Artists like Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Merle Haggard made country music legendary, but people like Kenny Rogers made country music money…
…and made it okay for “city folk” to admit that they liked country music. That was a boon for everybody.
I’ll argue that few could have done that as effectively as Rogers did in the late 1970s and 1980s. Yes, John Denver had major AM radio hits, but there was always something a little hippy, a little folky about Denver that only took him so far, and in the emerging conservatism of the country scene at the time, this seemed to be a non-starter.
But Rogers was this big, bearded guy who looked like he could charm his way out of a lava flow and wrestle a bear – like Grizzly Adams – concurrently. He had big, country-style story songs that the genre loved and treasured like “Coward of the County” and “The Gambler,” but he also sported Vegas-style flash clothes like Elvis in the latter years.
But there was a subversive streak in Rogers that came out from time to time. His first big taste of fame came with the psychedelic rock group The First Edition. The average Joe Sixpack may not recall their biggest hit without first revealing “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” was the song that soundtracked Jeff Bridges’ surrealist dream in the movie The Big Lebowski. The obvious follows closely behind: “Wait, that was Kenny Rogers?“
Some of his best-known songs further reveal a guy that took weird risks that paid off. I’m not talking strictly about his crossovers with pop stars like Kim Carnes on “Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer.” In retrospect, that almost seems like a natural combination. No, only a few years after the “death of disco,” Barry Gibb presented a song co-written by himself and brothers/fellow Bee Gees Robin and Maurice. It had been designed as a big Motown rave up tailor made for Marvin Gaye, but it wasn’t meant to be. Gibb retooled it, and Dolly Parton – another pop-country phenomenon and triple threat – was brought on to duet. “Islands In The Stream” was born. So impressed by the results, Gibb who only did the job with the intention of it being one-and-done, completed the entire album that became Eyes That See in the Dark.
I’m concerned that Kenny’s later years will color his musical legacy. The chicken franchise, memorably skewered on the sitcom Seinfeld; the not-so-great plastic surgeries, and the later opinion that he was something less than the hard-as-dirt luminaries that I mentioned at the start of this.
But I ask you this: what is pop?
In its raw form, pop means popular music. Right now in our culture, it means trap music, the alliance of rap/hip-hop with electronic beats. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, it went from disco to rock and to new wave. No one will argue the full-blooded legitimacy of country’s biggest stars, but for the most part, they weren’t getting on pop radio. Sure, occasionally someone like Lynn Anderson would shock the world with a crossover like “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden,” or Tanya Tucker with “Delta Dawn,” but these songs were the exception, not the rule.
I’ll attest that Kenny Rogers did in fact make it the rule, and made it okay for country stars like East Orange, New Jersey’s Eddie Rabbitt and later Canada’s Shania Twain to be on both charts, not by accident. And because they could, these stars were the gateway to those hallowed halls of “Americana.”
Was Kenny Rogers the first to do so? Maybe not. There’s as much country in rock and roll as there is R&B, and both were founded on the bedrock of gospel music. But Kenny Rogers was, in my mind, one of the first to wear that association extremely, and profitably. If the goal is to celebrate the arts without reservation, unbound by stupidly sticky chains like “genre,” then Rogers has indeed left behind a worthwhile legacy.