Although today you’re more likely to find me listening to either Broadway showtunes or random indie music, I grew up on a steady diet of old-school country. One of my earliest memories is dancing around in my sockfeet with my grandfather to “Little Brown Jug” on his old record player. My mother was a big fan of country music, and she was a stay-at-home-mom for my formative years, so that’s what we usually listened to together. I still get chills when Johnny Cash rasps out that he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die (seriously, one of the most brilliant lines in a song ever written - just imagine that, imagine the cold-heartedness of that, the calculatedness, the scientific analysis; he didn’t have anything against the person, not specifically, but he just wanted to watch him die. Whoo. Poetry. Chills.) I can’t help but sing along with Tammy Wynette or Dolly Parton when they come on the radio. They’re in my blood. I grew up with them. They’re like family to me.
I’m not averse to new country (Brad Paisley makes me laugh out loud, he just seems to be so joyful in what he does, and if you can listen to Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl” without bawling your eyes out, your soul is missing. It is heartwrenching) but most of it doesn’t hit me like old country does. It sounds too much like pop. I don’t dislike Taylor Swift, she’s as cute as a button, but she’s not singing country. There’s no twang to it, Taylor. It’s pop in a country package. I feel the same way about Carrie Underwood and Faith Hill and that foolish girl from American Idol who didn’t know how to pronounce salmon. (SAL-mon? SAL-mon? What’s SAL-mon? We get it, Kelly, you’re a rube. Aw. Aren’t you cute.) And don’t get me started on Hootie. Listen, Hootie. You may have re-labeled yourself as a country singer, but you still sound exactly the same. It’s not country. It’s pop. And you might be going by Darius Rucker now, but, just like Marky Mark trying to pass himself off as Mark Wahlberg, we know who you really are. (Off topic, but it makes me much too happy that the second thing to pop up on Google when searching for Mark Wahlberg is “Mark Wahlberg talks to animals.” You’ve seen this Saturday Night Live sketch, right? If not, YouTube it and come back. Seriously. Smile on your face for days. “Say hello to your mother for me!” LOVE.)
There were two songs I loved more than any others. These two songs were so affecting I used to reenact them, elaborately and with much pomp and circumstance, with my stuffed animals. I still know every single word and heaven help the people around me on the road if they come on the radio when I have my windows down because I am BELTING those sons-of-bitches.
Here’s the thing, though. They are not appropriate songs for children. They are dark, dark songs. I think they may very well be the root of my affection for all things twisty and tortured.
Inappropriate Song #1: The Coward of the County by Kenny Rogers
First, let’s address the elephant in the room, ok?
Kenny Rogers, circa when I used to listen to this song:
Kenny Rogers now:
Premise: A young man who has never stood up for himself is forced to when his fiancée is shamed. (Or, at least, this is what I thought the premise was, when I was a kid.)
In a nutshell: Tommy’s father, a dangerous felon of some undetermined sort, died in prison when he (Tommy) was 10. Tommy’s uncle raises him. Tommy’s father’s final words to him are:
"Son, my life is over, but yours is just begun.
Promise me, son, not to do the things I've done.
Walk away from trouble if you can.
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!"
Good, right? I mean, that’s good damn advice. Walk away from trouble! Don’t end up in prison like your old man!
This sound advice CRIPPLES poor Tommy, who takes it to the LETTER. He becomes known as a coward. Worse yet: the coward of the ENTIRE COUNTY. He’s so bound and determined to follow his dead father’s final decree that he is completely and totally inert.
Tommy, eventually, as people do, falls in love with Becky. Becky sees past the coward of the county moniker and sees the real Tommy beneath the gossip and lies:
“In her arms he didn't have to prove he was a man.”
Um, ok. Well, I guess. I’m not saying every guy I’m with has to go bust some heads or chop some logs for me, but I do like to know they’re male, you know? Just a little. Anyhoo.
Now, there are baddies afoot in the county. The Gatlin boys. You know they’re evil, because they are sort of named after guns. Although they’ve never come up in the song before, apparently they have it in for Tommy; so much so, they hit him where he is weakest. Becky.
“One day while he was workin' the Gatlin boys came callin'.
They took turns at Becky... there was three of them!
Tommy opened up the door and saw his Becky cryin'.
The torn dress, the shattered look was more than he could stand.”
When I was a kid, acting this out with stuffed animals standing in for the characters (my most hated animals were, of course, the Gatlin boys,) I acted this out as the Gatlin boys came in, taunted Becky, tore up her wedding dress, and left. I honestly thought they picked on Becky for wanting to marry a coward. This is what I thought happened in this song. (Does it surprise anyone I was fifteen before someone kissed me for the first time? No? Didn’t think so.)
Then I gave it a close re-listen when I was an adult and realized holy shit, they took turns at Becky. Becky, who was probably untouched before that, because Tommy hadn’t “proved he was a man” with her. The Gatlin boys gang-raped Tommy’s fiancée.
This top-40 country song that I have loved my entire life is about gang-rape.
(Also, what is WITH that exclamation point at the end of the second sentence up there, lyrics website I’m taking these from? Why are you making it sound so jaunty? There were three of them! What fun, how joyous, taroo, taray! Also, there WERE three of them, Kenny, not WAS. I know these are hillbilly folk but your bad grammar is cringey.)
What does Tommy do in retaliation? Well, Tommy, as his fiancée sobs in the background, takes his father’s picture down and recalls the words that have made him unable to stand up for himself for his entire life. Mostly this is just an excuse for Kenny to sing the refrain again, though.
Then comes Tommy’s retribution.
“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! Ol’ yellow’s leavin'.
But you coulda heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door.
Twenty years of crawlin' was bottled up inside him.
He wasn't holdin' nothin' back; he let 'em have it all.
When Tommy left the barroom not a Gatlin boy was standin'.
He said, ‘this one’s for Becky,’ as he watched the last one fall.”
Hmm. Well, ok. I mean, he’s been a coward for twenty years. What the hell do you expect? I mean, knowing what happened to Becky, you’d really like the song to take a darker turn, like, “Tommy took down his father’s .22 and skinning knife, found the Gatlin boys, and as Becky watched, he tortured them slowly over a number of days,” but what you get is sort of triumphant, I guess. He KICKS THEIR ASSES. I bet they were REALLY SORE for A COUPLE OF DAYS. Also QUITE EMBARRASSED. Because a COWARD BEAT THEM UP. And since this county is apparently gossip central, it’s only a matter of time before THEY GET NICKNAMES, TOO. Probably like WIMPY MCGEE AND THE BOYS. Or WHINEASS MCGURK AND THE FELLAS.
Apparently, you don’t call the law wherever this song was set. You go to the bar, where they are celebrating the fact that they raped the love of your life, and you use fisticuffs! That will make poor Becky feel better, lying there, violated, her wedding dress all torn to shit, her fiancé off God-knows where doing God-knows what, that you PUNCHED THEM GOOD AND PROPER. That’s what her honor is worth to you. YOU GOT THIS, TOMMY.
To finish things off, Tommy, as he is watching the last Gatlin boy fall, talks to his dead father one last time:
"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 sure hope you understand:
Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man".
He is apologizing to his father for fighting. OK, well, Tommy, I can think of someone who needs an apology: BECKY. Who a., was just raped because you are the town laughing stock and they wanted to teach you a lesson through her, b. is apparently living in a weird Appalachian hilltown with no real justice system, and c. needs some major goddamn counseling right now, and a supportive boyfriend who doesn’t run off to do some out-of-character heavy bar brawling when she needs him most.
Here’s the thing, though – please, someone, explain this to me, but I STILL LOVE THIS SONG. It makes me cry. The way Kenny sings “when Tommy stopped to lock the door” is gorgeously dramatic. Even now, when I know what it’s about (I asked my mother this weekend if she always knew what it was about, she looked at me like I was touched in the head and said, “Um, YES,” so apparently, I was just really, really sheltered as a child) I still love it.
Tomorrow – part two, or what goes on in a small town when someone’s skirt is just too goddamn short.