Another great is gone. And I can call Kenny Rogers great without hesitation, even if my younger self would look at me askance.
Kenny Rogers? The man with the white hair and fulsome beard, the spangly Nashville suits and cheesy singalongs? The Kenny Rogers who sang big, hokey narrative country ballads like Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town, and fretted about feeding his four hungry children on Lucille, inspiring kids in playgrounds all over the world to link arms and walk around singing “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hundred children …”
The one and same. The Kenny Rogers who played Glastonbury festival in 2013 and led a hundred thousand revelers in a chorus of The Gambler, and everyone of us knew every word and felt it to our core.
Rogers died, of natural causes, aged 81, after a lifetime in music. As post War rock and pop culture reaches creaking old age, the passing of every iconic veteran musician feels like the end of an era. Rogers started his career in 1957 and it took him a while to reach household name status. But if you grew up in the Seventies, he was a huge and inescapable presence, a country star with the gravity of a permanent fixture, looming overhead as if carved in a musical Mount Rushmore.
Middle America loved him, which meant the Ireland I grew up in loved him, middle Britain loved him, your parents loved him, your granny loved him, Saturday night TV loved him, and, for a while, it looked like Dolly Parton loved him too, gazing into his eyes as they crooned Islands In The Stream. “We belong to each other, uh huh.”
I mean, if he was good enough for Dolly, then it was clear that there was more to Kenny than met the eye. In her kitschy overloaded femininity and tremulously emotional vocals, Dolly Parton always retained an edge of cool, whilst Kenny Rogers looked like one of the grown-ups even in the first flourishing of his career.
He declined to dye his greying hair in a celebrity world where the only platinum and silver that counted were the discs handed out for multi-million sales (of which he must have had quite a collection, shifting over 120 million records in his time). His grey hair made him seem too old-fashioned and respectable for rock'n'roll, but looking back it warrants a different kind of respect, that which should be shown to a man confident enough to be himself.
I am not saying that my friends and I despised Kenny Rogers, but we certainly didn’t have his posters on our bedroom walls. He was never remotely cool. What he had though, in spades, were inescapably great songs, full of melody and meaning, which he delivered with a gritty country voice that made every word count, lodging them in hearts and minds in ways that proved very hard to shake. There comes a time when you stop worrying about trends and fashions, what’s deemed hip and by whom. It is called growing up, I suppose. And then it is the songs that stay with you, that carry on in your life, still resonating down the years.
When I became a music critic, I remember a little frisson of shock when I belatedly realised this was the same Kenny Rogers who played electric guitar and sang Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) with First Edition in the Sixties. It is a psychedelic pop song about getting high, that kicks off with a squall of feedback, and that for some reason I loved when I was little kid. I thought, Kenny, you old devil! If you dig into his career, you find a music obsessive in search of his sound. Rogers played teenage rock’n’roll in the Fifties, jazz and folk and pop in the Sixties, before locating his true home in country, where he could make that gritty croon really count.
Although it often presents itself with a superficial, showy glamour, country is, at essence, a folk music form that grapples with real life and everyday dilemmas. It prizes, above all, clean and meaningful narratives with a moral centre and some wisdom to offer, unfussily sung with voices that carry the ring of truth. Kenny Rogers had all of that.
I was amongst those cheering him at Glastonbury, in the afternoon sunshine. It turned out that, five decades on, I still knew all the words to Ruby, Lucille and The Gambler, and they meant more to me than I could ever have imagined. And it was amazing to see the astonishment of Rogers, contemplating that huge festival crowd appreciating his music so unabashedly. The old country legend looked like he was dazed but still had the wit to joke “I’m very out of my comfort zone. It’s unusual for me to play a crowd as small as this.”
And that is why I have no hesitation to say another great has left us and the worlds a poorer place for it. But like the man said, “You got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away …”
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