There once was a time…you know the rest. Kenny Rogers couldn’t be avoided at one point. Everyone I knew had at least two of his albums: The Gambler and 20 Greatest Hits were the ones I saw most often. He was a huge part of the country music crossover in the ’70s through the mid ’80s. Almost everyone has a list of songs they’ve liked or even loved. Most of us stopped hearing him at some point. For me, that line was the late ’90s. Being in the spotlight too long brings resentment at times, or makes one laugh when someone makes very human mistakes. The last 10 years though, when I started collecting LP’s again, his 20 Greatest Hits album was one of the first I picked up.
So this list is by no means definitive. It is very personal and it doesn’t even come close to covering his whole career. I just want to get this down while my heart feels the weight of his departure. These are the songs that mean the most to me from one of the most deservedly successful singers of my time.
Twenty Years Ago – 1987 (“…It’s been a long time since I walked /Through this old town…”)
It’s hard to believe this song was released in the 80s. It felt like a nostalgia trip that I listened to in the late ’90s a lot. It’s a song I think of often when I wander through my old hometown. Bill Champlin of Chicago gives an unmistakable depth to the backing vocals. The song proves durable and heart rending, even though It describes events of almost 60 years ago by now.
This Woman – 1984 (“…You be all you want to be / You got the longest night / Baby, be alone...”)
Rogers was one of the best translators of Barry Gibb’s music. This song is one of the better examples. It feels more like equal parts Bee Gees (Maurice and Barry provide guitar, bass and backing vocal) and Rogers. Many videos have aged, but Rogers is good here. He acts the hell out of the song, even now I can picture him at the drawing board as he sings. I love this song and am thankful Rogers and the Gibbs ever met.
The Greatest – 1999 (“…The world’s so still you can hear the sound / The baseball falls to the ground…”)
Sweet song that reminds me of my childhood when I used to do exactly what is described in the song, only with a bat and a bunch of rocks. I would hit them all day long into the giant field behind my house. There was an abandoned farmhouse with a barn back there, and if I could hit the barn, that would be a home run. What didn’t occur to me is that by pitching rocks to myself all of that time, I created a huge hole in my swing.
Blaze of Glory – 1981 (“…Like two heroes in a story / Let’s go out, like we came in…”)
This is not my favorite version of this song. That honor belongs to Danko/Anderson/Fjeld’s ’90’s remake from their first album. It is the version that laid the groundwork. It’s a great song about saying the hell with it anyway. We’re doomed, let’s end this thing in the most reckless way possible.
Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) – 1967 (with First Edition) (“…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…”
Everyone who has seen The Big Lebowski knows this song. It’s such a perfect microcosm of the psychedelic era. It is said to reflect a warning against using LSD, it sure doesn’t feel like a warning. It’s creepy and comforting at once.
Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer (with Kim Carnes) – 1980 (“…Oh, put out the light, just hold on
/ Before we say goodbye…”)
This is a full throated duet that Kenny and Kim sing the hell out of. The lyrics could be read in several different ways, but this duo goes all out. There seems to be little acting going on. Everyone in this story is suffering. The dreamer is never satisfied. The person hanging on to the dreamer has even less of a chance for happiness.
Love Will Turn You Around – 1982 (“…Well it’s your mind, that tricks you in believin everytime…”)
This is a song from a movie I never tried to see. I never cared too much for Kenny Rogers the movie actor. The song is incredibly touching in his delivery, even if the lyrics are saccharine.
Lucille – 1977 (“…You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille / With four hungry children and a crop in the field…”)
Rogers’ first solo crossover hit is also his first solo hit. It’s a fine example of the story songs he that would propel him into superstardom. The irony and irritation for me is this song is followed by Daytime Friends, which is almost the complete opposite side of the same subject. I don’t like that song for the same reason I like this one. Hard to believe he could have both songs on the same album. Kind of kills the image in one’s mind.
Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town) – 1969 (with First Edition) (“…It wasn’t me that started that old crazy Asian war…”)
A precursor to Lucille in tone and topic. This song is dripping with pathetic resentment and desperation. We feel as stuck as Rogers’ narrator. Doing the right thing only caused misery and the loss of love. His pride is damaged without any ability to act, he’s only a receptacle of grief. His read on Mel Tillis’ words is note perfect.
Lady – 1980 (“…You’re the love of my life, of my life, you’re my lady…”)
This song, like much of Lionel Richie’s music, is filled with schmaltz. If someone had the ability to weave extra notes into each syllable. This is one of the biggest hits of Rogers’ career and it helped to propel Richie into the limelight as a writer / producer. In a few short years he’d be one of the two biggest acts in the world (Michael Jackson being the other). Hard to imagine anyone else besides Rogers or Richie singing this song.
Coward of the County – 1979 (“…His mama named him Tommy, but folks just called him yellow /
Something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong…”)
I always identified with this song. It was the first song that I thought, this could be about me. Being the youngest of eight (4 boys) I always felt slighted like the subject of this song. As life moved on and I found my way to adulthood, I have discovered that, like Tommy of the song, I am far from the labels ascribed to me in my youth. I’ve turned the other cheek many times, and it feels better, the more days I survive. It doesn’t mean I won’t defend myself, but I have found many means beyond fists, because I never wanted to end up in the clink like Tommy’s dad. This could be the best story song outside of Johnny’s Cash’s A Boy Called Sue.
She Believes In Me – 1979 (“…I told her someday, if she was my girl, I could change the world /
With my little songs, I was wrong…”)
An incredible testament to recognizing love, even when you don’t feel like you could possibly deserve it. I used to think of this song when I worked nights. I never was going to conquer the world, like the narrator, but I had dreams I was pretty sure were going to take a side step to the dream I was creating with my wife. After the ups and downs in any life, it’s those who “…find a way, find a way…”that make it through every day in life.
We’ve Got Tonight (with Sheena Easton) – 1983 (“…I know your plans don’t include me…”)
Seger’s original is incredible. This version is nearly as good. Rogers’ ability to act out the lyrics was astounding. His voice became THE voice for songs he covered. This is one of the few times that either song works definitively. Easton’s presence in the mix creates an interesting dynamic. Rogers could almost sing with anyone, bringing their game up in the process. She’s a vocal powerhouse that feels right at home with his grounded earthbound tones.
Through The Years – 1982 (“…I never had a doubt / We’d always work things out / I’ve learned what love’s about /By loving you…”
More schmaltz, rendered perfectly through the subtle sonic etchings of his fine tuned voice. This song produced by Lionel Richie, fits right in with every adult contemporary hit of its era. He was in his 40’s by now, and he had the gift of sounding older and still filled with life. His unique voice makes this song succeed.
Buy Me A Rose – 1999 (“…And the more that he lives the less that he tries /To show her the love that he hold inside…”)
Another example of a good song made great through the giving sound of Rogers’ vocal intones. He brings the story of the song, home to his own situation. Great backing by Alison Krauss and Billy Dean.
The Gambler – 1978 (“…In his final words I found / An ace that I could keep…”)
There’s nothing I can add. This is the preeminent solo song of his career. It’s the one that made him a household name. The combination of Rogers and Don Schlitz brought a lot of great music to the world. On one negative note, I believe this video is directly responsible for many of my siblings getting those old-timey family portraits done. Not everybody looks like Kenny Rogers in old timey clothes.
Islands In The Stream (with Dolly Parton) – 1983 (“…Baby, when I met you there was peace unknown /I set out to get you with a fine tooth comb…”)
This sets the standards for duets. Good Lord, it’s a perfect song. The Gibbs found not one, but two people to perfectly accentuate his song originally written for none other than Marvin Gaye. This song feels like a continuous loop in time. It feels like it’s been around since Adam met Eve. My parents really enjoyed both Dolly and Kenny, even seeing them live a couple of times. They had a real chemistry that came out of a mutual love, respect and courtesy for one another and it shows here better than anywhere. Like Dolly, I will never get tired of hearing this song.
You Can’t Make Old Friends (with Dolly Parton) – 2013 (“What will I do when you’re gone / Who’s gonna tell me the truth?“)
If anyone is worthy of nostalgia, it’s these two. I can’t believe they sound so good after all these years. It’s the kind of thing that only time can make. Please click the link to this song and listen to their interview before and after. Heartbreaking.
You Decorated My Life – 1979 (“…And you decorated my life / Created a world / Where dreams are a part / And you decorated my life/ By paintin’ your love /All over my heart / You decorated my life.“)
Kenny Rogers’ voice kept me company for years in the dark of night, or light of day. His power to make every song his own, but also the listeners’ is a wonder to behold. He had a singular talent and he connected the dots others couldn’t even see. He turned schmaltz into honest gold. He’s one of the lights of so many lives. Thank God for him. I hope he rests easy.