12: Coward of the County

12: Coward of the County

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Coward of the County

Story by Billy Edd Wheeler

Song written by Billy Edd Wheeler and Roger Dale Bowling

Recorded by Kenny Rogers

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller sold my songwriting contract to United Artists and Murray Deutch at United Artists called me and said, “We want to set up an office in Nashville. Do you have any experience running a business?” I said, “Yes, I was director of alumni at Berea College in Kentucky. I had a staff and had to deal with budgets and hiring, and things like that.” They said, “We’d like you to go to Nashville and set up the office.” So that’s how I ended up in Nashville.

One day, Roger Bowling gave me a call. He used to live in Nashville had moved to Georgia. He wrote story songs, too. He wrote “Lucille” for Kenny Rogers and several other hits. He said, “Let’s get together. I’d like to write a story song. Do you have any ideas?” And I said, “Yes, I do. I’d like to write something about an underdog, a guy who comes from behind and wins.” For some strange reason, I was thinking of My Fair Lady. They took this little cockney girl from the poor part of England and were going to make her over and teach her how to speak and walk and talk and be like a princess. My heart went out to her because they were using her. She was just an experiment for them. So I was rooting for her to show them up.

Roger and I went up to Pine Mountain, Kentucky where they were doing an outdoor drama of mine about the Cumberland Gap. I said, “Let’s go up there and see how it’s going.” So we rented a cabin up there. Roger said, “Why don’t you go fix us a drink and I’ll get started?” I knew that, for Roger, “fixing a drink” meant pouring some Jack Daniel’s in a glass with some ice, so I did that and came back. When I did, he said, “What do you think of this? Everyone considered him the ‘coward of the county.’”

I said, “I love it. Everyone thinks he’s a coward.” I liked the alliteration, too. We didn’t know why everyone thought he was a coward, but we had a start. So then we invented the story of how his dad died in prison, and had always told his son, “You don’t have to fight to be a man.”

We were trying to figure out how Tommy, the son, would have a change of heart. 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.

Roger said that all he had to do was take his father’s picture down from the mantle. Then he wrote, “As his tears fell on his father’s face, he heard those words again.” Roger was a great songwriter. That really summarized it all.

We chose the name the “Gatlin boys” because we liked the sound of it. They were the ones who violated Tommy’s girlfriend, Becky. We tried some other names like the Barlow boys, but they just didn’t have the grit of the Gatlin boys. I didn’t realize then that Larry Gatlin had dated a girl named Becky, and had written a song about her and he got mad about that later. One time, Kenny Rogers and the Gatlin brothers were on a talk show together and they started picking on him about it and he said, “Don’t blame me. I didn’t write the song.”

We finished the song that weekend. We did a demo later and someone took it to Larry Butler, who was producing Kenny at the time. Larry recorded a lot of Roger’s songs.

We liked the drama at the end, where Tommy takes all that he can take, and then goes to the bar where the Gatlin boys are. When one of them gets up to confront him and Tommy turns around, the lines read, “Hey look ol’ yellow’s leavin” / But you could’ve heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door.”

Of course, he kicks all of their tails one by one and then says, “This one’s for Becky,” as he watched the last one fall. It was the perfect way to end the song and just the kind of comeback story we were looking for.

Coward of the County

Everyone considered him the coward of the county.

He never stood one single time to prove the county wrong.

His mama named him Tommy, but folks just called him yellow.

Something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong.

He was only ten years old when his daddy died in prison.

I looked after Tommy ’cause he was my brother’s son.

I still recall the final words my brother said to Tommy:

“Son, my life is over, but yours has 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.”

There’s someone for everyone and Tommy’s love was Becky.

In her arms he didn’t have to prove he was a man.

One day while he was workin’ the Gatlin boys came callin’.

They took turns at Becky. . . (whispers) and there were 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.

He reached above the fireplace and took down his daddy’s picture.

As the tears fell on his daddy’s face, he heard these words again.

“Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done.

Walk away from trouble if you can.

Now 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.”

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 yellows leavin’.

But you could’ve 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.

And I heard him say,

“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.”

Everyone considered him the coward of the county.

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