A tribute to Kenny Rogers
How the musical story-teller converted a hardcore rock musician to a country music lover in the seventies
It was the late Seventies, the heady days of rock music. Campuses, concert halls and open-air venues reverberated with the psychedelic music of bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Doobie Brothers and the legends from that era. The youth had not yet fully recovered from the influence of Woodstock, flower power was still a thing.
Besides headbanging to decibel-shattering music by rock bands, music lovers were equally enamoured by the 'meaningful' ballads of singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the likes. It was circa 1977-78, and I clearly remember how I, as a youthful, blinded-by-rock youth, would shrug off Country & Western music by singer-songwriters like Glen Campbell, Charley Pride, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and the gang. But then, one evening during one of our community music sessions, someone happened to play Lucille.
The husky voice, the story-telling style of delivering the song and the easy to sing-along chorus lines caught my fancy. Upon asking, I was told the song was by a Country & Western singer named Kenny Rogers (he surely wasn't on the names on our playlist at that time). The single reached No.1 on the charts and in 1977, Rogers walked away with almost all the awards in the Country & Western category awards for the song, including Academy of Country Music Awards for Single of the Year, Top Male Vocalist, Song of the Year and the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
It wasn't just me that Rogers converted into a fan of his unique, pop-influenced Country and Western ballads; many other young music lovers were touched by his 'simple' ballads and were hooked instantly. During this period, every neighborhood had that one kid learning how to play the guitar, and Rogers' peppy and easy to play songs were perfect for budding musicians to impress with at parties.
Lucille was followed by many other top-notch hits like Lady, The Gambler, Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town, Coward of the County, and we would all share notes on lyrics and chords as we tried to strum and sound like Kenny Rogers.
The news of his passing away today brought back old memories - of listening to Rogers' songs and transcribing the lyrics, figuring out chords and imitating his drawl. For us, it was Rogers who opened our eyes to a whole new world of Country music, to the music of Willie Nelson, George Strait, Hank Williams Jr and others.
If it wasn't for Rogers we'd still be thinking of Country music as two-chord songs that we'd usually hear in the background of perhaps a John Wayne Western. His songs endeared themselves to music aficionados and he left behind a jukebox of songs from a career that spanned over six decades. Incidentally, Rogers announced his farewell tour a few years back in 2015. It was aptly titled The Gambler's Last Deal, the singer couldn't have asked for a better sendoff than naming a tour after his Grammy-winning hit, The Gambler.