Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
Like with John Denver and Charlie Rich before him, it’s hard to know exactly how to characterize Kenny Rogers, at least in terms of his place in country music history.
Ask Rogers, and he’ll say he’s “basically a country singer who’s capable of doing other things.” Indeed, Rogers entered country music with a broad background, growing up on a healthy diet of R&B, pop, jazz and country in public housing in Houston, Texas. His first professional group was a late-1950s vocal act called the Scholars, a local band based in Houston.
Rogers eventually settled down in a successful commercial format with the First Edition, mixing folk, rock and country sounds. The group notched several pop hits, including a No. 5 hit with Mickey Newbury’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” but disbanded in 1974. With that, Rogers turned toward country music.
Rogers’s success in country music was a bit of a whirlwind, attributed to several factors, internal and external. For one, he only attained modest hits on United Artist Records until the success of the mournful, Grammy-winning “Lucille” in 1977. A string of hits followed, including “The Gambler” – penned by Don Schlitz – “She Believes In Me,” and the two focuses of today’s edition of this series, “Lady” and “Coward Of The County.” Outside of music, however, Rogers also smartly branched out into television network specials and movies, one of which was based on the story told in “The Gambler.”
The real appeal, though, came from Rogers himself – a consummate storyteller with an intimate and compelling vocal style that demanded the listener’s attention. Still, the music remained a paradox – a mix of songs often country in theme and mood, but dressed with a Las Vegas presentation. And that metaphorical, long-standing divide between country and pop music is what drives today’s stories.
For “Lady,” the story mostly centers around Lionel Richie, not Rogers. Simply put, Rogers asked Richie one day to write him a song, at which Richie balked, saying he didn’t have the time. When Rogers mentioned the song was for an album he thought would sell around 4 million copies, Richie suddenly found the time.
The day they recorded the song was also the day they finished it. Richie finished the second verse to the song while taking a bathroom break, with Rogers later claiming that, “he can’t write unless he has the pressure to write.” Incidentally, a No. 2 turned into a No. 1 hit.
If “Lady” contains one of the most lighthearted backstories we’ve heard in this feature, though, the story surrounding “Coward Of The County” is no laughing matter. Again, too, this story has little to do with Rogers.
The story begins with songwriter Roger Bowling driving along a mountain road, humming a chorus he had titled “The Promise.” It was a pledge from a son to his father, with religious overtones. Songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler wanted to shift the focus toward an underdog character, a coward who’d learn to be brave.
“We were trying to figure out how Tommy, the son, would have a change of heart,” Wheeler said. “I had him in church praying to his father or getting a vision from him or something. He was saying, ‘These guys are picking on me and they think I’m a coward. I know I promised you I would never do the things you did, or fight like you did, but I think I need to.’ I was trying to make it very complicated – somebody would speak behind a curtain and he would think it was his father. It was like a Shakespearean tragedy or something. But it was just too complicated.”
The complications of “Coward Of The Country” didn’t just stop at the story, however. The song created problems for singer Larry Gatlin, who performed with his two brothers Steve and Rudy as “Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.” The song implicated three fictitious Gatlin boys in a rape sequence, not helped by the fact that Larry was dating a girl named Becky at the time, the name of the victim in the song; he, along with his brothers, were embroiled in a controversy they didn’t start.
Wheeler and Bowling later claimed to have considered using a name like “Barlow” for the song, but thought “Gatlin” had the best-sounding ring to it. Gatlin even confronted Rogers about it on live television, with Rogers’s only reply being, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t write it!” For Rogers, however, both “Lady” and “Coward Of The County” were mere pieces of his superstardom in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll bring together our conversations about both Rogers and Dolly Parton for “Islands In The Stream.”
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Quote attributions for Billy Edd Wheeler and Kenny Rogers stem from Chicken Soup For The Soul: Country Music.
- Basic information on Kenny Rogers comes from The Encyclopedia of Country Music, with Rogers’s biography written by Thomas Goldsmith
- Further information taken from Bill C. Malone’s Country Music U.S.A., specifically the chapter, “Country Music, 1972-1984.”
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