coward of the county

World’s Worst Songs: “Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers always knew that Tommy wasn't yella.

Kenny Rogers always knew that Tommy wasn’t yella.

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.

  • DwDunphy

    Not one of Kenny’s finer moments. Probably worse because we all made it a hit.

  • Pico

    This is why I never patronized his chicken restaurants.

  • Becky’s Island

    Imagine being a 14-year-old girl named Becky when this song was popular. You’d hate it that much more.

  • Greg

    I always wondered if it was a very unsubtle jab at Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers Band. They certainly couldn’t have been happy about being coincidentally tied to gang-raping Becky.

  • Link Crawford

    Meh…but certainly not his worst.

  • Clay

    Didn’t they make a made-for-TV movie about this? Like, there was some bizarre period in our nation’s history where if a song was popular enough and had a storyline in it, they’d make some shitty TV movie about it? I think they did the same thing with Ode to Billie Joe.

  • Jack Feerick

    And with Kenny’s “The Gambler,” too. And don’t forget “Harper Valley PTA,” which actually got a theatrical release. And “Earth Girls Are Easy.” And hell, as recently as 2008, Toby Keith’s “Beer For My horses” got the big-screen treatment…

    …this should be a “Fun with Lists” article, shouldn’t it?

  • Dodge R/T

    And don’t forget another World’s Worst, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, got the small-screen treatment as an animated made-for-TV movie.

  • Newman

    …but the guy makes a mean bird….