There’s no genre of songs I enjoy more than protest songs. And there’s no sub-genre I enjoy more than protest songs that don’t sound like protest songs.
I mean, I love angry young men and women bashing away at a guitar and singing about all the wrongs in the world they’d like to right as much as the next person. I enjoy their passion and respect the channelling of their voice and conscience into a form of art which asks questions far too many people would prefer to avoid thinking about.
Indeed, my favourite song of all time is Barry McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction”, written by PF Sloan, which does that better than any other song I’ve ever heard, and which could be sung with only minor changes to the lyrics and still be true today.
But a more subtle protest song can get into places more overt protests can’t.
One such song is “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”. Its innocuous “country shuffle” accompaniment and deliberately understated emotions gets into ears which would turn off the radio or change stations in a split second if a more overt protest song came on.
The first version of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” I heard was by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, but the song had been around for a few years before that.
Written by outlaw country legend Mel Tillis in the mid-1960s, it was first recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1966. Johnny Darrell also had a country hit with it in 1967 before the newly-minted Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (prior to that, it had just been The First Edition) recorded the version which most people would instantly think of in 1969.
With no disrespect to those other performers, Kenny Rogers’ voice was perfect for “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”. There’s something in his tone that carries feelings of hurt so well, without having to dial up the emotions to the point where a song becomes unlistenable. Not many singers, then or now, can pull that off successfully.
You feel the hurt in Kenny Rogers’ voice right from the start…
You’ve painted up your lips
Rolled and curled your tinted hair
Ruby, are you contemplating
Going out somewhere?
The shadow on the wall
Tells me the sun is going down