A great Country song of Kenny Rogers and also a great Western standard tells a story of a man named Tommy, whose father died when he was only 10 years old. In his father’s last words asks Tommy to stay out of trouble, and to turn the other cheek instead of fighting. Tommy followed his father’s words earning him the nickname “Coward Of The County.” Then, three brothers sexually assaulted his girlfriend and Tommy confronted them in a bar and gets his revenge. His conclusion: Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.
Like Kenny Rogers’ hit “The Gambler,” this song tells a compelling story, and also like “The Gambler,” it was made into a TV movie.
October 7, 1981, “Coward of the County” was aired. It tells a familiar story of a cowboy who was pushed too far, in this scenario, by the sexual assault of his girl. The film has a typical cartoon fight scene in a saloon, which resulted for the building to be demolished. The villains were tried and convicted of rape in the film, although this is only a passing reference; the song is somewhat ambiguous and might have ended in a triple revenge killing, so could be classed as a murder ballad.
Kenny Rogers acted in the film and sang. The film wasn’t a massive hit but the song was, although it was actually written sometime before. The single was released in November 1979 backed by “I Want To Make You Smile.” It was published by Roger Bowling Music and Sleepy Hollow Music.
“Coward Of The County” was co-written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler. This was a huge hit for Rogers, but not his first to crossover to the pop charts. That would be “Lucille,” which reached #5 in the US and like “Coward Of The County,” went to #1 in the UK.
In America, Rogers had his first #1 on the Hot 100 with “Lady” later in 1980. Artists like Dolly Parton (“9 to 5”) and the Charlie Daniels Band (“In America”) were getting lots of airplay outside of the country format, as the genre surged in popularity.
Some felt the music was compromised. Joe Ely said in 1980, “The top 40 that’s going on on country stations over there [Texas] really depresses me. ‘Coward Of The County’… I was sick of that the first time I heard it!”
In 1979, Billy Edd got a call from Roger Bowling, who co-wrote Kenny Rogers’ hit “Lucile.” They set out to write a story song, and Wheeler had an idea for an underdog tale. “For some strange reason, I was thinking of My Fair Lady, he said in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music. They took this little cockney girl from the poor part of England and were going to make her over and teach her how to speak and be like a princess.”
The plan shifted when Bowling came up with the title “Coward Of The County,” which had great alliteration. They started thinking about why this guy would be labeled as such, and came up with the story of his dad dying in prison and telling him, “You don’t have to fight to be a man.”
“We were trying to figure out how Tommy, the son, would have a change of heart,” said Wheeler. I had him in church praying to his father or getting a vision.”
That got too complicated, so Bowling suggested that Tommy take down his father’s picture from the mantle to communicate with him. They finished the song in a weekend and made a demo that they pitched to Rogers, who recorded the song.
The evil brothers in this song are the “Gatlin Boys.” In real life, Larry, Steve and Rudy Gatlin were a popular trio who performed as “Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.” Not only that, Larry Gatlin had dated a girl named Becky, which was the name of Tommy’s girlfriend in the song.
“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.”
The songwriters made the dubious claim that the name was chosen because they “liked the sound of it,” and that it had nothing to do with the actual 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.
Enjoy as Kenny Rogers sing the song with his heart in the video below and don’t forget to share this with other country fans.