Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published March 23rd 2020
Country music for the masses
On March 20, 2020, country music icon Kenny Rogers died. He was 81 and his death was said to be from natural causes. That seems pretty cold, writing it like that. Kenny Rogers was one of the few country music artists to consistently cross over into the popular music consciousness. There are songs performed by and associated with Kenny that will make everyone who hears them want to immediately join in. He is just that sort of artist.
Yes, I agree that Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks, and maybe Shania Twain are better known nowadays and let us not forget that Taylor Swift started life as a country singer herself. But Kenny was there with Cash at the start of the cross-over. However, I would argue that, until the American Recordings series, Kenny had been there more consistently.
And he helped get the band that became The Eagles together, so the man is instantly a legend.
I also know that Kenny became the punchline of too many plastic surgery jokes in later years, that his music is generally derided by people nowadays, and that modern music listeners probably have no idea who this guy is. All of that is unfair when looking at the body of work the man created. Some of his songs really did make it into the public zeitgeist. His music was there and, even if we were unaware of it, it really did make a mark on a number of us, even those of us who like to deny it…
Go on, admit it – there's at least one Kenny Rogers song you like. And I reckon there's a heap of songs you forgot were by Kenny. He did not write many of his own tunes; he was more an interpreter of other people's words – like Frank Sinatra, let's be honest here – but he generally hit them out of the park.
And, on that note, here's 10 that I like! Now, yes, they stop in the 1980s, but most of my lists do. I just prefer the early stuff, that's all. And, as usual, if I've left one out that you like, add it in the comments section!
'Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town' by Kenny Rogers & First Edition (written by Mel Tillis) (1969)
A lot of country music has, at its core, a way of telling a story through music. And very few of those stories are as well-thought out, blatant and, ultimately, depressing as this tale of a returned soldier who can no longer satisfy his woman sexually, so she goes off to find love elsewhere… but he is waiting for her to return, and he is armed. The music is upbeat, sure, but, yeah, this is depressing, Rogers' smooth voice, sung in a tone approaching a whisper, really conveys the emotion of the situation. Great track.
'Desperado' by Kenny Rogers (written by Glenn Frey and Don Henley) (1977)
This cover of the 1973 Eagles' classic might not quite be as good as the original, but is still a really strong version in its own right. What lets it down a little is the backing music – over-orchestrated to my mind – yet it is Rogers' voice that carries it. He really showcases his singing chops here. This is a great example of Kenny being able to put his stamp on the material he sings.
'Lucille' by Kenny Rogers (written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum) (1977)
"You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille…" This song ticks a lot of the country music tropes, and yet it crossed over into the mainstream music charts with ease. Told from the point of view of someone who met titular Lucille in a pub, and then her husband coming in after she had left him with the kids and the crops needing to be harvested. This is very much a country song, and yet it is so easy to sing along to. Yes, despite its lyrical depression, it's still a fun song to sing.
'The Gambler' by Kenny Rogers (written by Don Schlitz) (1978)
This song brings up some weird memories. The main one is sitting around a campfire at Morook with Chris and Troy, singing this song (including some of the worst change-ups ever) and 'American Pie' purely from memory, drinking too much. The story of a man offering world-wise advice on a train over a bottle of alcohol is so well written it is amazing. I have heard a lot of other people sing this song (including Johnny Cash) but none do it as well as Kenny. This is one of my two favourite Kenny Rogers songs and, even now, if I hear it on TV or some music thing, or it comes up on my computer autoplay, I can't help but sing along to it. It is that sort of awesomeness. "You've got to know when hold/ Know when to fold 'em/ Know when to walk away/ Know when to run…" And, to be perfectly honest, the advice isn't that bad… And it did lead to a funny parody song called 'You're My Son' by The Hee Bee Gee Bees… Warning: NSFW lyrics…
'She Believes In Me' by Kenny Rogers (written by Steve Gibb) (1979)
Okay, sappy, soppy, whatever. I admit it. I also admit that I quite like this song. And that comes from one person. Her name was Melinda, and she and I had a platonic friendship that I still miss. It's a long story involving a mutual friend, but this is one of the songs that reminds me of her and what we shared, however brief that ended up being. It is a slow song with a great lyrical message and I just really like it. I didn't hear it until I was in my teens, some five years after it was released, and I still like it to this day. It has some lyrical similarities with Clapton's fine 'Wonderful Tonight', but he nails that chorus so magnificently.
'Coward Of The County' by Kenny Rogers (written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler) (1979)
Another song that tells a story, one with an actual feel-good ending, which is rare for a country song… especially after everything else that happens in it. It would lead to a 1981 film with Kenny starring as the uncle of the person in the song. Kenny didn't do a bad job, to be honest; the film was more let down by a lame script. However, the song is a really good one.
'Don't Fall In Love With A Dreamer' by Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes (written by David Ellingson and Kim Carnes) (1980)
The first of the duets that would mark a lot of Kenny's 1980s output, and not the last you'll see on this list. The thing about the partners he dueted with was how well he could match voices. This is no exception; the raspiness of Carnes' voice and the smoother sounds of Kenny's voice (though still a little rough) just meld so nicely. A little forgotten nowadays, but still a really nice piece.
'Lady' by Kenny Rogers (written by Lionel Richie) (1980)
Another slow, schmaltzy ballad, but, again, it is Rogers' delivery that lifts it from the humdrum it could well have fallen into. If this was released by a modern artist, I would expect a lot autotune; Kenny did not need that, and he sounds like he is feeling the lyrics from Lionel Richie. As far as 1980s ballads go, this is one of the better ones released.
'We've Got Tonight' by Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton (written by Bob Seger) (1983)
This cover of the 1978 track by Bob Seger is one of those cover versions where the new singer changes it up a little. By making it a duet, the subtle meaning of the song as a guy looking for a one-night stand is changed enough for them both looking for something that might not be permanent, but they accept that. It becomes an even sadder song when sung like this. Wow. And, again, their voices complement each other so well.
'Islands In The Stream' by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (written by The Bee Gees (1983)
Probably the best-known song Kenny Rogers is associated with, this duet with fellow country singer Dolly Parton took the world by storm, and remains there in people's minds to this day. It is also the second of my two favourite Kenny songs. The lyrics – by the Gibb brothers – were ones I found a little confusing when the song first came out, but as I got older and realised the metaphor behind it, it is quite intelligently written song about love between two people making their lives stand still while the world (the "stream") continues to rush past them. Deep. But a great song. I also remember this song getting voted the number one duet of all time. Not sure if I'd go that far, but top 5 easily. And the chorus was used in the vastly under-rated hip-hop song 'Ghetto Supastar' by Pras (1998).
And there you have it – 10 songs to remember Kenny Rogers by. Like I said, please feel free to add other tracks you like in the comments section.