Before “The Gambler,” “Islands in the Stream,” and Roasters, Kenny Rogers applied bearded fervor to material by The First Edition, for whom he sang and played bass. Those early hits still sound refreshing. “But You Know I Love You” has the faintest of swings that fans of The Guess Who’s “These Eyes” would tap their toes to (Dolly Parton took her own version to #1 on the country charts in 1981). Even better was a cover of Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” in which the Houston-born vocalist’s sexy burr gets its most attractive setting. Note the pause between “Ruby” and the rest of the phrase; he knew what he was doing. For listeners rustling in their seats, run toward “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” a psychedelic shack of a song in which Rogers watches his mind fall out of his head while his bandmates pinch distorted riffs out of their guitars — you’ll swear you’re listening to Lou Reed’s solo in “I Heard Her Call My Name” or mid sixties Stones — and get hysterical with the organ washes. An anti-drug number, “Just Dropped In” of course descends into camp, but go back to the bearded fervor: Rogers is having too much fun to play George C. Scott in Hardcore. With “I Found a Reason” the band revealed themselves as expert magpies — tune out the vocals and the horn chart will evoke The Kinks.
It wasn’t lost on Rogers that The First Edition crossed over — they scored a couple more hits on the pop chart than they did on the country. But the band chugged along, releasing a Rogers-produced double album called The Ballad of Calico whose booklet outweighs a coffee table book of Velázquez prints. Their thirteenth album I’m Not Making Music for Money was aptly titled: it only got a New Zealand release. But their cover of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” inspires thoughts of Rogers replacing David Palmer. Solo glory beckoned. His second album boasted “Lucille,” a gently sung ode to a woman whose horrible marriage anesthetizes herself with booze and for whom Rogers shows a sympathy that sheathes its creepiness with a Casanova’s grace. By this point his approach was to pretend he wasn’t trying very hard; he hung back from melodies, scoped out the scene, bit down when it suited his purposes. A decade later he stopped pretending, hence my affection for female duet partners. A collaboration with Dottie West, Every Time Two Fools Collide, wades into schlock from the first notes of the title track’s pedal steel guitar, but these two love singin’ so much they generate a frisson anyway. Ignore the Bread cover and Every Time Two Fools Collide ranks with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s We Only Make Believe as one of Nashville’s loveliest duet albums.
Plenty of chuckleheads have released concept albums about an Old West no realer than Deadwood City. Casting a shrewd eye on a Carter-era moment when top 40 radio played soft country hits, Rogers outsold the pretenders with The Gambler, still one of the era’s country crossovers. Although recorded by Bobby Bare a year earlier, “She Believes In Me” set the pattern for a long run of increasingly uninhabited ballads: he was like the owner checking in via intercom. His recording habits were prodigious: 1979’s Kenny (“Coward of the County”) was his eighth since 1976. To collaborate with the Commodores’ singer/keyboardist might’ve inspired more than a couple head scratches, but Lionel Richie and Rogers shared a talent for gentleness and often couldn’t distinguish masterpieces from wet noodles. “Lady,” one of the biggest new songs ever included on a compilation, completed Rogers’ transformation into a global phenomenon; it hit the top twenty in almost every Western bloc nation. Greatest Hits (1980) proved as ubiquitous in parents’ record collections as Rumours and Tapestry.
Careers acquire a momentum of their own, and so Rogers kept going, an official member of the international pop community. There he was on Christmas albums, in TV movies, on “We Are the World” singing the line “We can go on pretendin’ day by day” as if pretendin’ was a sin as mortal as usury. 1983’s Eyes That See in the Dark is one of the last things worth mentioning. The post-disco polyurethaned bops written and produced by Barry Gibb gave Rogers several attractive settings, most notably “Islands in the Stream,” which displaced “Total Eclipse of the Heart” at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — an unintended answer record. Bonnie Tyler’s moving on, Kenny and Dolly are holding on: gratefully, erotically. While Parton wraps her trills around his neck like feather boas, Rogers offers some of his most full-throated singing; there’s no hanging back here, just a fulfilling bask in pro smarts.
For a generation of listeners Rogers signified what was gauziest about 1980-1981 pop. Lethargy ruled, hard. “Through the Years” blasted at enough graduation ceremonies like Zanax in vapor form. He remains an influence — the career of Blake Shelton, grass-fed bullock, depends on Rogers’ straddling of every showbiz stream. Like many selves who fill every corner, the unending popularity of “Lady,” “The Gambler,” “She Believes in Me,” and the rest obscure the peaks of this far from pathological love man’s discography. Listeners felt safe around Kenny Rogers. When his singles stopped charting country, he offered warm, cheerfully flavorless chicken as comfort. Simply put, you can hate Kenny Rogers, but you can’t dislike him. I have a memory of Rogers as a talking head on one of those endless loops of eighties tributes that VH-1 used to play two decades ago. Commenting on Boy George, Rogers said something like, “I may not have understood what he was about, but, listen, that boy could sing.” That’s the kindest thing I can imagine a person who recorded Kenny Rogers material could’ve said. Modest about his modesty, Kenny Rogers understood what Kenny Rogers was about from the beginning.