Ruby’s Lips and Tinted Hair

“You painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair”

Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere? If you know Kenny Rogers from his pathetic later career as a panderer of faux earnest country clich√©– the kind of middling pap that has always given country music a bad name– you might be surprised by a song from his early repertoire, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. The song was written around 1967 by country singer Mel Tillis who had a serious stutter when he spoke but not when he sang. It was covered by– do you believe this?– Leonard Nimoy, among others, but not successfully until Kenny Rogers and the First Edition took a shot at it in 1969.

I always admire economy in writing– that first line is a marvel. In one stroke, he has set the scene and imputed her motives and honesty– her “tinted” hair. Ruby never speaks in the entire song, never answers the narrator, never even seems to respond to him. Ah the poignant “but it won’t be long, I’ve heard them say, until I’m not around”. Don’t go cheat on me now– wait ’til I’m dead. It will be soon.

But the real marvel of the song is how unselfconscious it is. The narrator is crippled and paralyzed from “that crazy Asian war”. But he is proud to have done his “patriotic” chore. Boy, there is one born every minute, isn’t there? He is no longer “the man I used to be” and acknowledges Ruby’s needs as a woman. Then he says:

And if I could move,
I’d get my gun and put her in the ground

which is about as economical as you can get when describing how you’d like to murder your faithless wife, even if it’s not her fault that you are incapable of giving her love.

In the video I found on Youtube, Kenny Rogers appears to be posturing, making a fetish of restraint there, but the girl with the tambourines is fun to watch. And yes, this is an honest-to-god live performance.

Rogers actually put out a couple of interesting songs late in the 60’s, including the weird “I Just Dropped in to See What Condition my Condition was in”, but he was bit too old for psychedelia, and his instincts were not with rock’n’roll. He shortly split from “The First Edition” and went country. He discovered it was more profitable to produce inane, predictable ballads like “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave me Lucille” and “The Gambler”.

The question about Kenny Rogers moves from, “why did he go bad” to “why was he ever any good?” The answer: he was more influenced by the counter-culture in his early career. And he had a cool chick with tambourines in the band.

What does that last line mean? “For God’s sake, turn around.” A last desperate plea for Ruby to come back. Or does it really mean, “don’t look at me”?

Kenny Rogers is the evil twin of Kris Kristofferson.


Wikipedia on This Song

When Kenny Rogers performed the song in the 1990’s and later, audiences joined in, clapping and laughing, and wailing along-“Rubeeeeeee….. don’t take your love to town!” and you knew that the women in their bulging pastel pant suits were all thinking of waiting for their broken hubbies to go to bed so they see if there was any action in the lounge… Are we all killers? This is a song about a man who was paralyzed in a war wanting to kill his unfaithful wife. A little jarring then, isn’t it, to learn that Tillis was inspired to write this song by a real-life couple known to his family back in the 1950’s, a paralyzed World War II vet, whose wife did indeed take her love to town.

And he did indeed get his gun and “put her in the ground”. Hilarious.

Kenny Rogers can also be glimpsed at the beginning of the Poppy Family’s “Where Evil Grows”, on Youtube. He briefly hosted a syndicated TV variety show in the early 1970’s. It’s a weird video. Watch Susan Jacks’ face– it looks a lot to me like the dancing bit was someone else’s idea. She seems to periodically remember to move her hips. And that is quite an outfit. More on Susan Jacks.

In 1986, the combined readership of USA Today and People magazine– get this– picked Kenny Rogers as the favorite singer of all time. I repeat: the favorite singer of all time. And that poll, my friends, should go down in history as the greatest collective act of aesthetic absurdity of all time.

Does this surprise you: his fifth wife gave birth to twins when he was 65.

In 1994, Rogers couldn’t resist the temptation to insult every jazz singer in the country by trying to pass himself off as one with an album of jazz standards called “Timepiece”.¬† God help us.

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