Kenny Rogers

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About Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers used to say he had two kinds of songs: ballads that capture what men want to say and women want to hear, and stories that put a listener in a place. That’s one way to explain selling 100 million albums or so. Another is that Rogers—handsome, genial, husky-voiced, and bushy-bearded—was just the kind of guy people liked to listen to and look at, a natural entertainer who split the difference between the earthiness of country and the sophistication of pop and adult contemporary. Someone for that eight-to-80 demographic. By the time he passed—on March 20, 2020, at age 81—he’d been recording for more than 60 years. Born in 1938 and raised one of eight kids in a Houston housing project, Rogers had his musical epiphany at 12, watching Ray Charles live—it seemed cool, he thought, to have everyone clap when you sang and laugh when you talked. He started his first band, the Scholars, in high school, with a guitar bought using busboy tips. (The name was aspirational, Rogers said later—they were C students at best.) After stints playing upright bass in a jazz trio and folk-pop with The New Christy Minstrels, Rogers formed The First Edition, whose biggest tracks—most notably “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which you’d probably recognize from its use in The Big Lebowski—mixed light psychedelia with country and R&B. By the end of the band’s run, Rogers was scraping by as a pitchman for a home guitar course and closing in on 40. Enter “Lucille,” which Rogers’ manager figured would either be laughed off as a novelty or take over country music. You know how that one broke. He went on to become one of country music’s first and biggest mainstream superstars, an arena-packing presence who paved the way for artists such as Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, reshaping our sense of what country was and how it figured into the pop landscape. His biggest songs—“The Gambler,” “Lady,” the Dolly Parton duet “Islands in the Stream”—remain the stock-in-trade of karaoke nights and television ads, the kind of music one learns not by discovery but by cultural osmosis. (That Rogers also figured out how to act—including starring in a series of made-for-TV movies based on “The Gambler”—didn’t hurt; he said all he had to do was be himself in different clothes.) Mellow as the music is, and modest as he was about it, Rogers also broke down boundaries and cleared the way for new combinations of sounds and styles—a chance he took on his inspiration and won. A gamble, you could say.

Houston, TX, United States
August 21, 1938
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