Kenny Rogers: 1938 - 2020

How a hit-making country-pop hybrid proved to be the Gambler's winning hand.

by
Image courtesy of Universal Music.

In his signature song, “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers sang, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right.” It took him two decades of gambling with one genre or the other — among them rockabilly, folk and psychedelic rock — until he learned to play it right, but once he did, he never looked back: A country-pop hybrid aimed at mainstream audiences proved to be the winning hand for Kenneth Donald Rogers, who died of natural causes on March 20, 2020, in Sandy Springs, Georgia, while in hospice care. He was 81.

Rogers defined the term country crossover. He didn’t subscribe to the traditional country sound of fiddles and pedal-steel guitars, or embrace the sharp-edged audaciousness of Waylon and Willie’s outlaw tales. The polish of Rogers’ recordings and vocals, which were both brawny and tender, seemed intended as much for the pop audience as for the country crowd. He found favor in the pop world regularly, placing dozens of singles and albums onto the Billboard pop charts — his recording of Lionel Richie’s “Lady” led the Hot 100 — while simultaneously earning more than 20 No. 1 hits on the trade publication’s country charts, including such staples as “Lucille,” “Coward of the County” and “Islands in the Stream.” The lattermost song, a Bee Gees-written duet with Dolly Parton, topped the Hot 100 and country charts in 1983.

Handsome with an everyman appeal, Rogers parlayed his success in music into a side career as an actor. He starred in, among other films and TV shows, the 1980 TV Western Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, based on his Grammy-winning hit.

Rogers’ ascension to the pantheon of the entertainment industry was circuitous. Born Aug. 21, 1938, in Houston, Texas, he sang in rockabilly and jazz outfits as a youth, before joining the popular folk troupe the New Christy Minstrels in the mid-’60s. Taking several of its band members with him, Rogers formed the First Edition, which signed with Reprise Records and landed a No. 5 single with the driving, Mickey Newbury-penned psych-rocker “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” in 1968. His popularity as the group’s frontman allowed him to soon take top billing, and the following year saw Kenny Rogers and the First Edition back in the Top 10, this time with “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”

The non-threatening Rogers and his band appeared on TV variety shows often, and by 1971 they’d landed their own series, Rollin’ on the River. But by the mid-’70s the First Edition had called it quits, and Rogers commenced his reinvention as a solo country artist. It took him a couple of years to find a foothold, but the 1977 release of “Lucille,” his first No. 1 country single, taken from his eponymous No. 1 sophomore album, set him on the course to superstardom.

Rogers’ formula was a simple one. Following the lead of “countrypolitan” artists like Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich, he gave his music a contemporary buffing that distanced it from country’s rural aesthetic, though not too far. Rogers’ recordings were sleek, but they were down-homey as well; his awards shelf included trophies not only from CMT and the Academy of Country Music but Grammys (three in all) and American Music Awards. His duet partners included both country artists like Ronnie Milsap and Dottie West and pop singers such as Sheena Easton and Kim Carnes.

Rogers’ popularity ultimately transcended entertainment altogether. He opened a fast-food chicken chain, Kenny Rogers Roasters (the crux of a 1996 Seinfeld episode), became a successful author of photography-based books and busied himself as a philanthropist. He even appeared in a GEICO commercial.

But he continued to delve into music even as his commercial success in that area dimmed, recording material in his familiar country-pop style as well as gospel. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013, the same year he performed at England’s rock-centric Glastonbury Festival.

Rogers retired from performing in 2017, two years after announcing he intended to quit the road, and was joined at his final Nashville gig by a who’s who including Richie, Kris Kristofferson, Chris Stapleton, the Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum and Parton, among many others.

Following Rogers’ death, Parton said, in a video posted to social media, “Kenny is in a better place than we are today, and I’m pretty sure that he’s going to be talking to God sometime today ... and he’s going to be asking him to spread some light on a bunch of this darkness. I loved Kenny with all my heart. My heart’s broken. A big ol’ chunk of it has gone with him today.”

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