Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Coward of the County" / Kenny Rogers / Greatest Hits

Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits holds a fair amount of nostalgia for me. When I was in second and third grade after I got off the bus to come home for the day, my Mom usually had a nice snack for me and was playing one of two albums: this one or The Oak Ridge Boys Greatest HIts. We would sit and have something to eat, chat about my day, then play a game of Clue or Life or something like that (I remember thinking that in "Lucille" I thought it was awfully unfair that the narrator's wife left him with "400 children and a crop in the field". Just wrong, that was)

One thing I love about this song and many of the classic country songs are that they're story songs. You can have a pretty nice complete narrative in three or four minutes in a great country song, sometimes with a nice ironic twist ending if you're lucky. Kenny's got some great ones too: besides this one and "Lucille", there's the classic "Gambler", and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town", about a VIetnam paraplegic who's begging his wife to stay with him (with the terrifying to me at that age line: "If I could move I'd get my gun and put her in the ground")

So what's going on in "Coward of the County"? A poor boy named Tommy is teased for running from fights ("The folks just called him Yella'" as the narrator says). There's more to that story, though. The song's narrator is the boy's uncle ("I looked after Tommy cause he was my brother's son") and is raising him because Tommy's Dad died in prison. So our narrator knows why Tommy won't fight; he heard the last words Tommy's father said to him, giving us the song's famous chorus:

Promise me, son, not to do the things I've done.
Walk away from trouble if you can.
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!"

It's not all bad for Tommy, though, he's in love with a girl named Becky. Unfortunately, some local miscreants the Gatlin boys see something they like in Becky too. The song describes the next event as such:

One day while he was workin' the Gatlin boys came callin'.
They took turns at Becky... and there was three of them!

Now, I really wasn't sure what "taking turns" meant when I was seven....but I was pretty sure that it wasn't good. Especially the way Kenny delivers the last part of that line - doesn't sing it, and pauses right before it to get the full effect (3:37 in the video)

Tommy comes in and sees Becky's "torn dress" and "shattered look", walks over to his Daddy's picture (and hears the words of the chorus again) and then turns as if to leave, prompting taunts from the Gatlin boys. Then comes the turning point of the song, spoken again, with another pause for emphasis:

But you could have heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door

Tommy proceeds to kick the collective Gatlin boys' asses using "twenty years" of pent-up rage, then speaks again to his dead father, playing with the words of the chorus ever so slightly (and giving us our twist):

I promised you, dad, not to do the things you've done.
I walk away from trouble when I can.
Now please don't think I'm weak, I didn't turn the other cheek,
And papa, I sure hope you understand:
Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man.

Again, this song's all about story. Chuck Klosterman, a social and music critic I love to read, has a great essay about modern county in his book Sex, Drugs, and Coco Puffs.

More or less, he says county music is unique because the lyrics are the center of the song. They are always easy to understand, and the music almost always takes a backseat to the lyrics. I'm no country expert, but it seems he's right about this - when you listen to country, the music is really forgettable and generic. It's just background noise so the lyrics can be presented to the listener. That's all to say there's not much for me to analyze musically here, other than some typical pop-country tropes: the strummed acoustic guitar, the shuffling beat, the female harmonies on the chorus. Kenny has an all-time classic voice, though; it's warm and intimate, a little raspy around the edges, and instantly familiar.

I've had lots of fun recently revisiting some of the old classic country music like this from the 60's and 70's (In fact, I highly recommend this station out of Monroe, GA). There was a time when I guess I considered myslef too hip to admit it's enjoyable (and that I enjoy it), but it's definitely a part of my musical upbringing that I'll always carry with me.