Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Kenny Rogers, “Tomb of the Unknown Love”

“Tomb of the Unknown Love”

Kenny Rogers

Written by Micheal Smotherman 


#1 (1 week)

May 24, 1986

Kenny Rogers had this thing about making catchy singalong songs about incredibly dark topics.

We’ve heard the last words of a gambler as he broke even on a train bound for nowhere.  We’ve witnessed a woman abandon her four hungry children and a crop in the field.  We’ve seen another woman leave her Vietnam veteran alone and immobile while she heads out for a night on the town.  We’ve even watched a mislabeled coward avenge the gang rape of his wife.

On all four of those songs, audiences sing along with a jaunty melody, much like the one from “Tomb of the Unknown Love.”  It’s essentially an “El Paso City” take on “Green, Green Grass of Home,” as a man recalls the tale of another young guy who was driven to murder by his unfaithful love, before revealing that he’s acted out the same scenario on his unfaithful love.  He’ll be swinging in the wind tomorrow morning, and his only unanswered question is whether he’ll live on with the same infamy as that murderous man from all those years ago.

It’s catchy.  I’ll give it that. But the storyline feels more forced than on the classics that it borrows from, and the central conceit isn’t as memorable as Rogers’ earlier hits.  A song with two murders in it should linger in the memory longer than this one does.

“Tomb of the Unknown Love” gets a B.


Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. I love Kenny Rogers but this is one of my least favorite songs by him. The fact that it hit #1 is head-scratching to me when songs like Twenty Years Ago and I Prefer The Moonlight peaked at #2.

    But it’s not a bad song. It’s just not one of his best IMO.

  2. Discovering just how good and dynamic Kenny Rogers was as an artist has been one of my most satisfying take aways from this ’80s feature.

    This song, however, has always sounded both rushed and contrived to me.

    The story telling should have slowly counted to ten instead of ending at three.

    A dude is driving across the country. When he stops to eat at a dinner he hears some creepy crying which he learns comes from a grave beneath a hanging tree holding the remains of a lover who struck his cheating girl down. He eats, drives on to his destination to kill his own cheating girl, and goes into the ground himself with aspirations of providing lovers everywhere some sort of morbid destination memorial when they put him up a stone.

    Two murders and four bodies by my count.

    Why is so little done lyrically to set a better seen in Taos, New Mexico? Why not even a whiff of the emotional content of the letter or the narrator’s motivation?

    I find even the title elusive as I assume it is a play on the tomb of the unknown soldier. Do the two tombs represent unrequited love because of the infidelity involved in the two relationships, and as such are “unknown?” Neither person in the two graves beneath the trees are anonymous or unidentified. What is unknown about the loves? What am I missing?

    Every time I hear this song I come away feeling like I have a better sense of the interaction between the waitress and the truckers in the diner then I do about anything else that happened outside the tiny mining town.

    Add some backstory and another verse or two and I could get behind the song as sung and produced.

    As it is, the song feels incomplete, and I just don’t get it.

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