Last night, CMT aired an all-star special in honor of Kenny Rogers, the pop-country superstar who died last month at the age of 81. During that special, country stars like Dolly Parton, Rascal Flatts, Jennifer Nettles, Lady Antebellum, and Vince Gill covered Rogers’ songs. (This was a quarantine-era TV event, so of course everybody was sending in videos that they’d shot in their homes.) The married couple of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires — two great songwriters and frequent collaborators — don’t often show up on mainstream country outlets like CMT, but they were there, as well, covering the gut-ripping classic “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.”
If you were going to place a bet on which Kenny Rogers song that Isbell and Shires would take on, “Ruby” would’ve been a good use of money. “Ruby” was, in a lot of ways, Rogers’ introduction into the country music world. The country legend Mel Tillis wrote “Ruby” in 1966; it’s a bleak story-song delivered from the perspective of a paralyzed and impotent war veteran who doesn’t want his wife to leave him and to go find another man to hook up with. Waylon Jennings and Johnny Darrell had recorded versions of “Ruby” before Rogers. In 1969, Rogers was leading the psychedelic folk-rock band Kenny Rogers And The First Edition, and that band moved in a definitively country direction with their soulful and gruff take on “Ruby.” Rogers and his band took that song to #6 on the Hot 100. Many more crossover country hits would follow. (At Kenny Rogers’ farewell show in 2017, the Flaming Lips covered “Ruby.”)
Isbell and Shires, like so many other songwriters, have been playing live covers from their home during quarantine; we’ve posted videos of them taking on Radiohead and Neil Young. In their version of “Ruby,” the two of them, along with another guitarist, projected the song’s gravity while radiating a sort of shaggy and casual just-woke-up quality. Isbell wore a Billie Eilish shirt, and someone draped a truly badass 1981 Kenny Rogers tour jacket over a chair. Watch it below.
As a bonus, here’s Kenny Rogers’ famous duet partner Dolly Parton — in a room full of candles, looking extremely camera-ready — doing a lovely solo-acoustic take on Rogers’ 1977 single “Sweet Music Man“:
And here’s Michael McDonald, Kenny Rogers’ fellow magnificently bearded baritone-singing early-’80s adult-contempo hitmaker, doing a solo-acoustic take on Kenny Rogers And The First Edition’s 1967 psych-rock smash “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)“:
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit — a band that also includes Shires — have a new album called Reunions coming. It’ll be out 5/15 on Isbell’s own Southeastern label.