He was a Texas native, but wasn’t really known as a Texas musician. He was “country,” but he was also a big part of the pop music world. And he was a solo artist whose biggest hit was a duet. Kenny Rogers was an artist who wore many, sometimes contradictory, hats. He died Friday at the age of 81.
Rogers was more than an icon, says fellow Texas Medal of Arts winner Ray Benson. The Asleep at the Wheel frontman played shows with Rogers back when Rogers worked with Dolly Parton.
“He was just a pro,” Benson says. “He understood the business. He was very ambitious – he wanted to be what he became. But he was also a really nice guy. … We would play a show together and I’d go to say “Hi,” and he would just shoot the bull with you, and, you know, we all had the same upbringing … you worked from the bottom up.”
In an appreciation of Rogers published in Texas Monthly over the weekend, Michael Hall wrote that Rogers’ family was so poor that young Kenny used to like to take walks in the wealthier parts of Houston to marvel at the sprinklers and the manicured lawns.
“When he finally made it, he made sure to put a bunch of sprinklers on his 18-hole golf course at his spread outside Athens, Georgia,” Hall says.
Rogers’ father was a carpenter; his mother was a nurse’s assistant. The family, including eight children, lived on the edge of Houston’s Fourth Ward.
“He definitely had to scrape to get his first guitar,” Hall says. “Nothing came easy for the young Kenny Rogers.”
When Rogers broke into music in the late 1950s, it wasn’t as a country artist, or even the kind of pop singer he would become in later years.
“This high, plaintive, sweet voice years later would be that low, husky, Kenny Rogers voice,” Hall says. “Back then, he was 19 years old and he sang like a teen angel.”
In the 1960s, Rogers’ hit song “Just Dropped In” showed another part of his range. Recorded with Rogers’ band New Edition, the song, written by Mickey Newbury, was a nod to the freewheeling drug culture of the time.
“It’s this really kind of kitschy, bad-trip LSD song,” Hall says.
Rogers broadened his musical horizons by playing with Austinite Bobby Doyle, whom Hall calls “a white Ray Charles.” Rogers played bass with Doyle, and picked up a lot of blues, jazz and R&B knowledge that served him well in his career.
Rogers’ hits from the 1980s includes “Coward of the County,” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Lucile” and “Lacy.” These songs helped him become a country music star even as his popularity also grew among mainstream music fans. That’s because his sound was country, but a bit more polished – more polished than some country music purists would have liked, Hall says.
Rogers’ most enduring hit, “The Gambler,” came from an unlikely source.
“That song was written by a 23-year-old guy who apparently did not even play poker,” Hall says. “But he totally nailed that song, and Kenny really made it his own.”
Hall says most people don’t think of Kenny Rogers as a Texas musician.
“That’s what’s so fascinating about Kenny Rogers,” Hall says. “He was a great Texas musician, even if he didn’t sound like a Texas musician.”
Written by Shelly Brisbin.