It wasn’t a warm summer evening, and I don’t believe that train was bound for nowhere, but Kenny Rogers left the station for the last time over the weekend, and I can’t help but feel a little bummed out.
He was, after all, a country music icon, and a staple in the house where I grew up. It’s funny, almost — the week before his death, I was at my mom’s house in North Knoxville and just happened to thumb through the collection of vinyl records she and my late father had accumulated over the years, going back to the 1970s when they left rock ’n’ roll for country music.
Included in those albums were several records credited to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. The band put a lot of songs on the pop and country charts before breaking up in 1976, when Rogers entered the prime of his career. The single “Lucille” would go to No. 1 in 12 countries a year later and sell more than 5 million copies, setting country music up for one hit after another, including “Coward of the County” and “The Gambler.” Toward the end of the ’70s, Rogers also became famous as a duet partner — first with the late Dottie West, and later on with Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes and Dolly Parton. The most successful of his duets, 1983’s “Islands in the Stream” with Parton, would sell a couple million copies and top three different charts, and they remained fast friends ever since.
“When you do a duet, you relate to both parties,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2014. “I don’t care who you are; you sing better in a duet than you do by yourself. It’s like running a 100-yard dash: You run as fast as you think you can, but if you put someone beside you who runs faster, you’re going to run faster. Duets bring out a side that doesn’t allow you to be complacent.”
Here’s the thing about Kenny: His best songs were timeless. Sure, there’s a ton of filler that sounds very much like the products of their eras — big horns and disco flourishes from the ’70s, synth-heavy pop overtones from the ’80s — but “Lucille?” “The Gambler?” “Coward of the County?” None of them were written by Rogers, but they all exist in a space outside of popular music’s timeline because of the one thing that elevates them to greatness: that rich, warm baritone that needed little accompaniment beyond an acoustic guitar.
When he came to Maryville 12 years ago, to close out the 2008 Foothills Fall Festival, he brought more than that, but when it came to meet-and-greet opportunities for fans and the music on the stage, Kenny Rogers was a force of nature. He was 70 at the time, but even then, we were all a little starstruck — myself and Ted “Gunner” Ousley included. Gunner, you may know, is an icon himself over at WIVK-FM, the East Tennessee country music radio giant that has helped several country stars establish a foothold in the industry.
Over the years, he’s met everyone from newcomers to outright legends, and Kenny, he told me backstage that year, was definitely among the latter.
“There are a lot of stars — we call them up-and-comers and established stars — and then there are superstars,” Ousley — one of Blount County’s more famous residents — said in an interview that year. “When we had our WIVK 50th anniversary party, there were a lot of stars there, guys like Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney and Travis Tritt and Charlie Daniels. And folks like Travis Tritt and Kenny Chesney were standing in line to meet Kenny Rogers. It just struck me how many stars there are who look up to Kenny.”
That year, there were plenty of local residents and visitors standing in line to meet “The Gambler” backstage at downtown Maryville’s Theater in the Park, where the Foothills Fall Festival performances were once held until the event ended in 2014. Pam Phelps traveled from Florida that year after her brother-in-law, Mark Young — who was the vice president of marketing for Ruby Tuesday at the time — arranged for her to be a part of the meet-and-greet. Her hands were shaking as she stood in line and gushed about her lifelong love of Rogers.
“I’ve been following him since I was 17, and I’m 43 now,” she told me. “He just sounds wholesome — he sounds like he really cares, and the way he acts and looks, he just seems like such a nice man.”
Gracious, kind, self-deprecating and always grateful — that was the Gambler. And in his later years, he was always aware of his mortality, even going so far as to make jokes about it when he reminisced to me about working with Dolly.
“We were in the middle of doing ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ when she came over and put her arms around me and said, ‘Kenny, I hope you know I could never sing at your funeral,’” he told me. “And I said, ‘You assume I’m going first?’”
Alas, he did … and because of the coronavirus, he was denied a memorial tribute that likely would have included his old friend and duet partner. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, his family announced after his death last week that his funeral ceremony would be private. Whether a public memorial will be held after the pandemic eases remains to be seen, but for the time being, it seems that the Gambler knew when to fold ’em.
In light of his passing, may we all have the foresight to know when to walk away and know when to run, and wait until the dealing’s done before we count — our money and our blessings. Rest in peace, sir.