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Remembering the Gentle Excess of Kenny Rogers

The musical icon, who died Friday at 81, was a quintessential country star even at his poppiest, and a pop star even at his countriest

AP Images/Ringer illustration

You wake up on a Saturday morning, your subconscious already toggling between serene delight (it’s the weekend!) and ambient dread (everything else!), and the first thing you learn is that Kenny Rogers, country music superstar and cuddly-burly national treasure, has died, at 81, “peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family,” per a PR rep. And, boom: There’s a Kenny Rogers song stuck in your head.

But which one? “The Gambler,” maybe, sure: His 1978 smash-hit signature, a song everyone’s heard 6 million times and yet no one dislikes. (It’s still very good advice.) Or maybe the 1968 psych-pop colossus “Just Dropped in (to See What Condition My Condition Was In),” his first top-10 hit, lovingly immortalized 30 years later in The Big Lebowski and a genuine mind-bender that makes bad-trip dread sound absolutely delightful. (“The first eight hours was wonderful,” Rogers told Rolling Stone in 2001, recalling what he describes as his one and only experience with mescaline.) Or maybe his mighty 1983 Dolly Parton duet and karaoke classic “Islands in the Stream,” written by the Bee Gees (it’s obvious) and flaunting the most audibly explosive chemistry ever generated between two humans (also obvious).

Or maybe, like me, your subconscious seized immediately upon “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”

Born and raised in “upper-lower-class” Houston as the fourth of eight kids, Rogers was already 30 when “Just Dropped In” put him on the map, wise congruent to his years and hellbent on pushing the sonic boundaries of that map in every direction in the decades to come, a quintessential country star even at his poppiest, a born pop star even at his countriest. His 1969 version of Mel Tillis’s “Ruby” is a feather-light evocation of 10-ton ennui, all the more painful for its hypnotic serenity. The song’s narrator is a disabled veteran of an unnamed (but obvious) “crazy Asian war”; Ruby is his dissatisfied and wandering wife, and it’s heartbreaking how deftly Rogers glides, with a total and almost playful command, over lines like, “It’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed / And the wants and the needs of a woman your age, Ruby, I realize.”

This is high melodrama that Rogers never allows to devolve into mere kitsch, his resignation brutal in its tenderness, his desperation exquisite in its hopelessness. “The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is goin’ down,” he observes. “And yes it’s true that I’m not the man I used to be,” he concedes. “And if I could move I’d get my gun and put her in the ground,” he seethes, a threat with no menace in it. “Oh, Ruby, God’s sakes, turn around,” he pleads as the song ends, a lament with no cheap self-pity in it.

What made Kenny Rogers huge and famous and beloved (he had 21 no. 1 country hits, for starters) was his gentle excess, sonically and sartorially. Cheerful, flamboyant, and hirsute, he looked and sounded like a luxurious bearskin rug, his voice so brawny and searingly warm it’d compel you to slip into something more comfortable no matter what he was singing, no matter what you were previously wearing. This, for example, is absolutely true.

But his delicacy, his expertly deployed fragility, his platonic affability was just as vital: He was relatable even at his hugest, charismatically precise even at his broadest. “The Gambler” was a hit enormous enough to overshadow everything he’d done before or since, but it never quite did; his Big Lebowski moment, redefining him as a cooler-than-you-thought icon for a whole new generation of slacker cinéastes, was goofy and over-the-top enough to reduce him to a cheeseball caricature, but it never quite could.

Any one moment in his storied career contains multitudes: Kenny, a top-five pop album in 1979, is a fine place to start if you’ve tired of greatest-hits randomness and want the full-length Kenny Rogers experience. But even then it spans from the Southern funk verve of “You Turn the Light On” (whose first 15 seconds alone are a handclaps-and-cowbell delight capable of supporting, like, 200 rap songs) to the soft-focus balladry of “You Decorated My Life” or “I Want to Make You Smile” to the deceptively serene closing lope “Coward of the County,” another “Ruby”-style country story song with a heavy narrative (sexual assault, violent revenge) that plays only if the singer’s got the lightest possible touch. He was never just one thing, even on one record.

Rogers was a country star who cited Ray Charles as a crucial inspiration, and crooned with a storied R&B loverman’s unflappable verve. (“Lady,” another karaoke-classic megahit from 1980, was written by Lionel Richie, and it’s obvious.) Maybe you remember the time Wyclef Jean remixed “The Gambler” on a song called “Kenny Rogers—Pharoahe Monch Dub Plate” that somehow did not sound ridiculous. Maybe you recall Kenny’s sumptuous 1986 deep cut “You’re My Love,” written by Joey Coco, a.k.a., secretly, Prince. He was a soul singer in the rock-critical sense but more importantly the spiritual sense, and as an artist and celebrity somehow wholesome even at his rowdiest. “Tell me how you met your fifth wife, Wanda,” goes another question in that Rolling Stone interview, and Rogers answers, “She was a hostess at an Italian restaurant in Atlanta, and she had the most beautiful smile I had ever seen.” Right up until his death, they’d been together for 22 years.

Maybe it’s just that he had outlandishly great chemistry with anyone he ever met plus anyone who’d ever heard him sing, including, subconsciously or otherwise, you. But for all his skill with duets—in 1983, he did a mean version of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” with, why not, Sheena Easton—that part of his catalog is indeed happily overshadowed by his rapport with Dolly Parton. They last did “Islands in the Stream” together live in 2017, at his farewell concert (dubbed All in for the Gambler) at Nashville Bridgestone Arena. They still had it. Of course they did.

As Rogers recalled it, while the pair were recording a 2013 victory-lap duet called “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” Parton joked to him that she could never bring herself to sing at his funeral. That song will break your heart now: His opening line is, “What will I do when you’re gone? / Who’s gonna tell me the truth?” Parton posted a video tribute to Rogers on Saturday morning, and that, of course, is heartbreaking, too.

These are strange and dreadful times: Even Parton’s tribute begins with her recollection of learning the news by turning on the TV, “checkin’ to see what the coronavirus was doin’.” What is easy, and soothing, and heartening to imagine is Parton belting out “I Will Always Love You” at her old friend’s funeral, but even the brief statement from Rogers’s team concludes by noting that “the family is planning a small private service at this time out of concern for the national COVID-19 emergency.” Take your solace, at this nerve-rattling moment in history, wherever you can find it, via whoever can provide it. Whichever song does it for you, there’s at least one singer we can all agree on.