“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition
Written by Mel Tillis
From a commercial standpoint, Kenny Rogers built himself a career worthy of study in MBA programs. Rogers got his early break in the New Christy Minstrels, but really started his lengthy presence on the charts with the band’s successor group, the First Edition. Talk about multiple musical direction disorder—the First Edition gave up folk for “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition was In”), three minutes of psychedelic pop with nonsense lyrics and voice distortion the Strawberry Alarm Clock might envy. Then came the stunning swing to country-pop with “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Though a big hit, “Ruby” must’ve failed on some personal level, because Rogers took the First Ed. into the Mac Davis songbook and back onto the charts with “Something’s Burning,” a foray into the overblown epic pop of the time ala “Crimson and Clover” and Thunderclap Newman.
Mind you, this is considered the unsuccessful part of the Gambler’s career. His calculated merging of easy listening and country into a juggernaut remained years ahead.
As we’ve got ourselves into another crazy Asian war, complete with wounded proud to do their patriotic chore, let’s go back to a time when a song with even vague anti-war sentiments could find a place on country radio. "Ruby" has interesting virtues. In an era of philosopher-generalists like Edwin Starr and John Lennon, it uses the story song format. It starts off with a breath-draining mouthful of a lyric:
You’ve painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair
And then there’s Rogers’ voice, the purr that launched a thousand hits. While not a fan, I admire his effortless singing style, a trait he shares with future duet-partner and crossover force of nature Dolly Parton. Rogers never strains, never inserts that quiver of false emotion so beloved by Garth Brooks. That’s not to say Rogers’ vibe wasn’t calculated. He knew from foolproof formulae. This is a man who once ordered a team of songwriters to write a hit in his kitchen while he finished a tennis lesson.
On "Ruby" he employs the voice in a quiet, heartfelt way that lends real emotional power to Tillis’ work. Lord knows there’s no end of country songs that express a desire to shoot a spouse. Not so many have the depth to suggest a motivation beyond infidelity (the usual reason). In "Ruby" the woman cheats, and in perhaps the least sympathetic way possible; but the rage felt by the narrator has its source in events far from home. Keep in mind this song was a big hit—millions of people listened to it repeatedly on vinyl and radio. Yet there’s some grim emotional shit going down:
This is why rational people think hard before they start a land war in Asia.
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
Don’t take your love to town
"Ruby," of course, wasn’t subversive. Even the anti-war angle is uncertain—in 1967, sympathy for wounded vets was as decent as it is today, and sufficient enough motivation for writing or recording a song. Could someone release "Ruby" today without provoking the boycotts laid on the Dixie Chicks? Not the Gambler, certainly—Rogers never took chances. It’s hard to imagine the song coming from anyone, though. A lot has changed. For one thing, we don’t see the bent and paralyzed, let alone the coffins, anymore.