On 16 February, 1980, “Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers peaked at #3.
I was pretty harsh on Kenny Rogers the first time he got a crack at the Hot 100 in 1980. Here he is, with a much higher-placed single, “Coward of the County“, and… I won’t be as harsh. I’m still going to pan it, but not because of Kenny Rogers as a performer.
So, first let’s talk about Kenny Rogers in this song. Kenny’s fine. Not great, but fine. The song calls for that sit-down-here-son-so’s-I-can-spin-you-a-tale avuncular voice, and he does that just fine: distant enough to tell the story cogently, but emotive enough to let you know how he feels about it. Musically, it’s nothing special apart from several needless dramatic key changes: typical loping country that you can put any kind of down-home wisdom like, oh, “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash. So nothing special, nothing really awful.
But the story. I get the message of being a good person — a good Christian, if you take the “turn the other cheek” reference seriously, which most Americans would — and I get the message of being pushed too far by horrible people. But did we have to go as far as gang rape? I mean, I’m not against having sex or violence come up in music, but I am against it coming up needlessly, and having the three Gaitlin boys have their way with Becky seems gratuitous. I don’t need my easy ramblin’ country music suddenly turning into a Cormac McCarthy novel on me. And then we get the vigilante justice thing, of which we really have too much in the US. I don’t know if Tommy kills the Gaitlin boys. He may not; just because he brought his gun along with him doesn’t mean he used it. But even still, the whole thing puts a bad taste in my mouth. There are courts for this!
Getting back to Cormac McCarthy and Johnny Cash. Cormac McCarthy puts violence and vigilante justice into his books, but he doesn’t celebrate it — he makes it gritty and awful, and usually more costly than it’s worth. Johnny Cash, in “A Boy Named Sue”, flirts with vigilante justice, but it’s clearly satire. In “Coward of the Country” I can’t help but feel that there’s some glorification of retribution, and that doesn’t sit well for me.