As Pete said, we’re casting our musical net a little more widely these days, ranging cautiously into country new and old, and the occasional new music that catches our variable fancy. So here’s a country song that hit number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Interesting because this record hit only number 9 on the Billboard country chart. Kenny Rogers, who was in 1969 still the long-haired, earring-bedecked bass player who fronted the First Edition, wasn’t considered a country act at all. He and the band had only one big hit before “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town),” the psychedelically goofy Mickey Newbury-written “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” (Here’s KR & the FE playing it on the Smothers Brothers show, while also pretending to be Steppenwolf.)
Here’s the “Ruby” vinyl:
As pretty much everybody knows, “Ruby” is the story of a paralyzed veteran whose pretty young wife leaves him alone night after night to go out and party. He’s trying to be understanding, we think at first, and reminds her she won’t be expected to be loyal much longer:
It’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed
And the wants and the needs of a woman your age, Ruby, I realize,
But it won’t be long, I’ve heard them say, until I’m not around
But she is indifferent, and he burns with resentment:
If I could move, I’d get a gun and put her in the ground
Ruby, don’t take your love to town
And the famous last line:
Ruby … for God’s sake, turn around
To our ears, this could be nothing but a country record — it’s almost impossible to imagine it crossing over to pop or AC radio today. But in the free-for-all that was Top 40 in the mid to late ’60s, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place at all. It was a topical song of course at the time, and a lot of its power comes from how Kenny underplays it, creating real character through Mel Tillis*’ anguished lyrics. He sounds both exhausted and enraged, and the threat at the end is quite persuasive.
Country has changed a lot since the ’60s, of course, but one of the things that attracts people (or me, at least) to country is the songs are, on the whole, very much more driven by the words (indeed, sometimes it seems there are only about six country melodies). Even with so much country crossing over to pop, there are still plenty of hits that tell stories or have character lyrics and that will never be heard on pop radio. Right now, Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck” — another sad song about a soldier that is nevertheless not gratuitously “anti-war” — is working its way up the charts.
It’s not a first-rate song, but, like the best country music, it’s an attempt to appeal to common feelings through anecdotes and particulars, rather than the big-emotion bombast that’s more common in rock (and which I also often love). That emphasis on “real life” and evoking emotion with the everyday is one of country’s great strengths. Sometimes country artists even write songs about it:
*Country artists were and are not universally conservative politically, though that is often how they were perceived. Like “Ruby,” the superb Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell “Galveston” could be understood as having an anti-war message — although also like “Ruby,” the message is conveyed by imagining the thoughts of an individual soldier rather than by half-baked sloganeering or childish political posturing.