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Dixie Divas: Ruby, don’t take your love to town

POSTED: July 19, 2011 1:30 a.m.

It wasn’t long ago that a friend of mine — a West-coaster no less — got onto the subject of country music. Some he likes, some he doesn’t, he said. Then, he laughed and recalled one that he had recently encountered.

Somehow, he had run across the country classic, "Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town." A bit condescending, he chuckled over its lyrics. He had gotten the title wrong and most of the lyrics, but I knew what he was talking about.

"Oh my gosh!" I exclaimed. "That’s one of the great story-songs of all times. It’s a classic and certainly not anything to scoff at."

Perhaps you know it.

Kenny Rogers, who has had more resurrections in his music career than a cat has lives, made his first career with that song in 1966 when he was the lead singer with the country folk group, First Edition.

In about three minutes, a powerful story unfolds of a man who has been paralyzed while fighting for his country. He is married to what was once called a "floozie" (my words, not the song. It’s too sophisticated to have to resort to commonality, such is the artistry of the lyrics) and every night she dresses up, powders up, perfumes up and goes out on the town.

The song is told from the agonizing viewpoint of the cuckolded husband and was written by country music legend Mel Tillis, a man known for tremendous music and a strong stutter.

One of the most powerful lines has the man begging, "Ruby, I know it’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed, and Ruby, the wants and needs of a woman your age, Ruby, I realize."

It is a masterpiece to be revered, not ridiculed. I then shared a story with my friend that I’ll share with you now. For this I have learned: There’s always a story behind the story.

A few years ago, I had somehow convinced my friend, Debbie, that we should go to Branson, M.O., and see what all the hullabaloo was about. She’s not a good vacationer but she must have thought she owed me a favor, so along she went.

One afternoon, she went to see an Irish dance review and I went to Mel Tillis’ theater (it’s no longer there) to see his family show. I was sitting in the audience prior to show time and Tillis’ cousin, whom I had met earlier, saw me and waved. A few minutes later, he returned and said, "Mel would like for me to bring you backstage at intermission. He has some time and would like to meet you."

That afternoon, I spent an hour with Mel Tillis in his dressing room. College football was playing on the television (he’s a big Florida Gators fan) as he sat in a rocking chair and I sat in an easy chair.

We talked of football, his horse farm in Florida, the music business, the price of airfare, book writing and so forth. With two Southern storytellers in the room, talk turned to stories and I allowed how "Ruby" was one of the finest country songs ever written.

He nodded his thanks and didn’t stop rocking as he recalled its inspiration. "When I was growing up, we lived next door to a couple. He had been paralyzed in World War II and she liked to have a good time. My bedroom window was next to their house and every night, I’d lie in bed and hear them arguing as she got ready to go out on the town. It always stayed with me so years later, I wrote that song." He stopped rocking and winked. "Sold a lot of records, too. Made a lot of money with it."

And, in the bargain, he gave us one of the most classic story-songs ever written.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of several books. Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com/ronda.



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