For someone who theoretically “can’t stand” Kenny Rogers (1938-1920), I sure played the hell out of some of his singles — although I must immediately stipulate that I refer strictly to his early ones. When I was a young kid I had scored a copy of the 45rpm single of “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town”) by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition at a yard sale. I was a melancholy kid a lot of the time, and I would play this country song, written from the p.o.v. of a paralyzed Vietnam vet to his cheatin’ wife, again and again. It is a perfect little two and half minute record. It comes in, makes its statement, and gets out. You could have floored me when I learned it was written by Mel Tillis, that stuttering guy from the movies! It’s such a sensitive, heartfelt, intimate, almost novelistic piece of writing, and it suits Rogers’ world-weary voice perfectly. And I love the way it enters and exits to a brushed snare drum, quietly, yet there’s all this lively picking, echoing the churned up agitation of the guy in the wheelchair. Just a slam dunk of a record. I just listened to it again, and time hasn’t made it any worse.
When I was a little older I discovered the First Edition’s FIRST hit single, which enjoyed a new life when the Coen Brothers used it in The Big Lewbowski, the psychedelic acid rocker “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” (1968). In comparison with “Ruby”, this trippy excursion is today regardly largely as camp, although I’m here to tell you that psychedelic ’60s music is my favorite musical genre, so I’ve played this tune hundreds of times purely because I LIKE it.
The interesting thing about their first hit single and about the First Edition in general is that the band was made up of former members of one of the unhippest bands of that or any time, The New Christy Minstrels. The New Christy Minstrels were a large squeaky clean folk act, which younger readers might get a handle on by recalling the parody of them in Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind (2003). The New Christy Minstrels sold a lot of records to squares but it was not a promising outfit to be associated with if you could see the writing on the wall in terms of where the music business was headed in the mid ’60s. So the First Edition was an attempt to be more commercial, and it worked.
After a decade with the band, Rogers decided to go solo and to go back in a more “country” direction. To everyone’s suprise, country music was having a kind of renaissance in the ’70s, and Rogers was a Houston native. This kind of music was his roots. I really like ONE of his first singles from this period, the unabashedly shit-kicking “Lucille” (1977) — I played the heck out of that one, as well, on a K-Tel record if I remember right.
But it was after this that his music took a turn, and ironically, it’s Rogers’ most successful incarnation that I could never abide. Some of the tunes I can’t stand because they were shoved down our throats like a Chinese water torture. Others of them simply give me the icks, they’re just kind of creepy and nauseating and touchy-feely, and he’d be singing them in those tinted drug dealer sunglasses and in those white polyester suits. All these cliche-ridden easy listening songs that made old women swoon, delivered by this guy with a televangelist’s pomp and Santa Claus beard. It’s a good thing he grew all that facial hair, because without it he looked like a serial killer, Charles Starkweather’s cousin maybe:
The hot streak went from 1978 to 1984, roughly, six years, and encompassed such wretched anthems and ballads as “The Gambler” (1978), “She Believes in Me”. “You Decorated My Life”, “Coward of the County” (all 1979), “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” (with Kim Carnes), “Lady” (both 1980), “I Don’t Need You” (1981), “Through the Years”, “Love Will Turn You Around” (1982), “We’ve Got Tonight” (with Sheena Easton), “Islands in the Stream” (with Dolly Parton), and “What About Me? (with Carnes and James Ingram, 1984).
Can you imagine having to put up with this puke on the radio when you’re in high school? It’s a surety that somebody in the First Edition had better taste than Kenny because once they broke up, his music really sucked. Perhaps it sucked like a vacuum cleaner sucks up dollar bills, but it sucked nonetheless. After he brought the nation to its knees in submission, Rogers retreated to the country music ghetto, where he continued to have hits, appeared in cheesy TV movies, and started a restaurant chain, Kenny Roger’s Roasters, which is my favorite Rogers product to emerge after, say, 1970. They opened a branch in New York’s Greenwich Village, and it was a total cultural fish out of water and I felt sorry for it, so I used to patronize it and be the only person in there.
Gobbling fried chicken by myself is one of secret hobbies, along with gravy, mashed potatoes, and some vegetable. Rest in Peas, Kenny Rogers.