‘Coward of the County’ by Kenny Rogers: Story Behind an Iconic Country Classic

by Joe Rutland

Songs that stand the test of time carry real-life energy in their lyrics. Kenny Rogers recorded such a song in “Coward of the County.”

Rogers receives a pretty incredible lyric written by Roger Bowling and Billy Edd Wheeler. It tells a story of a man trying to honor his father’s wishes while standing up for his battered girlfriend.

“For some strange reason, I was thinking of ‘My Fair Lady,” Wheeler said in talking about the songwriting process. “He (Bowling) said ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music.” Bowling came up with the song title and the story went on from there.

The push-pull of emotional strings tugging within the song tell quite a story through Kenny Rogers and his voice.

Tommy, as a 10-year-old boy, was around when his father died in prison. Now the father, in one of his last wishes, asked Tommy to turn away when trouble came along. It’s almost a type of pacifist mindset that Tommy’s dying dad asks the young boy to take.

Here is how the song begins, along with its chorus.

“Everyone considered him the coward of the county
He’d never stood one single time to prove the county wrong
His mama named him Tommy, but folks just called him Yellow
But something always told me, they were reading Tommy wrong

He was only ten years old when his daddy died in prison
I looked after Tommy, ’cause he was my brother’s son
I still recall the final words my brother said to Tommy
‘Son, my life is over, but yours has just begun’

‘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'”

See, in certain circles, people look upon someone who does not fight back like a coward. Tommy gets the nickname “Coward of the County” because he does not fight.

Kenny Rogers Sings About Love and Trouble For Tommy

He continued to honor his father’s wishes as he fell in love with a woman named Becky. One day, though, he had to face a harsh decision. While he was at work, Becky is gang-raped by the Gatlin boys.

“There’s someone for everyone and Tommy’s love was Becky
In her arms, he didn’t have to prove he was a man
One day while he was working, the Gatlin boys came calling
They took turns at Becky an’ there was three of them

Tommy opened up the door and saw Becky crying
The torn dress, the shattered look was more than he could stand
He reached above the fireplace and took down his daddy’s picture
As his tears fell on his daddy’s face, he heard these words again

‘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'”

Decision Time For Tommy: To Fight Or Not To Fight

Tommy faces a decision: Fight or don’t fight.

He went looking for the Gatlin boys and found them in a bar. They started laughing at him because, well, he’s the “Coward of the County” who never fights back.

This time, though, Tommy locked the bar’s front door. The Gatlin boys were going to get the wrath from Tommy’s fists, leaving them bloodied and battered on the barroom floor. He chose to fight and defend his girlfriend after she was raped.

“The Gatlin boys just laughed at him when he walked into the barroom
One of them got up and met him halfway cross the floor
When Tommy turned around they said, ‘Hey look! Old Yellow’s leaving’
But you could’ve heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door

Twenty years of crawling was bottled up inside him
He wasn’t holding nothing back, he let ’em have it all
When Tommy left the bar room, not a Gatlin boy was standing
He said, ‘This one’s for Becky,’ as he watched the last one fall
And I heard him say

‘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’

Everyone considered him the coward of the county”

Bringing Larry Gatlin’s Name Into Lyrics Causes Problems

Pieces of this song are worth dissecting. For instance, there was the situation around using the Gatlin name for the boys. When the song was released in 1979, Larry Gatlin was also touring with his brothers as “Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.”

Bowling and Gatlin reportedly had a falling-out that caused the songwriter to use Gatlin’s name. It did not go over well with Gatlin at all.

“After it came out, we started getting accused of being rapists,” Gatlin said. “I think they could have shown a little good taste and used somebody else’s name.”

Kenny Rogers, for his part, says in “The Billboard Book of Number One Country Singles” that he didn’t make a connection between Gatlin and the lyrics.

During an appearance on “The Adam Carolla Show,” Gatlin said that Bowling held a grudge against him for reasons unknown to Gatlin. It came to a head after Bowling won a Grammy for writing “Lucille,” another one of Rogers’ timeless classics. Gatlin went up to congratulate him and Bowling went off.

Gatlin told Carolla, “He said, ‘F–k you, Gatlin!’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘F–k you!’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something, hoss. If we weren’t in the Grand Ole Opry House dressed up in tuxedos, I would just open a boot shop in your ass.'” Gatlin went on to claim that the exchange led to his name being used in “Coward of the County.”

Kenny Rogers Finds Himself Back In A Movie

The song was made into a movie in which Kenny Rogers stars in 1981. He’d also played a role in “The Gambler,” another movie based on a Rogers hit.

In the movie adaptation of “Coward of the County,” some additional characters appear that aren’t in the song itself. The story, though, stays true to the song’s main theme.

It reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Country Music chart and No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Meanwhile, it was an immediate crossover hit between country and pop music. Also, “Coward of the County” topped music charts in other countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, and Ireland.

As for the songwriters, Bowling committed suicide on Dec. 26, 1982, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1981. Wheeler, who turned 88 on Dec. 9, 2020, wrote other songs like “Jackson,” a Grammy Award-winning record for Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.

Why does this song, all these years later, remain a classic? It spoke of harsh issues like death and rape, not usual traditional country lyric topics. Most songs had a “tears-in-my-beer” tone to them. “Coward of the County” was different.

It remains a timeless Kenny Rogers classic because of its reality. Rogers’ warm, earthy voice brings these lyrics to life and lets cowards know it’s OK to fight back.

H/T: Country Thang Daily, Wikipedia