Kenny Rogers died at age 81 this week. My knowledge of Rogers’ music is limited – I only know a handful of his songs, and I mostly viewed Rogers’ as the music of my grandparents. Still, I feel a loss. Kenny Rogers was an American icon. The few songs of his I know impact me, even to this day, I’ll miss Rogers, and so I feel like this is the perfect time to give a good listen to Kenny Rogers. I feel like a tribute to Kenny Rogers is in order.
I’ve selected a handful of Roger’s songs, some that I’ve known, some that I don’t, and I give them an honest listen. So, join me on this tribute to an American Country legend. Join me as I pay tribute to Kenny Rogers.
Islands in the Stream
Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers cover of Islands in the Stream ranks on Billboard as the 9th biggest duet of all time. Islands in the Stream played everywhere in the early 80s – at least that’s how I remember it. At the time, I didn’t really care for it. As I said earlier, Righers (and Parton) was the music of my grandparents. I wanted hip and young music, not something a couple of older people liked (I was a rebellious eight years old after all).
Now, I listen to the Islands in the Stream as an adult, and I love it. There’s just a calming effect to hearing Parton and Rogers harmonize the chorus together. Is Islands in the Stream simple? Sure. Did the BeeGees do the original better? I’m not going to answer that, because the two versions are so different. Rogers and Parton reimagined the song to make it their own. And I’m so glad they did, because wow. Just wow.
One final memory of Islands in the Stream. When I was a kid, I seriously thought Rogers and Parton were singing “On top of chemistry.” I…I don’t know why, but it’s a fun memory of the song regardless. This is why I chose Islands in The Stream as the first song in my tribute to Kenny Rogers.
Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town
I vaguely remember hearing Rogers (and his band New Edition) sing Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town when I was a kid. The song sounded fun, so I liked it. Granted, I had no idea how dark Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, gets.
Ruby is about a disabled veteran of an “Asian War” (most likely The Vietnam war). His partner can’t handle his condition and goes out to the town to find other lovers. The ending verse gets especially dark with the lyric, “And if I could move, I’d get my gun and put her in the ground.” Does Ruby’s partner truly mean he’d murder her if he could? Was this just an idle statement? It’s hard to tell, but he’s angry. He wants her to stay with him. He’s lonely, and he’s dependent on her for his very life.
Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town tells us a heartbreaking tale, and shows us the inner thoughts of a victim of an unjust war. Pure poetry!
Coward of the County
Coward of the County is a song about a man (Tommy) who wouldn’t fight. His dying and imprisoned father, Tommy (then just a boy), swear against violent actions. The father’s last words echoed throughout Tommy’s entire life, “Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.”
Tommy grows up in a place where men fought all the time. If you didn’t fight, they called you yellow. Tommy finds a wife who doesn’t mind his pacifist ways, and they lived happily – until she gets gang-raped. The next day, Tommy finds the people who assaulted his wife and kicks their flipping asses. The last line states the thesis of the song: “Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.”
What a twist. As I listened to the song, I was on edge…what is Tommy going to do? Is he just going to turn around, or is he going to let out his anger on his wife’s assailants? And if Tommy does fight, would this end well or bad? This incredible storytelling made Kenny Rogers such a legend.
Just Dropped in…
Just Dropped in… was the first top ten hit by Kenny Rogers. While Jerry Lee Lewis recorded the song originally, Rogers makes Just Dropped in… an anthem.
Let’s be clear, Just Dropped In… is about LSD. Some call the song a warning, others just a casual user song, but there’s no doubt the song is about an LSD trip with lines like “I woke up this morning with the sundown shining in / I found my mind in a brown paper bag within.” Just Dropped in… also references the song “Eight Miles High” (another psychedelic song).
What’s fascinating about Just Dropped In, however, it’s a rock song. Kenny Rogers is known for being a country singer. Every other song on this list is a country song (sometimes pop country, but country nonetheless). Rogers had done other songs before his first top ten, and they too were country. So With Just Dropped In…, Rogers proves he was a versatile artist. I kind of wish Rogers had done more rock and roll.
Through the Years
Through the Years is a catchy love ballad about a relationship that lasted years, even decades. The song shows how strong the bond grows between the couple with every passing day. Is Through the Years clichéd? Sure. Has the concept of the song been done before? Absolutely. Still, something is enduring about Through the Years. There’s an emotional impact in Through the years you just don’t get with other songs that use the same formula. I guess that’s part of singing songs. Even a simple, cliché of a song can become a timeless classic with the right performer.
Like many of his songs, Kenny Rogers did not write the Gambler. Rogers was the fourth person to record the song. Even Johnny Cash recorded the song before Rogers. Yet, although the king of covers recorded The Gambler, Rogers did the Gambler best.
Maybe I’m biased, though. When I was five years old, I was obsessed with The Gambler. I don’t know; maybe it was the melody, perhaps The Gambler is just a great song. But I remember humming along to the song when it was on the radio. I even remember announcing to my grandparents that The Gambler was my favorite song. Of course, I didn’t know the name of the song, just that it had the line “Know when to Run.” My grandparents had no idea which song I was talking about, but I digress.
I still love The Gambler. It tells a great story, and you feel like you’re really on a train, having a conversation with an old poker pro. Of course, the song is a metaphor for life. You got to know when to fold them, know when to hold them, know when to walk away, and when to run tells us we need to be wise in our lives. We need to know when to stand our ground when to back away, and yes, we need to know when to run. And yes, counting our money at the table, counting our blessings in front of those who just lost everything is a wrong move. What wisdom, and what delivery of this wisdom!
Paying tribute to Kenny Rogers one last time
As I mentioned before, Rogers didn’t write all of (or maybe any of) his songs. That’s ok because his songs deliver a lot of wisdom from the Gambler to Coward of the Country. Rogers tells us what a beautiful thing love is, from Islands in the Stream to Through the Years. Rogers even tells us what it’s like in another man’s shoes with the songs Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, and Just Dropped In. Kenny Rogers knew how to tell a tale, how to present a story, and how to convey genuine emotions. We all need to listen to Kenny Rogers from time to time. We all need to learn when to walk away and when to run. I guess that’s what this tribute to Kenny Rogers is all about. When we listen to the songs of Kenny Rogers, we find ourselves wiser and happier.
RIP Kenny Rogers. You will be missed.