East of Normal
The Coward, the Redneck, and Kenny Rogers
One of many neat things about Nashville is that sometimes you get to meet country music stars, young and old. I’ve met Little Jimmy Dickens, Garth Brooks, Rodney Crowell, Martina McBride, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Waylon Jennings; had Randy Travis behind me in line to get a table at Rotier’s; very nearly sideswiped Ricky Skaggs on West End; and on and on. One I haven’t met yet — and am very much looking forward to meeting — is Kenny Rogers, and when I do, I’m going to kill him. Whatever it takes, that fucker’s going down. And it’s all about that damn song.
In 1980, when I was a senior in high school, that phone-sexing scumbag had a big hit with “Coward of the County.” The premise of the song is this: Violence is never the answer, but then again, sure it is. The protagonist walks away from fighting for his woman in the first two verses, but when the villains go too far, he spends the third verse kicking everybody’s ass. For a 17-year-old full of rage, that song was inspiring. I took it as an invocation.
It was January of 1980. His name was David Dawson, and he was kind of a douche. I mean, not bad, he just talked a lot, and his neck was pretty red. He was a short guy, but built. We both washed dishes at the Regional Medical Center. I was part-time, he was a high school dropout and full-time. I’d heard how one day not long after he was hired he and Glenn Carter had gotten into a fistfight in the dish room and security had to be called. That warranted David’s first write-up. (You got one; second offense and you were out on your keister.)
On New Year’s Eve I had big plans. I was going to work the day shift, go home, wash all the funk off me, and go try and score beer with a couple of other nerds. Halfway through my shift, Flo the supervisor tracked me down and asked if I’d mind double-shifting. David had called in sick, and I was naïve enough to think, gee, that’s too bad, I hope he feels better soon. I double-shifted, and missed a lot of the good riddance to the ’70s revelry. Several days later, David bragged to me that he hadn’t been sick, and I told him that I’d had to cover for him. I was mad, but I was too passive-aggressive to say I was mad, and I think he sensed that he didn’t have to worry about me jumping his shit. He had me pegged. I was the coward of the county. A few days later, Tim Smith told me that David had said, “I don’t know if Womack is scared of me, or petrified of me!” Now I was really mad, like Joe Strummer mad. I’d been living the first two verses of that damn Kenny Rogers song all my young life, and as David’s remark rattled around my head the next two days, I became convinced that it was time to bring my wimp ass careening into the third verse.
I came to work the next day seething. I was going to make Kenny Rogers proud. I was going to slug David Dawson so hard, I was going to kick his ass with such serene malevolent panache that he was going to struggle to his knees and beg me for forgiveness, fall at my feet and plead for me to enlighten him on a better way of living. I saw him by the dishwasher, told him I wanted to talk to him; he met me over in the cart-washing station, where I looked at him for a second. And I swung. I swung at his head. I didn’t hit anything but air. His eyes went wide, uncomprehending. The next second took five minutes as David’s redneck scrapper brain processed what was going on. At the end of that five-minute second, David pivoted back on one foot and shot out his right fist directly into my jaw. It hurt. Things began to blur. We were surrounded by people. Suddenly security was there. Then David was in my face saying, “You fucked up, Womack! You just cost me my job!”
Indeed I had. The boss, Mrs. Yonts, called me into her office. I pleaded with her to fire me and keep him. At no point had I considered that I was going to cost a dropout redneck a job he needed more than I did. Now I was feeling tremendous guilt. When David came out of Mrs. Yonts’ office, freshly fired, he found me and asked when I got off work. I told him 9 o’clock. “I’ll be waitin’ on ya,” he said, and left. I had about an hour to go on my shift, leaning over a giant aluminum sink with my Brillo pad and my spray nozzle, my mind spinning endless scenarios, all of them ending with David Dawson kicking my ass. I wished I’d never been born, or Kenny Rogers either, for that matter.
He didn’t kick my ass. My entreaties to Mrs. Yonts had mollified him. He screamed at me and whacked me upside the head once and broke my glasses, then walked away. I spent months consumed with guilt, because he was fatherless and supporting his mother. Later, I found out he was working construction and doing well. Fast forward 25 years and he showed up at a house concert I was playing in Earlington, Ky. I apologized for everything, but he stared at me quizzically — he didn’t remember any of it. What consumed me and still sears me, he didn’t remember at all. Well, I remember, I remember well. I’ve never tried to slug anyone since that day almost 37 years ago; but then again, I’ve yet to meet Kenny Rogers.