Kenny Rogers is a few years younger in this picture, but this one is my favorite of him. He’s a cross-over artist who, in his prime, sang both ballads and love songs. One song, “The Gambler,” even became a movie starring him, Reba McEntire, and others.
When I wrote my post for Monday, I couldn’t help but to think of a couple of his songs that illustrated the points literary agent Donald Maass made in his lecture in Nashville last month. If you want to see Maass’s concepts in action—the fastest action possible—listen to some Kenny Rogers songs.
Monday, I shared my notes on the healing-a-hurt story/character arc (might help to give that post a once-over before finishing this one). One of the songs Rogers put out in 1979, “Coward of the County,” written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, is a quick study of someone’s pain, the root cause of it, and how he deals with it.
In this song, we learn about our protagonist, Tommy. Everyone calls him “yellow” because he wouldn’t stand up for himself. They figured he was a coward, that they could do anything to him and he’d just slink away.
The lyrics quickly reveal why Tommy never stood up for himself—his father, who died in prison, had asked him to promise not to follow in his footsteps. “Walk away from trouble if you can,” his father tells him. “You don’t have to fight to be a man.”
Tommy evidently honored his promise at a tremendous personal cost.
He’s in love with Becky, a young woman he treasures because he doesn’t have to prove himself to her. But “the Gatlin boys came calling,” the song says, and the results were horrible for Becky. Maass says to find the worst thing that could happen—and this is it. This is what it takes to get Tommy to do the one thing he vowed he’d never do: break his promise to his father. Still, he struggles when he hears in his mind his father asking him to turn the other cheek.
When he confronts the Gatlin boys at a bar, they laugh at him, call him “yeller.” But “you could’ve heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door.”
The click of the lock signals the change in Tommy’s character and reputation. He beats the ever-lovin’ tar outta those guys, raining upon them every ounce of pain he’d suffered his entire life because of his promise.
“I hope you understand,” he says to his deceased father. “Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.”
In five stanzas and two refrains, we’ve covered everything I mentioned Monday: the problem and the depth of it, the reason behind it, who exploits it, who understands it, what he does about it, what triggers his change, how he faces it, and how he reconciles himself to it. Quickest lesson possible.
Let’s take it a different direction with Rogers’ 1999 release “The Greatest,” written by Don Schlitz. If you’ve never seen this video, you need to—it’s the cutest thing on the planet.
The protagonist in this story is simply “Little Boy.” He announces to an empty field that he’s “the greatest player of them all.” He tosses the ball up in the air, then swings at it.
Does he give up? Of course not. He’s unaware of his lack of talent. He’s the greatest!
So, we have strike two, not that it fazes him. He’s the greatest!
Then we witness strike three.
Well, he is a little boy, after all, so when he’s called home to supper, we kind of expect him to be dejected. Three pitches, three strikes. He’s out.
But we get taken by surprise as he “reframes” his conflict. He may be an awful batter, but he’s still the greatest. Why?
“Even I didn’t know I could pitch that good.”
Oh this is good! I am a Kenny Rodgers fan too. Great examples for all story tellers, regardless of their medium. I love “The Greatest” as well. What a difference a little change in perspective makes.
“The Greatest” is one of my favorite of his non-romance songs.