Country star Mel Tillis wrote this song, which tells the story of a wounded soldier who has returned home to a woman who shows him little sympathy, leaving him to go out at night and enjoy the company of other men. All he can do is beg her to stay home and keep him company, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.
Tillis based the song on a couple who lived near his family in Florida. In real life, the man was wounded in Germany in World War II and sent to recuperate in England. There, he married a nurse who took care of him at the hospital. The two of them moved to Florida shortly afterward, but he made periodic return trips to the hospital as problems with his wounds kept flaring up. His wife saw another man as the veteran lay in the hospital.
Tillis was the first to release this song, including it on his 1967 album Life's That Way. Waylon Jennings, Johnny Darrell, The Statler Brothers and Bobby Goldsboro all recorded the song later that year, with Darrell's version going to #9 on the Country chart. Kenny Rogers recorded the definitive version with his band The First Edition in 1969, taking it to #2 in the UK and to #6 on both the Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts.
Tillis changed the war in the song to the Korean War, and left out the life ending: the man killed her in a murder-suicide. In the song, the man says he would killer if he could move to get his gun.
A lot of controversy surrounded this song when it became a hit for Kenny Rogers in 1969, as the Vietnam War was raging and the song was often assumed to be about a man who came home crippled from that war. Rogers would perform the song in a jovial manner, and the crowd would often clap and sing along, so to some it was seen as disrespectful to veterans. In a 1970 interview with Beat Instrumental, Rogers defended the song, saying: "Look, we don't see ourselves as politicians, even if a lot of pop groups think they are in the running for a Presidential nomination. We are there, primarily, to entertain. Now if we can entertain by providing thought-provoking songs, then that's all to the good. But the guys who said 'Ruby' was about Vietnam were way off target – it was about Korea. But whatever the message, and however you interpret it, fact is that we wouldn't have looked at it if it hadn't been a GOOD song. Just wanna make good records, that's all."