by Julian Spivey
Kenny Rogers announced last week that he will be retiring from touring after one last, farewell tour. This announcement gives us the opportunity to re-publish an article originally published on Rogers’ 75th birthday in August of 2013 about a particular uniqueness of his career.
Rogers is one of the most beloved artists in American music history, but also one who’s often mocked for the cheesiness many of his tunes – including some of his “greatest hits” – are embodied with.
This aspect of his career makes him truly unique, at least for me.
Rogers started out his career in a country-rock band called First Edition – which he would make some of his best music with, like the psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which sounds completely different than anything Rogers would do in his country music hit-making heyday of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. If one were to listen to this song and say “Daytime Friends” or “Through the Years” back-to-back they wouldn’t have any clue the songs were done by the same artist. In 1968, this song would hit number five on the U.S. pop charts.
The next year the group would have another top 10 in their recording of Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” – in my opinion, Rogers’ best recording – a topical song at the time during the height of the Vietnam War, being about a crippled soldier who gets revenge on his cheating woman. This song is country music to its core and features one of the all-time great final lyrics.
Shortly after these two songs made them stars the ‘60s would be over and so would the group’s popularity. Rogers would leave the group in the mid-‘70s and show up as a solo country singer in the latter part of the decade – with his first breakthrough coming in the form of his first number one country song “Lucille,” about a cheating woman looking to hook up with him as the song’s narrator in a bar when her heartbroken, farmer husband comes in explaining how “you picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.”
“Lucille,” written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum, was a break from Rogers’ earlier sound. It was more country than rock – and the psychedelia that infiltrated some of his ‘60s music was obviously left back in the ‘60s. It still worked unbelievably well. The song remains one of his three best recordings of his career – both with or without the First Edition. “Lucille” is a great story song that plays on the timeless country trope of cheating and doin’ somebody wrong. The thing that works so perfectly about it is that it’s told from the point of view of the person the cheating is going to be done with, with that person knowing full well that he would be helping this woman to cheat on her broken down husband. Rogers’ gravelly vocals are among the best he’s ever had on any recording. I’d prefer this over the crisper vocals of something like “Lady” or “You Decorated My Life.” “Lucille” will always be one of the all-time great country classics.
Next in Rogers’ career came another number one single: “Daytime Friends,” which begins this uniqueness to his career. “Lucille” and “Daytime Friends” are similarly themed songs – both cheating songs. Whereas “Lucille” has something interesting going for it (the unique point of view, fantastic vocals), “Daytime Friends” begins the cheese factor in Rogers’ music, relying on catchiness over quality. Still, for Rogers this song is mostly forgivable, unlike some of his other songs, mostly from the early ‘80s – I might not always switch the radio station when it comes on.
Rogers continued this odd streak of fantastic and cheese throughout the ‘70s with his iconic “The Gambler” and the sweet ballad “She Believes in Me,” followed by the nauseatingly lovey-dovey “You Decorated My Life” and the sort of badass, but also sort of unforgivably hokey (and strange) story song “Coward of the County” – all of which were popular with radio listeners and hit number one on the country charts.
“The Gambler” will be considered Rogers’ finest work for as long as people remember him – despite me finding ‘Ruby’ to be a superior song. “The Gambler” is one of the better story songs in country music’s history – and it’s a genre filled with fantastic story songs, especially of old – even if it has a chorus that is seemingly sung for all of eternity. “The Gambler” (written by Don Schlitz) is a good mixture of storytelling meets catchiness between the verses and chorus. The song won Rogers a Grammy Award and has been named the greatest country song of all-time by TasteofCountry.com. It’s clearly not, but it’s still an honor nonetheless.
“She Believes in Me,” written by Steve Gibb, is a song that some might disagree with me on – particularly those who likely aren’t Rogers fans. Some would say that there isn’t a whole lot of difference between something like “She Believes in Me” and “Lady” – and there may not really be – but, something about “She Believes in Me” rings true for me, whereas “Lady” just comes off as overblown cheese and is one of the most annoying tracks of its era. Rogers’ vocal on the very first ‘lady’ of “Lady” may be one of those iconic notes to many music and country fanatics, but it’s always cringe-worthy and radio station switching inducing to me. Rogers is essentially the Lionel Richie of country music and “Lady” was indeed written by the R&B legend. Numerous people would disagree, but I don’t think being the Lionel Richie of country is necessarily a good thing. Back to “She Believes in Me,” though, for a second. The song works for me because I can understand the pain of someone trying to mix their two loves in life – their significant other and their art. Rogers’ vocal is also right up there with his work on “Lucille” as one of the best of his career, with his performance of the chorus being especially powerful. It’s the closest thing to a power ballad I’m ever going to like.
“You Decorated My Life,” written by Debbie Hupp and Bob Morrison, is pretty much in the same group as “Lady” and “Through the Years” in that it’s just too much. It’s too overdone, too lovey-dovey, too cutesy. Again, it’s Rogers being the Lionel Richie of country music. Rogers has done way too much of this type of tripe throughout his career and it has been immensely popular because it makes all the women swoon, but frankly that doesn’t do a whole lot for me. It’s pure sap, but it’s pretty indicative of where country music was at during that period of time. In fact, you probably could’ve switched Rogers’ songs for Ronnie Milsap songs at the time and not have known the difference between the two. “You Decorated My Life” and “What a Difference You’ve Made In My Life” are probably the same song, we just haven’t figured it out yet.
“Coward of the County,” written by the Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, is an incredibly awkward song – probably the only song about somebody being gang raped in the entire history of country music. Probably, and thankfully, it will be the last. It’s another story song about a man named Tommy who everybody had always considered the “coward of the county” because his convict father had told him when he was younger to “turn the other cheek.” However, when Tommy’s girl, Becky, is violated by the entire Gatlin family tree Tommy has to forget all that “turning the other cheek” mess and take care of all those Gatlins – does he kill them or just beat them? “Coward of the County” is the almost unbelievably odd mixture of hokey and badass – something that really sums up Rogers’ career. Not really a bad song, but one I simply can’t listen to anymore.
That brings us to a song that is both universally loved and universally hated, but surprisingly probably more loved. That’s “Islands in the Stream,” the hit duet that Rogers did with Dolly Parton in 1983. The song was written by the Bee Gees of all people, which probably should’ve been enough of a signifier to leave it well alone, but the song became one of the biggest hits of either Rogers’ or Parton’s careers and is generally considered to be the greatest duet in country music history.
Those people are generally delusional. “Islands in the Stream” is simply puke-worthy. One of the sappiest pieces of pop music ever recorded and nauseatingly cutesy; the song represents everything that was bad about that early ‘80s period of pop-infused country music.
Something that you would hear in recordings ranging from Dan Seals’ “Bop” to Eddie Rabbitt and Crystal Gayle’s “You and I.” The vocals are fine by both Rogers and Parton and the song is catchy – this is why it was iconic and has since ingrained itself into the brains of people everywhere. One of the greatest duets of all-time? Have those people ever heard Johnny and June Carter Cash’s “Jackson” or Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” or David Frizzell and Shelley West’s “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” (like Rogers’ “She Believes in Me” something that could’ve been too sappy, but ultimately works out).
Maybe the most curious song for me in the Kenny Rogers songbook is “Love Will Turn You Around” from 1982, a song used as the theme to a cutesy film Rogers starred in called “Six Pack.” It’s a song, co-written by Rogers, Thom Schuyler, David Malloy and Even Stevens, that should be annoying in that it’s clearly very saccharine, but I think it’s something that is ultimately forgiven due to the song’s almost throwback to the First Edition style of music and vocals. It doesn’t have the same yawn factor as “Lady” or “You Decorated My Life” and it’s more happy-go-lucky. Yeah, it’s super sweet, but it passes.
I could say Rogers – who doesn’t write most of his own songs – is a hit or miss song chooser, but all of these songs mentioned after his First Edition days have topped the charts. What it really boils down to for me is simply that some of Rogers’ songs have the “it factor” and some of them clearly don’t, but it remains unusual for an artist to have this many songs that I admittedly love, but also so many songs that I absolutely loathe. I guess I’m the one who’s hit or miss with him – because over the years of listening to Kenny Rogers I’ve learned what to throw away and what to keep from his discography.