On a tribute show in honor of Kenny Rogers, one of the members of the First Edition described how Kenny Rogers and the First Edition came to record “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” in 1969. It’s a story about how a classic recording came together through circumstances and time pressure.
“You Have 10 Minutes”
The band was in the studio and learned that they only had ten minutes left when the producer asked them if they had anything they could quickly record. The album needed one more song, so the producers just wanted a song to use as filler on the album.
Kenny Rogers replied that they knew a Mel Tillis song called “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” So the band played the song, and producers completed the recording with just a couple of takes. Rogers, who was in his early 30s, had a voice that captured an older man’s weariness at a frustrating relationship with his wife.
The completed song went on the album. And then it became a huge hit.
Themes in the Unusual Song
It is not surprising that the song became a hit because it is so unusual. The disturbing lyrics are sung by a disabled man fearful of his wife going to town for love. He pleads for her not to cheat on him while he is alive, reminding her he will be dead soon.
In addition to the sexual innuendo in the song, there is violence too, as the man’s injuries are from “that crazy Asian war.” And his begging and understanding turns to anger toward the end: “And if I could move I’d get my gun / And put her in the ground.” At the end, the wife is leaving and the singer prays for her to turn around.
In the hands of Kenny Rogers and the New Edition, there is something disturbing about the song. Outside of country music and hip-hop, you rarely hear similar dark themes in pop songs.
When listeners first heard the title of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” many of them might have sensed something familiar, recalling the 1958 Johnny Cash hit about a mother begging her son to avoid violence called “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” The new song took the violence of the Cash song and added sexual anguish, reflecting the openness of the 1960s for discussing such topics.
Although “Ruby” is a traditional country song, this recording was loved by young people too. Perhaps they connected with the young band, or perhaps they saw an anti-war sentiment underlying the tale.
Other Recordings of “Ruby”
Kenny Rogers and the First Edition were not the first to have a hit with “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Two years earlier in 1967, Johnny Darrell had a hit country recording of the song.
Darrell’s version is sad without being as disturbing as the Kenny Rogers version. The author of the song, Mel Tillis, performed the song too.
For you Star Trek fans, there is Leonard Nimoy’s version.
But the Nimoy version is not the oddest recording of the song. For the weirdest version, check out the one by actor Walter Brennan.
Jon Bon Jovi recorded a different song with a similar title, apparently acknowledging the “Ruby” song with his title, “Janie, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
For another modern interpretation, check out a live performance of “Ruby” by The Killers. The band often perform the song and included it on their CD of rarities and B-sides, Sawdust.
What About the Other Side?
Finally, lost in the discussion of the song is the woman’s viewpoint. Geraldine Stevens, also known as Dodie Stevens, recorded an answer song in 1969. In her song, she takes the woman’s point of view, using the same music with the title, “Billy, I’ve Got to Go to Town.”
In the “Billy” song, Ruby tells her side of the story, explaining that her husband is still her man but bemoaning his jealousy. She does not explain why she has to go to town, though: “You’ve given all you had to give and now it’s up to me . . . Billy for God’s sake trust in me.”
Is she going to work? Prostituting herself to get money for them to live? We do not get an answer in this answer song.
All of the different versions of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” have their merits. But none of those recordings quite capture the unusual and disturbing nature of the song or reflect the turbulent era in which it was recorded in the way that Kenny Rogers and the First Edition did in those ten minutes when they rushed to fill an album.
And that is the story behind the song.
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