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The dealin's done: Looking back at the career of Kenny Rogers

Lord, he was born a gamblin' man.

Lord, he was born a gamblin' man. Associated Press

Learning Kenny Rogers died without incident, surrounded by family, will stoke the envy of some readers. In the era of social distancing, many of us should be so lucky.

But “without incident” also applies to the bulk of Rogers’ recorded music. The country legend who died at 81 specialized in performances that took advantage of his natural warmth and his talent for steering clear of trouble. He formed part of a claque of global superstars whose music no one needed to play for themselves because supermarkets and car service waiting areas offered “Lady” and “Through the Years” free of charge, thank you.

Invulnerable to the aesthetic wanderlust of Merle Haggard, diffident about clothing himself in a Johnny Cash-like mythos, Rogers peaked during an epoch when radio programmers weary of disco turned to gauzier emollients. If you were a teen in 1981, your parents bought Greatest Hits, not you, but “I Don’t Need You” competed for airplay with “Jessie’s Girl” and “You Make My Dreams” and “Bette Davis Eyes,” by once and future duet partner Kim Carnes. No one has ever used the phrase “a Kenny Rogers deep dive,” much less said it aloud unless to ward off the evil eye, but these are strange times.

Listening to the hits anew, though, is a reminder how familiarity obscures detail. Rogers’ stint as bassist for the First Edition often goes unheralded, and the low-key amiable lope of 1969’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” depends on the collaboration between his rhythmic sense and the faintest traces of menace that his bearded ardor can offer; it’s how he snuck in Mel Tillis’ line about “the crazy Asian war” into the Billboard top ten, his second. The First Edition actually recorded some cool shit in which country audiences showed little interest, like “Reuben James,” a thank-you from a poor white boy to the “no-account, sharecropping colored man” who raised him. At their best they were “Cloud Nine”-era Temptations playing in a barn: “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In” begins with a conventional fiddle part that their engineers spin backward as if to tease audiences. During the band's headiest moments Rogers’ grin never crinkled; a creepiness to his sunny disposition akin to Ronald Reagan’s gives these performances their tension, for better or worse.

A solo act whose mid-’70s profligacy bewilders even country fans, Rogers insisted on crossing over pop, and for a while succeeded, like many an icon, in bringing pop to him. Human sexual relations fascinated him; he was the Germaine Greer of the wan, bearded country narrative. He took the sunny rape/vigilante Charles Bronson reverie “Coward of the County” into the top three and, amazingly, to the top of the UK chart. In “Lucille” he resists a drunk woman’s advances. “You Decorated My Life” is a thank-you to a steadfast partner that doubles as a valentine to Michaels. But female duettists teased him out of his calcifying self-satisfaction: a superb album with Dottie West, Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” with Sheena Easton, Carnes on “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer.” Most remunerative of these partnerships was with Lionel Ritchie, fellow Beloved Entertainer, whose oil-slick melodies and taut arrangements turned Rogers into a performer as statuesque as the subject of “Lady.”

Whether the curious will even in these times of forced isolation dip into the squishier corners of the Rogers oeuvre remains a mystery. A martinet of a producer could scare him into conviction like George Martin did with 1985’s “Tomb of the Unknown Love”; it’s easy to imagine Kenny ‘n’ mandolin alongside Emmylou, Dolly, and Linda on 1987’s Trio. But the rest of us will settle for a pair of karaoke chestnuts: “The Gambler,” of course, and, best, “Islands in the Stream,” the Bee Gees-written Parton duet in which she and Rogers uncover more erotic play in an Ernest Hemingway novel than Papa did. “The AC transubstantiation” of Parton’s work with Porter Wagoner a decade earlier, according to Eric Weisbard in his bookTop 40 Democracy, “Islands in the Stream” presents a het-up Kenny stretching notes instead of staring at them as if they were funny birds. Clearly they did something to each other they can’t explain, not even with fine-toothed combs—an experience Rogers had the cred to share.

Although he faded into semi-fame as Christmas album stalwart and fast food chicken purveyor, Rogers as benign commercial spirit never left, not when Garth Brooks demonstrated you can quadruple the Gambler’s sales and still earn critical plaudits. The monoculture in which Rogers triumphed may be gone too, but before the era of COVID-19, couples in karaoke bars from Boise to Barcelona were drinking each other in to “Lucille” and “Islands in the Stream.” Don’t look for angst where there ain’t none. Ruthless about conforming, Kenny Rogers wanted to give us pleasure. With his death, the pleasures no longer seem coercive. He picked a fine time to leave us.