The most timeless songs usually deal with some aspect of the human condition, with things that have existed for as long as people have. Songs about love, loss, pleasure, pain, and even the ravages of war are favorite subjects of songs that we hear on the radio every day. One song that is still being cut that deals with every one of the aforementioned topics is “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
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Recorded in 1969 by rising pop star Kenny Rogers, whose name had just been recently put out front on the marquee with “Kenny Rogers and The First Edition,” “Ruby” was a song about a disabled war veteran whose significant other was headed uptown for some satisfaction that she couldn’t find at home. Rogers didn’t write the song, which had originally hit the country charts in 1967 as sung by a honky-tonker named Johnny Darrell. It was written by another country singer who would go on to become an entertainment legend, Mel Tillis. Contrary to what many believe, the song wasn’t written about the Vietnam war, even though it was recorded during that era and contains the line “It wasn’t me that started that old crazy Asian war.”
“Ruby is a real life narrative about a soldier coming home from World War II in 1947 to Palm Beach County, Florida,” says Tillis, himself a Florida native. “The soldier brought along with him a pretty little English woman he called ‘Ruby,’ his war bride from England, one of the nurses that helped to bring him around to somewhat of a life. He had recurring problems from war wounds and was confined mostly to a wheelchair. He’d get drunk and accuse Ruby of everything under the sun. Having stood as much as she could, Ruby and the soldier eventually divorced, and she moved on.”
As is often the case, Tillis had nothing to do with the hit recording by Rogers and The First Edition. “They were in Los Angeles recording their Something’s Burning album,” he recalls. “The way I heard it, they had 15 minutes left on the clock. (Producer) Jimmy Bowen came out of the control room and handed ‘Ruby’ to Kenny. And you know the rest.” This song is just as relevant today as it’s ever been, as American soldiers continue to return home from foreign countries with debilitating injuries that destroy their relationships. Both Rogers and Tillis still sing the song frequently in their live shows.
All songwriters should be so blessed as to have a song like “Ruby” in their catalogs. Over nearly five decades the song has been covered by numerous singers, including Waylon Jennings, Cake, the Killers, various famous European artists, even Leonard Nimoy. Not all platinum versions, obviously, but one would imagine that Tillis’ ongoing mailbox money has been pretty sweet. In June 2001, Tillis received a Special Citation of Achievement from BMI for 3,000,000 broadcast performances of the song.
While the song is most closely identified with Rogers, and helped bring him into the mega-stardom he eventually achieved, fans of Tillis regard it as perhaps the finest, and probably most enduring, song of the hundreds he’s written that have been recorded. And in this day of writing by committee, “Ruby” stands up as an excellent example of what can happen when a lone craftsman gets an idea and works it and polishes it by himself until he knows it can’t get any better.