According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Kenny Rogers is the eighth best-selling male recording artist of all time. (For comparison’s sake, Willie Nelson is 17th. Among country artists, only Garth Brooks and George Strait have sold more records.) From 1977 to 1984, he racked up more than $250,000,000 in record sales, topped the country singles chart 15 times and the album chart 10 times, and, during one week in 1980, landed Lionel Richie’s “Lady” in the No. 1 slot on the country, pop and R&B charts. A dozen of his recordings were named favorites of the year by the Academy of Country Music and the American Music Awards.
In short, Kenny Rogers is far more than the singer of Mickey Newbury’s trippy “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” a First Edition hit from 1968 given fresh legs 30 years later in the movie The Big Lebowski — the song bears little resemblance to anything else in Rogers’ lengthy catalog.
Whatever one thinks of the country music that dominates airplay today, Rogers deserves much of the credit for making country mainstream. Now 74, he was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this April, more than 30 years after he took country to the commercial mountaintop. The time is right for a memoir, and for a look back at one of the most influential and popular country artists of the modern era.
Though he wrote a few notable songs, all of Rogers’ biggest hits were written by others: Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”), Bob Seger (“We’ve Got Tonight”), Barry Gibb (“Islands in the Stream”), Mel Tillis (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” with the First Edition) and dozens more. Strikingly, only two of the 36 singles that charted during his solo career were written or co-written by the same person. After he settled in Nashville, Rogers and producer Larry Butler would sift through cassette tapes from known and unknown writers, listening for promising songs. As he told writer Bill DeYoung, he had a “very commercial ear.”
At his peak, Rogers was a one-man entertainment franchise. The First Edition had hosted a weekly TV variety show in the early ’70s, Rollin’ on the River, that mixed in comedy skits with name musical guests like Mac Davis and Badfinger. That experience, along with an unforced, quietly masculine charisma that played almost as well with men as it did with women, gave him a boost during his solo career. He hosted The Tonight Show several times, and his signature song, “The Gambler,” spawned no fewer than five made-for-television movies, each starring Rogers as the gambler himself, Brady Hawkes. There were few more recognizable faces on the planet.
But music was his wellspring. Rogers started out playing upright bass in a four-man harmony group at Jefferson Davis High on Houston’s north side, fell in with a jazz combo that played standards, drifted into folk with the New Christy Minstrels, transitioned to pop and rock with the First Edition and finally found his niche in what critics came to call, usually derisively, country pop. It wasn’t far from the muted country rock of the First Edition; in fact, he writes that it wasn’t until he realized the group had a small following among country music fans that he decided to move to Nashville.
Chet Atkins, Barbara Mandrell, Charlie Rich and many other country artists had tried to make their music accessible to wider audiences by sanding down some of its rough edges. But no one had enjoyed anything approaching Rogers’ success at bringing a music that was identifiably country, minus its staple pedal steel and fiddles, to the masses. His specialty was the story song, a first-person account with a tidy beginning, middle and end, punctuated by a memorable, often admonitory chorus, delivered in an understated and knowing manner. More than 30 years later, they remain stubbornly unforgettable. From “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” and “Coward of the County,” all No. 1 singles:
You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille
With four hungry children and a crop in the field
You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold’em
Know when to walk away and know when to run
Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done
Walk away from trouble if you can.
Now it won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek.
I hope you’re old enough to understand
Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.
But the same qualities that made him a megastar and admired pop culture icon — his amiable, undemanding, unassuming delivery and musical accessibility — made him a punching bag for critics. In 1983, the New York Times’ Stephen Holden used a concert review to speculate about the reasons for Rogers’ popularity: “One explanation might be the reassurance some people feel when confronted with sheer, numbing mediocrity masquerading as cultural heroism. There is absolutely nothing special about Mr. Rogers except perhaps the kingly sweep of his hair style.”
For better and worse, his memoir reads like his songs sound. He’s an amiable, self-effacing narrator and good storyteller: his account of growing up in Houston’s projects, the shy son of an alcoholic father and hard-working mother, moves briskly, and he doesn’t omit the painful parts. He admits that he was first drawn to playing music as an escape from the “awkwardness and embarrassment of growing up poor, shy, and often an outsider,” and later saw it as a way to attract girls. (On the second front, it worked only too well: when he was 17 he found out that his girlfriend was pregnant. Four days later they married, and less than two years after that they divorced. It was the first of five marriages.)
Rogers writes about looking forward to family reunions in Apple Springs, Texas, when his dad’s brothers and sisters would play fiddle tunes and hymns, but he calls the first time he heard black gospel music as a boy a defining moment. Noting that some of the hymns he heard had the same words as the hymns he sang in the First Baptist Church, he concluded that “everything about the music was in the approach taken. I have always loved all kinds of music and love hearing them played separately or merged together into a kind of fusion. I’m no purist.”
Rogers takes the reader quickly through these early years and the series of chance meetings that led to his musical shapeshifting throughout the 1960s, but there’s almost no reflection on what he did or didn’t like about the music or the kind of music he wanted to play. These are odd omissions for a musician’s autobiography. Similarly, there’s little about his early musical interests. The only artist singled out is Ray Charles, whom he saw when he was 12, and what struck him then was not so much the music but a great entertainer’s effect on his audience: “I was both wowed by the stage performance and stunned by the love and admiration the audience showed him. They applauded his music and laughed at his jokes. I left that night wanting very much to do the same thing.” Did he have no other musical heroes than Charles? Rogers was 17 when Elvis Presley was just breaking out. What did he make of him? Who did he look forward to hearing on the radio? Did he buy records at all? Was playing music only a means to an end? The reader is left to guess.
There are other curious omissions. For an artist who’s had three albums make the top 15 of the Contemporary Christian chart, it’s odd to find nothing about his faith. There’s no mention of any political views, no commentary on any contemporary artists or the music business in general, no reflection on what it’s like to be lionized by millions of fans or vilified by critics, and very little insight into what must have been, despite his denials, a vaulting ambition.
By 1980 Rogers was beginning to feel boxed in by the strictures and sameness of his material. He sought out producers beyond Nashville — first Lionel Richie, then Barry Gibb — and became increasingly identified as an “adult contemporary” star, the new name of what until 1979 had been called the “Easy Listening” chart. The arrangements became plusher; the rural themes declined. For a time his audience grew, but he began to lose his country base. He continued to crank out records at a rate of about one per year, but sales shrank. Other than 1996’s The Gift, which climbed to No. 1 on the Contemporary Christian list, the last album to top any chart was The Heart of the Matter, produced by George Martin, in 1985.
By any measure other than critical acclaim, Rogers has had a remarkable career. Despite the diversity of musical styles he’s adopted, virtually all of his recordings resemble each other in Rogers’ approach to them, and the affable, laid-back and undemanding interpreter has taken the same approach to his memoir. His fans are likely to enjoy it. But the fact that he’s not demanded more of himself in his own account of his life is likely to frustrate the rest.
— MADISON SEARLE