In 1979, Kenny Rogers released “Coward of The County” as the second single from his multi-platinum album Kenny.
The song that runs over four minutes became a major crossover hit! It topped the Billboard Country chart and reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart. “Coward Of The County” also topped the Cash Box singles chart and was a Top 10 hit in several other countries, topping the chart in Canada, the UK, and even in Ireland where it stayed at No. 1 for six consecutive weeks.
The Song’s Compelling Story of Father And Son
Written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, “Coward of The County” tells the compelling story of Tommy, whose father ended up in prison and died when Tommy was only ten years old. In his last words, he asked Tommy:
“Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done. Walk away from trouble if you can. Now it won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek. I hope you’re old enough to understand. Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.”
Tommy followed the advice, which earned him the nickname “Coward of The County.” Years later, Tommy was in a relationship with a woman named Becky, who loved and accepted him as he is.
One day, he came home to a crying Becky, with a torn dress and a shattered look. It turned out the three Gatlin Brothers sexually assaulted the poor woman while Tommy was at work. Tommy was faced with the dilemma of having to choose between keeping his father’s plea to “walk away from trouble when he can” or defending Becky’s honor. Tommy chose the latter.
Fueled by his long-bottled-up aggression, Tommy cut loose and furiously fought all three Gatlin boys, leaving none of them standing by the time he left. Tommy then reflected on his late father’s plea:
“I promised you, Dad, not to do the things you’ve done. I walk away from trouble when I can. Now please don’t think I’m weak, I didn’t turn the other cheek. And Papa, I should hope you understand, sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.”
Things Got Real In The Country Giant’s Vengeance Tale
“Coward of the County” faced some controversy when it has been claimed that mentioning “Gatlin boys … there was three of them,” in the song was a reference to The Gatlin Brothers: Larry, Steve, and Rudy Gatlin. The trio popularly performed as “Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.” Not only that, but Larry Gatlin had also dated a girl named Becky.
“After it came out, we started getting accused of being rapists,” Larry Gatlin said. “I think they could have shown a little good taste and used somebody else’s name.” In another interview, Larry also claimed that the song’s co-writer, Roger Bowling, had a personal grudge against him for some unknown reasons.
But writer Billy Edd Wheeler denied the allegations. On the other hand, the songwriters claimed that the name was chosen because they “liked the sound of it,” and that it had nothing to do with the real Gatlin brothers. “We tried some other names like the Barlow boys, but they just didn’t have the grit of the Gatlin boys,” Wheeler said.
Rogers also said that he did not realize the connection and that had he done so, he would have asked for the name to have been changed. Despite the controversy, “Coward of the County” went out to be a chart-topper. The song even inspired a television movie of the same name in 1981, where Rogers starred as Tommy’s uncle.
You can watch Kenny Rogers’ riveting performance of the timeless classic in the video below.