Revisiting Dale Hawkins' "Ruby."
"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."
Just reading those lyrics gives me chills. And depending on who is singing them, the chills double and spread and make me feel a little off balance. And the only singer who causes such enchanting uneasiness is "Suzie Q" swamp genius Dale Hawkins.
Though generally associated with the lighter, know-when-to-hold-em persona of Kenny Rogers, that 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" (though nothing touches Wagoner), it's the plaintive, angry wail of a wounded man who is, in understatement, not in the right mind set to be deceived. He fought for his country, he loves his girl and this is what he comes home to?
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.
And though Rogers' version is fine, it's too fine. Nice. It's just so... toothless. 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 territory, 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 legend who wrote and recorded the almighty "Suzie Q" nails "Ruby" better than any of the above performers. He recorded his nearly unhinged track in 1968 from the offbeat, great album "LA, Memphis & Tyler, Texas" which moves from rockabilly to something more like psychedelic swamp before Kenny Rogers and, for me, he owns it.
Hawkins digs right into the veteran's dark pain, his broken voiced insane rage, sadness and twisted agony 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. I've said this before with Nick Cave: Porter Wagoner out-Caved him with "The Rubber Room" and Hawkins did the very same with "Ruby" -- both before knowing they could. Nearing the vicinity of "In the Pines" (though not as guilt saturated or eerily elusive -- "Ruby" is a direct howl) with a distorted, sublime aberrancy, 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."