Chart Week: February 16, 1980
Song: “Coward of the County” – Kenny Rogers
Chart Position: #3, 14th week on the chart. This was the song’s chart peak.
One of my complaints about the old American Top 40s that I listen to is that only a small selection of the total library of shows gets played. If you listen often enough, you’ll quickly hear repeats of the same shows. With something like 18 or 19 years of programs to choose from, that seems hard to do.
Last year I joined a Facebook group dedicated to classic American Top 40. Every month or so someone will ask the same question: why do we keep hearing the same shows over-and-over? One of the engineers who remastered the original recordings is a member of the group. He claims that every show Casey Kasem recorded has been remastered and turned over to whoever currently holds the rights to them. He is at a loss as to why such a small group of the original shows are replayed these days.
I realize this is an issue that probably only bothers an exceptionally small number of people. But for those of us who are super fans of the show, it is super annoying.
I mention that because, thanks to repeated airings of a few countdowns from early 1980, I’ve heard Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County” more in the last six months than I’ve heard in the last 40 years combined.
Which has led me to realize that some of the lyrics are…problematic?
I have strong memories of this song. This was when the radio in my room was AM-only, so the stations I listened to were playing the fuck out of every Kenny Rogers song. I clearly recalled it being about a dude, Tommy, who walks away any time he encounters a violent situation. This was because of his dad’s dying words to him: that “you don’t have to fight to be a man.” His dad died in prison. I guess he was in lockup for fighting someone, it’s not made clear.
Anyway, some local toughs beat up Tommy’s girlfriend, he realizes that sometimes you, in fact, do have to fight to be a man, and he kicks their asses.
Keep in mind, I was eight years old when this song came out. So I was not mature enough to get what Kenny was saying when he described the attack on Tommy’s girlfriend as:
One day while he was working, the Gatlin boys came calling
They took turns at Becky, n’there was three of them
Holy shit! Did Kenny Rogers just casually describe three dudes gang raping a woman?!?!
Surely this caused a ruckus back in the day, right?
I did some digging – I checked Wikipedia – and turned out there was indeed a controversy surrounding the song. And it related to the lines I quoted above. However, the controversy was about who some people thought the lines were about rather than the act of sexual violence it described.
Apparently there were some folks who thought that the “Gatlin boys” of the song meant the country group The Gatlin Brothers. Larry Gatlin later claimed that he and the song’s co-writer, Roger Bowling, had a beef in the late ‘70s and this line may have been a result of that beef. However, Bowling’s co-writer, Billy Ed Wheeler, claimed he never knew of any conflict between the men and that Bowling never suggested the line was aimed at the Larry or his brothers. Rogers later claimed he would have pushed to change the lyric had he know it would ruffle any feathers.
THAT was the controversy. Not that the song was built around the gang rape of a woman and how that was the impetus for the coward of the county to finally grow a pair and take out the Gatlin boys in a locked bar one night. Which, depending on how you think about it, almost makes the rape a positive moment, since it forced a man to stand up for himself and his family.
Crazy how when young Black people sang about consensual sex between adults a few years later, people lost their damn minds. But when a middle-aged, white, country superstar sang about gang rape, it didn’t move the needle.
The song was so popular it turned into a very shitty TV movie in 1981. You can watch the entire thing on YouTube if you want. I recommend skipping that, though, and just watching the completely awesome fight scene that brings the story to a close. Kenny Rogers was even the star of the movie, and gave Tommy a big assist on the night he stood up for Becky.