fucking your mom while I was in here! Swear it on my deathbed that you’ll do it, you little pussy! Grow some balls.” Or not, but I like that version much better.
Son, my life is over, but yours is just begun…
So he knew he was dying, and wanted to pass some family wisdom along, perhaps a way to avoid prison after he shanks Kenny while he’s clumsily thrusting away on top of his dear widowed wife.
Promise me son, not to do the things I’ve done/walk away from trouble if you can.
Not what I was hoping for at all, and I still don’t believe it. My version is much better, although I need to work on a rhyme.
Now it won’t mean you’re weak, if you turn the other cheek/I hope you’re old enough to understand: son you don’t have to fight to be a man.
I’m sure that’s what Kenny wants Tommy and us to think his dear departed brother said. You know how well those prison guys rhyme! Unless he was a rapper, but that was about four years or so too early.
There’s someone for everyone, and Tommy’s love was Becky –
As cowardly as Tommy allegedly was, it’s amazing he found a woman who would give it up for him. I’m guessing she had a lot of animal figurines and probably at least two cats. Maybe she was Kenny’s daughter and Tommy was getting revenge on Kenny by “taking the dirt road” with her against her will, if you catch my drift.
In her arms, he didn’t have to prove he was a man –
Ah, now it comes clear! Role playing and role reversal! He wore the frilly stuff and she rocked the strap-on.
One day while he was workin, the Gatlin boy’s came calling –
Them damn Gatlin boys! They’re like the Dukes of Hazzard but with evil intentions. “Came calling” sure sounds quaint, but perhaps that what Kenny calls “came to rape the fuck outta her.” Subtle, Kenny, subtle: nice setting up.
They took turns at Becky – and there was thee of them.
Took turns? Doing what, playing checkers? I hope they didn’t set watertight integrity on her! Those Gatlin boys and their urbandictionary.com!
Tommy opened up the door, and saw his Becky cryin –
From this, I assume Becky didn’t win at checkers. Or was watertight. Or both; perhaps the latter was a bet paid off for losing at the former.
The torn dress, the shattered look, was more than he could stand –
Losing at checkers will do that to you, leave you with a torn dress and a shattered look. Of course, so will GANG RAPE, which we all know is what Kenny is talking about! Really, Kenny, did you have to make it gang rape? Couldn’t they have just killed his coon dog instead? That’s worth abandoning your cowardice over! Side note: I used to sing along to this song when I was a kid. I had only a vague idea of what the Gatlin boys did to poor old Becky.
He reached above the fireplace and took down his daddys picture/As the tears fell on his daddys face, I heard these words again –
I wonder if it was a picture with his dad and mom, or maybe his dad in his prison duds. We never found out why dad was in prison. Maybe he beat the snot out of Kenny for hitting on his wife. At least they have a house with a fireplace; being cowardly is cold business and you need some way to warm up.
Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done. Walk away from trouble if you can. Now it don’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek. I hope you’re old enough to understand: Son, you dont have to fight to be a man.
This again. Well, your advice has led to this situation, old man, I hope you’re happy! Your son is such a coward that those no-good Gatlin boys figure they can play checkers with Becky any time they want to.
The Gatlin boys just laughed at him, when he walked into the barroom –
Of course they’re in a barroom – this is a country song – and Tommy knew which one. All climactic scenes happen in a barroom. It wouldn’t have sounded right if the Gatlin boys had gone to the library; besides, their library cards were probably expired. (what else would you expect from them?)
One of them got up and met him halfway cross the floor. When Tommy turned around they said “Hey look! Old Yellow’s leavin –
Only one of them? Seems to me all three of them would get up. Then again, Tommy wasn’t a threat. Excuse me, I mean Old Yellow. Those cocky Gatlin boys.
But you coulda heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door.
You can never hear a pin drop, but you can hear it when it hits the floor. If it’s really quiet. Why is Tommy locking the door?
Twenty years of crawlin was bottled up inside him. He wasnt holdin nothin back; he let em have it all. When Tommy left the barroom not a gatlin boy was standin –
Don’t they check ID at the door? 20 is too young to get into a bar. Regardless…what exactly happened? Did Tommy kill them, or just rough them up? Seems to me that an ass-whuppin’ is hardly revenge for a brutal gang rape or savage game of checkers. Did Tommy go full-uncoward or just medium?
He said, this ones for Becky, as he watched the last one fall.
Weren’t the other two for her as well? I think she deserved all three.
And I heard him say –
Kenny sure gets around. He was at the rape, he was at the bar, he was at the prison…
I promised you, dad, not to do the things you’ve done. I’ll walk away from trouble when I can. Now please don’t think I’m weak, I didn’t turn the other cheek. Papa, I sure hope you understand: sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.
That’s quite a soliloquy there from Tommy, who will henceforth obviously be Tommy and not Old Yellow.
Everyone considered him the coward of the county.
Did they really, Kenny? Did they? Or was it just you and the Gatlin boys, whom you seem to have a cozy relationship with?