Kenny Rogers may be best remembered for introducing a global pop audience to the homespun charms of country music. But his work as an ambassador didn’t open just his listeners’ ears: Perhaps more than any other Nashville act of his generation, Rogers, who died Friday at age 81, dabbled freely in other sounds and styles; his long and varied catalog is a testament to both his musical curiosity and his keen commercial sense. Looked back upon now, it also indicates clearly how country music, in many ways a hidebound genre before Rogers emerged, would evolve in his wake.
A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame who scored 21 No. 1 country hits (and topped the Hot 100 twice), Rogers understood that a sturdy persona and an unchanging look — and, of course, a warmly reassuring voice with just the right amount of grown-up sex appeal — could provide a kind of continuity that allowed him to experiment without alienating his core fans. Today, we’d call that continuity a savvy approach to branding, and indeed Rogers parlayed his musical stardom into successful sidelines as an actor and an entrepreneur with his own chain of rotisserie-chicken restaurants.
Yet it was his music in the ’70s and ’80s that made Rogers a crucial bridge between country’s origins and its arrival as a true pop force in the ’90s. Here are 10 of Rogers’ most enduring songs, listed in chronological order.
“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” (1967)
Before he found stardom in Nashville — and after earlier forays into doo-wop, jazz and folk music — Rogers made the Top 10 as lead singer of the First Edition with this tidy blast of pop psychedelia.
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (1969)
Rogers had moved the First Edition toward country music by the time of this vivid story song (written by Mel Tillis), in which the singer portrays a paralyzed Vietnam veteran whose wife is stepping out on him.
Another finely observed narrative ballad, this one featuring Rogers as the man with whom a married woman is carrying on, the singer’s first big solo hit also won him his first of three Grammy Awards.
“The Gambler” (1978)
Rogers’ signature song sets a poker player’s hard-won wisdom — “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” — over an easygoing country groove that helped him do what neither Bobby Bare nor Johnny Cash could do with the tune: top Billboard’s country chart.
“Coward of the County” (1979)
As with most of his songs, Rogers didn’t write this chilling account of a bullied young man taking revenge on three brothers after they rape the man’s girlfriend. (It’s credited to Roger Bowling and Billy Edd Wheeler.) But Rogers’ intimate vocal performance is a fine example of the empathy he found in interpretation.
Written and produced by Lionel Richie, the silky, sensual “Lady” blurred the line between country music and R&B decades before the age of Sam Hunt and RMR.
“We’ve Got Tonight” (1983)
Rogers’ raspy voice made him a natural fit to cover Bob Seger’s late-’70s power ballad. But doing the song as a duet with Sheena Easton added a layer of adult-contemporary polish that drew fans from beyond country and rock.
“Islands in the Stream” (1983)
Rogers’ smash duet with Dolly Parton — a shimmering studio creation of the Bee Gees, whose trademark tight harmonies are evident throughout — led to additional singles and a concert tour by the duo, as well as a joint Christmas album and accompanying TV special. In 1998, producer Wyclef Jean remade “Islands in the Stream” as “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)” for his Fugees bandmate Pras Michel.
“What About Me?” (1984)
Credit the presence of the great James Ingram (who died last year) for pushing Rogers toward one of his most soulful vocals in this three-way slow jam, which also features Kim Carnes and was co-written by Richard Marx.
“Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” (1987)
A gender-flipped take on Carnes’ and Barbra Streisand’s duet from just a few years before, “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” paired Rogers with Ronnie Milsap for a tale of two smooth-talkers competing for the same woman’s affection.