STORY OF THE SONG
“Coward of the County” is a country song written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, and recorded by American country music singer Kenny Rogers. It was released in November 1979 as the second single from the Triple Platinum album Kenny. A million-selling gold-certified 45, it is one of Rogers’ biggest hits.
The song is about a man’s nephew who is a reputed coward, but finally takes a stand for his lover. The song reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. It also hit #1 on the Cash Box singles chart and #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In addition, it hit #1 on the UK Singles chart. It was the most recent traditional country music song to hit number one in the UK, in February 1980. In Ireland, the song entered the charts at #1 on 13 February 1980, and stayed at the top of the charts for six consecutive weeks.
The song tells the story of a young man named Tommy, who earns a notorious reputation as the “coward of the county” (and is nicknamed “Yellow”) since he never stood up for himself one single time to prove the county wrong.
Tommy’s non-confrontational attitude was influenced, at age 10, by his final visit with his imprisoned father, shortly before he dies there (accompanied by the narrator, Tommy’s uncle). In his final words to Tommy, his father tells him that to “turn the other cheek” isn’t altogether a sign of weakness, and implores him to promise “not to do the things I’ve done; walk away from trouble if you can” (implying that not “turning the other cheek” may have landed Tommy’s father in prison).
Despite his cowardly reputation, Tommy falls in love with Becky, who loves Tommy for who he is without having to prove he was a man. One day, while Tommy was working, the three Gatlin brothers (the villains of the ballad) came to Becky’s house, attacked and “took turns at Becky”. Tommy returns home and finds Becky crying and her dress torn. Reaching above the fireplace and taking down his daddy’s picture, he faces the dilemma of choosing between upholding his father’s plea of “walking away from trouble”, or achieving justice for Becky’s gang rape.
Tommy chooses to visit the bar where the Gatlin boys are. Amid laughter upon Tommy’s entrance, and after “one of them got up and met him halfway ‘cross the floor”, Tommy turns around, this time not to walk away like a coward, but to lock the door behind him (“you coulda heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door”) and trap the Gatlin boys inside with him. Fueled by “twenty years of crawlin'” that “was bottled up inside him”, Tommy engages in a relentless bar room brawl that leaves all three Gatlin boys unconscious on the barroom floor.
Tommy then reflects on his dead father’s plea, addressing him respectfully that while he did his best to avoid trouble, he hopes he understands that “sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.”
It has been claimed that mention of the “Gatlin boys … there was three of them” in the song was a reference to The Gatlin Brothers. However, in The Billboard Book of Number One Country Singles, Rogers stated that he did not realize the connection, and that had he done so, he would have asked for the name to have been changed. Larry Gatlin also gave the song a positive review (“It’s a good song”). Writer Billy Edd Wheeler denied that the lyric was a reference to the Gatlin Brothers.
The song inspired a 1981 television movie of the same name, directed by Dick Lowry, who also directed all but the last of The Gambler television movie saga pentalogy. Set in Georgia during World War II, the film’s plot stayed true to the song’s lyrics and starred Rogers as Tommy’s uncle, Reverend Matthew Spencer (the singer of the song), Fredric Lehne as the troubled Tommy Spencer, Largo Woodruff as Becky, and William Schreiner as James Joseph “Jimmy” Gatlin. The movie added several characters not mentioned in the song, including: Car-Washer (Noble Willingham), a friend of the Spencer family; Violet (Ana Alicia), a local girl who also loved Tommy; and Lem Gatlin (Joe Dorsey), father of the Gatlin boys (brothers Jimmy, Paul, and Luke).
The film ends with Tommy joining the military and being shipped off to the war, right after his and Becky’s wedding ceremony (performed by Matt), and with all three Gatlin brothers going to prison for raping Becky.