The Meaning Behind “Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers

Everyone considered him the coward of the county. It’s a grabby beginning that sets the tone for one of the most iconic story-songs in the annals of country music. As delivered by the authoritative tones of Kenny Rogers, “Coward of the County” was a no-doubt smash, released as it was at the height of Rogers’ crossover popularity in 1979. The song topped the country charts and made it to No. 3 on Billboard’s pop charts, which, to that point, meant it was Rogers’ biggest hit. (It would remain that for only a year, when Rogers scored his first pop No. 1 with “Lady.”)

Videos by American Songwriter

[RELATED: Who Wrote Kenny Rogers’ No. 1 Hit “Lady”?]

“Coward of the County” has stood the test of time as one of Rogers’ and country music’s finest efforts. But what exactly is the song about? Who were the writers behind this classic? And what was that controversy regarding another popular country band that was name-checked (sort of) in the lyrics in a most unflattering way? Read on to find out the answers.

The Story Singer

Even from his earliest days in music, Kenny Rogers displayed a knack for being able to bring listening audiences along with him when telling a story in song. Perhaps the best early example, when Rogers was still a member of The First Edition, was “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” It’s a pretty chilling tale when you get down to it, but there was something soothing in Rogers’ delivery that made it go down a little smoother.

Once he moved on to become a solo artist, Rogers showed the versatility to move back and forth between romantic fare and those rough-and-tumble story-songs. “The Gambler” became the standard-bearer for the latter group.

It made sense, then, that his 1979 album, Kenny, would include one of these narrative tales. First, Rogers delivered to the sentimentalists with the lead single, “You Decorated My Life,” which became his third solo Top 10 pop hit and his sixth song to top the country charts. Next up was “Coward of the County,” a song whose subject matter went to a much darker place than “The Gambler”’s.

The Writers

Billy Edd Wheeler was already a veteran of the country music scene when “Coward of the County” came along, with a long list of songwriting credits, including “Jackson,” made famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter. Roger Bowling was a bit younger and still trying to make his way as an artist while also writing for others. Rogers surely felt comfortable with Bowling’s work, as he’d scored a big hit with the heartache anthem “Lucille,” written by Bowling and Hal Bynum.

As this pair sat down together to write, it was Wheeler who got the ball rolling by saying that he imagined writing a tale that played up a victory for the underdog. Bowling then came up with the title, which started the two imagining what that might look like. They then fleshed out the story from there.

The fates of the two songwriters would diverge from there. Billy Edd Wheeler turned 90 years old in December 2022. But Roger Bowling was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was still in his thirties. Not long after that, he took his own life in 1982 at the age of 38.

What’s the Story Behind the “Coward of the County?”

What Wheeler and Bowling concocted was a riveting story that’s also full of killer lines, which Rogers delivered with just the right mixture of wisdom and menace. The story is told by the uncle of the titular character, whose birth name is Tommy. As it turns out, the reason he never stood one single time to prove the country wrong is that his father, who died in prison when Tommy was only 10, warned him not to follow the same path. But the narrator/uncle foreshadows the song’s climax when he says, Something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong.

“Coward of the County” takes its darkest turn when it’s revealed that Tommy’s true love, Becky, is assaulted by a gang called the Gatlin Boys (more on them later) when Tommy is away. Although the word ‘rape’ is never used, it’s easy to imply the nature of the assault: They took turns at Becky, ‘n’ there was three of them, Rogers sings with barely-hidden disgust. When Tommy finds out what happens, he takes a picture of his deceased father down from the mantle and hears his words of warning one more time, but he can no longer heed them.

Tommy enters the barroom hangout of the Gatlins and endures their catcalls when it seems like he’s going to head out the door without confronting them. But then Rogers delivers the key line in chilling fashion to let everyone know the tables are about to turn: But you could have heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door. After throttling the gang, Tommy returns to his father’s words and asks for forgiveness since he felt it necessary to ignore them. When Rogers returns to the opening line of the song to close it out, we know how inaccurate that title has been all along.

The Gatlin Boys and the Gatlin Brothers

Around the same time “Coward of the County” was hitting the charts, Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers were at the peak of their country music success. Yet here was a song that depicted a family named Gatlin as the worst kind of criminals. Was that an intentional dig by the songwriters?

That’s difficult to say. Larry Gatlin has spoken in interviews about the hassles that he and his brothers took from some fans who confused the song for reality. He also says that Bowling held some kind of grudge against him, which is why that name was used. The songwriters denied it, and Rogers said he would have changed the name had someone asked him.

In any case, that little controversy is nothing but a footnote to this standout track. “Coward of the County” proved to be the perfect marriage between an expertly constructed story-song and an artist in Kenny Rogers who delivered those songs like no other.

Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

5 Songs You Didn’t Know Mick Mars Wrote for Mötley Crüe