Folks just called him yellow

220px-Kenny_rogers-coward_of_the_county_sOn 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.


Painting your love all over my heart

220px-Kenny_Rogers_Decorated_singleOn 5 January 1980, “You Decorated My Life” by Kenny Rogers was at #97, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #7 in 1979. 

Kenny Rogers is a lot more representative of the months bridging 1979 and 1980 than are The Police.  Music in the late 70s was pretty rudderless; people had started to hate disco, rock was still largely caught up in glam, punk was too aggressive and noisy to gain a popular following, and much of what was left were ballads that sat at the confluence of pop, rock, folk, and country. Not all of the music that fits these categories was bad, but a lot of it was.

You Decorated My Life” would be a particularly dreadful representative of the badness that results when popular culture lacks a creative edge, if it weren’t for the merciful fact that it’s totally forgettable.  I say it’s dreadful because the lyrics are such utter nonsense that I have to wonder how Rogers can sing it with out cracking up.  We know he can, because there’s concert footage of him singing “by painting your love all over my heart” without so much as a curl of the corner of his mouth.  He’s singing a love song to the interior designer of his dreams, who excels in bringing the clichés of harmony, color, and rhyme and reason into the lives of the dull.  And to top it off, there’s a world where dreams are a part… but Kenny doesn’t tell us what they’re a part of.  We hardly notice as the soft schmaltzy music rises in a wave of bathos, because we’re wondering, (or at least I am) whether he’s too overwhelmed to finish the thought, or if his grammar’s just lacking.

And then it’s over. On the one hand, it being over is a good thing, but on the other hand, it’s hard to even notice that it’s over, because musically, “You Decorated My Heart” is really boring.  It’s trying to be a touching slow dance number, presumably for burgeoning lovers to sway back and forth to effortlessly while they concentrate on how nice each other look, but even at only three and a half minutes, I have trouble imagining a couple not deciding their time is better spent mumbling sweet nothings to each other over by the punch bowl.  I’m not a big fan of dramatic key changes or unnecessary saxophone solos, but I accept that they serve a purpose:  to distinguish the songs they’re in from other songs, to give you something to remember.  “You Decorated My Heart” has none of that.  I’ve listened to it five or six times now in the last few days and I can’t recreate the melody in my head because it’s so mundane and uninteresting.  For a song about a person bringing color, music, rhyme, and reason to another person’s life, it’s the sonic equivalent of beige.