All my life, when someone has asked me what my first concert was, I’d tell them it was Dire Straits.
That wasn’t exactly true, though. Dire Straits was just the first concert I went to on my own dime.
On an unseasonably chilly summer day during my pre-teen years, my mom took me to the Berrien County fair to see Kenny Rogers. My mom has never been much of a music person, but she loves Kenny Rogers. So, there we were, outside in a cold drizzle, listening to all those songs my mom always played while cooking dinner and cleaning house.
And I loved every single one of them.
So, why do I not admit that seeing Kenny Rogers at the fairground that day was my first concert? Because, it isn’t cool to love Kenny Rogers. How stupid is that? I have been lying all my life about my first live music event because I’ve been too much of a hipster doofus to admit that I dig Kenny.
I wasn’t wrong about Kenny not being cool. I suppose there was that brief cred-earning moment when “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” was featured in the Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski, but otherwise, Kenny was seen as pretty square.
I’m not even sure he minded being seen that way. I’m sure he liked cashing all those checks he earned during his career while keeping the wheel straight, driving smack down the middle of the road. As crossover country artists go, he was arguably the most successful. You can be loved while playing it safe – and boy, was Kenny Rogers ever loved.
He had massive hits for nearly thirty years on both pop and country radio. He did this by knowing his audience and himself. His warm tenor served many a song well, even when the production was only a step or two above the usual 70’s soft rock cheesel.
There were some rare occasions when Kenny stepped outside the boundaries he largely set for himself: the psychedelic flavor of “Just Dropped In” might be the most obvious example, but it’s not the only one.
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” was a song about a paralyzed war veteran whose wife found satisfaction outside the home:
“And if I could move, I’d get my gun
And put her in the ground”
Rogers delivers this line in a chilling, matter of fact fashion before begging “Ruby” to turn around. It is positively heart wrenching.
In “Coward of the County”, Rogers tells the tale of a pacifist who lives his life trying to be the opposite of his deceased jailbird father. That is, until the Gatlin boys “take turns” with his girl, Becky. (It’s hard to imagine how Johnny Cash didn’t get to this incredibly cinematic tune first.)
It’s the kind of song you can listen to and not pick up on the grindhouse storyline if you get caught up in the warmth of Rogers’ voice (easy to do). But “Coward of the County” is a revenge story about a man whose girlfriend was raped. A man the country was reading wrong: he was never actually a coward at all, he just needed a really good reason to rise up. “Sometimes you’ve got to fight when you’re a man,” Kenny sings. It’s a pretty astonishing song.
Finally, there’s Rogers’ signature, “The Gambler.” A tune so ubiquitous that “you got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em” has passed into common parlance. It’s truly one of the great “story songs” ever written. A young man down on his luck meets an aging gambler on a train, and in exchange for a swallow of whiskey and a cigarette, the gambler shares wisdom that only a man who’s lived a life of hardship can impart. (In this case, Johnny Cash did do the song first, just not as well.)
The final verse is a thing of beauty. As the gambler finishes his tale, he drifts off into a permanent sleep:
“And when he finished speaking
He turned back toward the window
Crushed out his cigarette
And faded off to sleep
And somewhere in the darkness
The gambler – he broke even
And in his final words I found
An ace that I could keep
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em…”
Like most of the songs Rogers sang, he didn’t write The Gambler, but he was such a good interpreter of other peoples’ words he made you feel just like he had. Hell, he made you feel like he had lived them.
That’s a gift. And one that was recognized by songwriters outside the world of country music. Barry Gibb, Lionel Richie, and even Prince are among some of the greats who wrote words and music for Kenny. If there’s any better tribute to a singer of songs, I don’t know what it would be.
Kenny Rogers lived 81 years on this earth. His appeal transcended genre and generation. He was also a lot better than some of us music snobs were willing to admit. — Including this one.
So let me close with a confession:
My name is David, and my first concert was Kenny Rogers at the Berrien County Fair.
And he was great.