World’s Worst Songs: “Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers
Kenny Rogers scored solo hits beginning in 1977, but many of his early singles seemed to exist out of time. They sure didn’t sound like anything else on the radio at the same time. Take “Lucille,” a #5 hit in the summer of 1977, right alongside the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, and KC and the Sunshine Band, a tale of barroom adultery that topped the country charts and sounded more at home there. “Lucille” is a story song with a surprising payoff—just he’s ready to hit the sheets with the woman cuckolding her husband, the singer loses his nerve. And our love of a story probably has something to do with the success of another Rogers hit, “Coward of the County,” even though it is one of the World’s Worst Songs.
The story is narrated by Rogers in his best kindly rural gentleman style, telling it as Tommy’s uncle, who raised him. It comes off every bit as dumb, sentimental, and predictable as you’d expect. Our Hero, Tommy, has avoided conflict all his life for what seems like a pretty good reason: to please his father, who died in prison, but not before making the kid promise to eschew all violence. Far from earning him any respect as a Gandhi-like figure in his community, he’s branded a coward. But then comes the day when his Becky is gang-raped (really) by the Gatlin boys. Although he has never shown any sign of being a killing machine in waiting, the ravishing of his beloved causes him to go all Chuck Norris on the Gatlins, after which he apologizes to his dead father: “Sometimes you’ve got to fight to be a man.”
“Coward of the County” topped the country charts for three weeks in January 1980 and reached #3 on the pop chart, becoming Rogers’ biggest solo hit up to that point and the third-biggest of his career, trailing only the #1 hits “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream.” It also blew out the telephones at the radio station I worked for back then. People called up asking for it day after day after day well into the spring. There’s no way to measure it at this distance, but if it’s not one of the most popular records in the history of Dubuque, Iowa, I don’t know what is. All of us at the radio station were sick unto death of it because when we weren’t playing it on our shows or fending off calls for it, we were hearing it in our sleep.
Best thing about it: it runs four minutes, which gives a DJ time to go down to the restroom.