Sometime in 1967, Nashville singer-songwriter Mel Tillis appeared on the Porter Wagoner Show to perform a song of his that was enjoying success on the country charts: “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.”
The opening lines, “You’ve painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair/ Oh Ruby are you contemplating going out somewhere,” set the listener up for a standard Country male jealousy/female unfaithfulness song, but then the next line indicates that something darker is going on: “The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is going down.”
Why does the narrator need to rely on shadows for him to know the time of day? Over the next few verses, the scenario is fleshed out: a man has returned paralyzed from an unnamed “Asian war” and is tormented nightly by the sight of his romantic partner dressing up and hitting the town without him. They both know he will die soon, and the narrator just wishes she would wait until then to see other men. She never gives him the company he craves.
The first three verses of “Ruby” build up sympathy for the narrator, but then the penultimate line yanks the rug out: “If I could I’d get my gun and put her in the ground.” The narrator, formerly a melancholic figure tormented by his evil mate, is revealed to be a monster fantasizing about killing his wife/girlfriend. At least I think he’s a monster. Does Mel Tillis?
Right at the end of the video there’s an exchange that fascinates me. Porter Wagoner congratulates Tillis on writing a fine song, and Tillis replies that he’s proud too, especially because he wrote the song about something he saw in real life.
To me, it looks like Porter is in a rush to move on after Tillis mentions the song is based on a true story, and kind of cuts him off. This could be for any number of reasons. Tillis was famously a stutterer, and Wagoner may have just not wanted him to talk too much. Porter may also have just needed to move the show along to stay on schedule. Or perhaps, most intriguingly, he knew the true tale the song was based on and didn’t want Mel to tell it and disturb the audience.
According to Wikipedia, this is the true story that inspired “Ruby”:
“[Mel Tillis] based the song on a couple who lived near his family in Florida. In real life, the man was wounded in Germany in World War II and sent to recuperate in England. There he married a nurse who took care of him at the hospital. The two of them moved to Florida shortly afterward, but he had periodic return trips to the hospital as problems with his wounds kept flaring up. His wife saw another man as the veteran lay in the hospital. Tillis changed the war in the song to the Korean War, and left out the life ending: the man killed her in a murder-suicide. In the song, the man says he would kill her if he could move to get his gun.”
If this story is true, Mel Tillis is evil! He observed a horrifying series of events and wrote a song from a murderer’s point of view, but changed the story to make it easier to root for the violent man. He should be written off as a misogynist and a promoter of violence against women. After reading the Wikipedia page, I had that opinion, but then I checked where that explanation of the song’s origins was sourced from. It turned out to be a direct quote of an anonymous, unsourced post on the lyrics website/wannabe Rap Genius competitor Songfacts.com.
I dug deeper, and found out that (surprise!) Songfacts didn’t get the facts right. Here’s Mel talking about the song’s origins to American Songwriter:
“Ruby is a real life narrative about a soldier coming home from World War II in 1947 to Palm Beach County, Florida,” says Tillis, himself a Florida native. “The soldier brought along with him a pretty little English woman he called ‘Ruby,’ his war bride from England, one of the nurses that helped to bring him around to somewhat of a life. He had recurring problems from war wounds and was confined mostly to a wheelchair. He’d get drunk and accuse Ruby of everything under the sun. Having stood as much as she could, Ruby and the soldier eventually divorced, and she moved on.”
It seems as though Mel is fully aware that the man in the “Ruby” story is the villain. Here he is again, quoting his mother talking about the couple:
“He’s just a mean old thing. He’s accusing that Ruby of everything in the world. She’s a NICE girl!”
Knowing this, I would argue that Mel wrote the song from the man’s perspective in order to increase the horror of the twist at the end of the song. The story of a poor, mistreated veteran tormented by his horrible wife shifts chillingly at the end when the listener realizes that the song is told from the perspective of an unreliable, dangerous narrator.
This kind of first-person songwriting in character is effective, but it’s also dangerous. It’s easy for listeners to misunderstand the intent and believe that they are supposed to root for the narrator. Unfortunately, this has happened to “Ruby.” Mel’s version isn’t the one that stuck in popular memory. He didn’t even record the tune originally; it was first turned into a hit by Johnny Darrell, whose version reached number 9 on the Country charts.
After that original recording, a flurry of covers were made in 1967, 1968, and 1969. By far the most famous of these, and the performance that has made this song go down in history, is the 1969 recording by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.
Kenny owns this song now, and it’s easy to see why: his silky, sung-spoken delivery adds a seductive edge to what was previously a rather square folk song. The band’s arrangement lingers on the minor chords and uses a lead guitar ostinato to create a sophisticated and catchy composition out of Tillis’s humble chords.
This version of the song seems like it has traveled a far distance from Mel’s original, and it has, but there are some precursors. I would bet a fair bit of money that the First Edition listened to previous covers of “Ruby” by the Statler Brothers and Roger Miller when coming up with their arrangement. The Statlers’ version has a similar guitar figure, and Miller’s version has the guitar and drums cut out for the final verse just like Kenny’s.
1969 marks a turning point in the history of this song. Almost all post-’69 covers of “Ruby” use the First Edition arrangement, whether sung by Leonard Nimoy:
or the Killers.
This is a problem for the song’s legacy. The catchy AM Gold vibes of the First Edition arrangement distract from the song’s horrifying lyrics, and Kenny Rogers’ delivery (and by extension that of the singers imitating him) makes it pretty unambiguous that he thinks you should sympathize with the narrator, even when the murderous statement is made at the end of the song. Just listen to how plaintive Rogers sounds when he asks Ruby, “For God’s sake, turn around.” He wants you to be asking her to turn around too, when really you should be telling her to run the hell away from that psycho!
This pernicious shift in the perception of the song’s meaning is exemplified by a comment I found on the same Songfacts page: “Whether the wicked Ruby deserved to die for her transgressions… well… that would be a matter of opinion. Laws in the USA would say no, but this is not the case in all parts of the world.” Ultimately, while Mel Tillis’ intentions in writing the piece may have been noble, the song’s reception by the public has turned it into a cultural object that glorifies and excuses violence against women, and strengthens the “evil woman” tropes the song was meant to subvert.