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The Beloved Kenny Rogers Runs Out of Aces

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The country singer Kenny Rogers died on Friday, at his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia. In 2018, Rogers stopped performing, for health reasons, and, though the cause of his death has not yet been specified, his publicist confirmed that he had been in hospice care for some time. He was eighty-one, and left behind an…
The Beloved Kenny Rogers Runs Out of Aces

The country singer Kenny Rogers died on Friday, at his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia. In 2018, Rogers stopped performing, for health reasons, and, though the cause of his death has not yet been specified, his publicist confirmed that he had been in hospice care for some time. He was eighty-one, and left behind an extraordinary discography, including twenty-one No. 1 country songs.

One of those hits, “The Gambler,” was released in November, 1978, as the lead single for an album of the same name. “The Gambler” is the sort of song that becomes especially transcendent when cued up on a karaoke machine in a dive bar in some midsized American city, at an impolite hour, when you have no friends left in the room. People sing “The Gambler” for themselves. It was written by Don Schlitz, and recorded by a handful of country luminaries—Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare—before Rogers finally took a crack at it. Something about his rendition clicked. The song went to No. 1 on both the pop and country charts, which was less common in the late seventies than it is now. Perhaps this success can be credited to the smoothness and steadiness of Rogers’s voice, which is made more dynamic by the tiniest bit of grit—a little sand in the suntan lotion.

“The Gambler” also drew power from Rogers’s age. He found success in midlife (he had his first hit, “Lucille,” at thirty-eight), which meant that there was always something vaguely fatherly about his presence—it just felt right to receive advice from him. There’s a funny kind of authority in that uncannily robust salt-and-pepper mustache, and in the way he appeared preternaturally skilled at harmonizing, lifting his partner’s voice, as if he were an adult pushing a child on a swing. The chorus of “The Gambler”—“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away / Know when to run”—might be the single most profound piece of counsel ever dispensed via song. Who among us hasn’t clung when we should have pushed off?

Rogers was born on August 21, 1938, in Houston. His father was a carpenter, and his mother worked as a cleaner. In 2014, he told Rolling Stone that his interest in music began at twelve, when he saw a performance by Ray Charles. “It was like an epiphany,” he said. “People laughed at everything Ray said, they clapped for everything he sang. I thought, boy, who wouldn’t want to do that?” In high school, he formed a doo-wop group called the Scholars, and studied the work of R. & B. singers such as Sam Cooke; in 1958, after the Scholars disbanded, he released a moony ballad called “That Crazy Feeling” on Carlton Records, a regional label, and appeared on “American Bandstand.”

He flitted for a while between genres, messing around with psych-rock, jazz, country, and folk. In 1967, he formed a band called the First Edition. They had a hit with “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” a weird and awesome song written by Mickey Newbury. It was an early instance of Rogers taking a track that several other artists (in this case, including Jerry Lee Lewis) had already recorded, yet somehow making it richer, deeper, and more resonant. “Just Dropped In” recounts a bad trip—“I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in / I watched myself crawling out as I was a-crawling in”—though the lyrics can be adapted to almost any life-altering situation. (It is used, to delightful effect, in “The Big Lebowski,” shortly after the Dude’s White Russian is drugged.)

Rogers sold more than a hundred million records in his lifetime; he always looked terrific in a sequinned blazer. He had several compelling side hustles, including Kenny Rogers Roasters, a fast-food restaurant specializing in wood-fired rotisserie chicken. (He co-founded the chain with John Y. Brown, Jr., a chief executive of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the former governor of Kentucky.) Kenny Rogers Roasters has since ceased operations in the United States, but the chain, under new ownership, remains quite popular in Southeast Asia. (The phrase “a former Kenny Rogers Roasters in Saginaw, Michigan” does still invite a very particular sort of pathos, however.)

Of all his recordings, I especially love Rogers’s duets with Dolly Parton. The most of famous of these is, of course, “Islands in the Stream,” which was written by the Bee Gees, and named after a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The song, like many hits that have transformed into musical furniture over the years—grown ignorable and banal through sheer repetition—is more complicated than you might remember. It begins with a kind of koan: “Baby, when I met you, there was peace unknown,” Rogers sings. “I was soft inside / There was something going on.” It’s a curious and unexpected image: a person made gentle, unformed, still raw before love takes hold. Then the chorus evokes an island as a symbol of intimacy, rather than isolation: “Islands in the stream / That is what we are,” he and Parton sing. It is hard to think of a better or more comforting phrase for this particular moment.

Listening to Parton and Rogers harmonize, it’s clear that they loved each other deeply. They always insisted their relationship was platonic, and I believe them (“Tension is better if you keep it than if you satisfy it,” Rogers told Today.) They performed the song on “The Dolly Show,” a variety series Parton hosted in the early nineteen-eighties. On YouTube, the description field is merely the word “enjoy” repeated ten times, and, really, how couldn’t a person? Parton’s hair is enormous—a mountain range. Rogers is showing off about eight inches of bare chest. I feel a swell of hope each time they sing, “This could be the year for the real thing!” It always could be, and sometimes it is.

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