"She’s leavin’ now ’cause I heard the slammin’ of the door. The way I know I’ve heard it slam one hundred times before. And if I could move I’d get my gun and put her in the ground. Oh Ruby, for God’s sake turn around."
Though generally associated with the lighter, know-when-to-hold-em persona of Kenny Rogers, the song "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" has always worked a bewitching magic that makes it especially tragic, especially haunting. Right up there with the all-mighty Porter Wagoner's "Cold Hard Facts of Life," it's the plaintive, angry wail of a wounded man done one of the ultimate wrongs. He fought for his country, he loves his girl and this is what he comes home too?
Written by Mel Tillis about a disabled veteran suffering a straying wife after returning from that "crazy Asian war" (Tillis intended the Korean war), it was first recorded by Johnny Darrell, who made it a hit in 1967. Waylon Jennings and Roger Miller also recorded the song and numerous covers have followed, from seemingly every type of performer. The list includes Carl Perkins, Bobby Bare, The Statler Brothers, Faron Young, Cake, The Killers and even Leonard Nimoy, who actually pulls off a quietly sincere version, much more than say, The Killers. I'm sure The Killers admire the song, but once they felt any whiff of amusement about taking this love to town, they needed to step the hell off. Don't force "Ruby." You have to earn the right to slay that one -- even if you're named The Killers.
And though I think Rogers' version is fine, it's certainly not the best. It's too... nice. Interesting Rogers made it the enormous hit it became, even as it reportedly angered some veterans. Initially a smash with his band The First Edition, and then re-recorded later as the superstar solo artist he had become, many thought he was singing about the Vietnam War -- and he was being a bit too light about it. Or that he was just too lightweight. Again, this is Porter Wagoner country, even if he never recorded the song -- you want to feel sublime biblical anger coming out of a tender-hearted now wrathful man. I want to feel the blood of Jesus soaking through that Nudie Suit. When the betrayed one beseeches Ruby to turn around, you better believe he damn well means it.
This is why Dale Hawkins, that Louisiana-born, rockabilly, swamp genius who wrote and recorded "Suzie Q" nails "Ruby" better than any of the above performers. I think so, anyway, and you can disagree. But you won't change my mind. He recorded it in 1968 (from the album "LA, Memphis & Tyler, Texas") before Kenny Rogers, and for me, he owns it.
Hawkins digs right into the veteran's dark pain, his broken voiced insane rage with a deep, murky beauty that understands just how crazy and terrible the man feels. Nick Cave had to have heard this one -- and then skipped a cover when compiling his Murder Ballads. Hawkins out-Caved him, before knowing he could, nearing the zip code of "In the Pines" (which may be the greatest murder ballad of them all). Why isn't Hawkins' version the quintessential "Ruby"? Too weird? Too close to the bone? Too damn true? Whatever the reason, he shines on the swampiest, craziest "Ruby."