With so much on all of our minds this week, it has been hard for many of us to also come to terms with the passing of Kenny Rogers, an inimitable, singular figure in the music world and American culture. Rogers, whom many will know for his hits “The Gambler” and “Islands in the Stream,” has been a staple of the country music charts for over four decades. He graced the highest performance stages across the world, opened restaurants, published numerous books on photography (earning a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Photography Hall of Fame in 2017) and even had a successful career in film, appearing in television films as well as blockbusters. But perhaps most notably, Rogers can be credited with bringing the country genre to a wider American audience. Indeed, Rogers was distinguished for his crossover success, his ability to combine sumptuous country instrumentation with his smooth, earnest voice. While it is nearly impossible to chronicle and emphasize the importance of Kenny Rogers’ contributions to our culture and musical sphere, we hope to provide you with some window into his life and his work with a list of ten essential songs. Compiling a brief list is an unenviable task given the size and strength of his discography, but nevertheless, here are ten essential songs that will help you reconnect with the late great, Kenny Rogers.
Often considered Kenny Rogers’ breakthrough hit, Lucille tells the haunting story of a woman at a bar who has left her husband and children in a time of trouble, all from the perspective of the barman. The song climbed to the #1 position on the country charts in early 1977 and peaked nationally at #5. That year, the record earned Rogers the CMA’s Single of the Year Award.
9. She Believes in Me
“She Believes in Me” tells the story of a struggling musician who comes home each night to find his lover faithfully there, supporting him in spite of his meager income and his long hours. The song hit #1 on the country charts in 1978 and peaked at #5 on the Hot 100 nationally.
8. We’ve Got Tonight
When Rogers collaborated with Sheena Easton in 1983, the result was one of his finest ballads. Emotive piano and organ underscore Rogers and Easton’s powerful vocal performances on this record. The song peaked at #6 on the U.S. charts, outperforming even Bob Seger’s original rendition from 1978.
7. ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own
“‘Til I Can Make It On My Own” is a contemplative, luminous duet with Dottie West. The song explores the contradictory nature of a hard break-up: the partners know they need to go out on their own, but they will stay with each other until they can “make it” on their own—because they haven’t yet found the strength to be apart. The 1979 record is another illustration of Rogers’ ability to positively work alongside female artists in duet form.
6. Islands in the Stream
A song that cannot be left out of any compilation of Kenny Rogers’ finest work, “Islands in the Stream” marked Rogers’ second Billboard #1. The laid-back 1983 summer record is a quintessential meet cute: Dolly Parton and Rogers duet in an uncomplicated, light manner. Strong performances from Dolly Parton and Rogers make this a delicate, smooth record that invites continuous listening.
5. You Decorated My Life
“You Decorated My Life” was the lead single off of Kenny Rogers’ 1979 album, Kenny, for good reason. The ardent love song features Rogers’ vocals at the forefront with lush orchestral sections and flowing vocal harmonies. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Country Charts the year of its release.
4. Twenty Years Ago
This record, released in January of 1987, recounts a man’s return to his childhood hometown. The song’s verses are supple and nostalgic, softly building into a powerful chorus. “Twenty Years Ago” certainly sits outside of the realm of Rogers’ more traditional country records, but it accurately reflects Rogers’ ability to traverse different musical realms. The 1980s rock ballad stands up well over time.
3. The Gambler
Perhaps Kenny Rogers’ most renowned song, “The Gambler” is a great illustration of Rogers’ exceptional ability as a lyrical storyteller. The song describes an encounter between a man and a gambler who provides life advice in the form of an allegorical message: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, / know when to fold ‘em / know when to walk away / and know when to run!” The song is a fun one, and a staple among many country performers on the live performance circuit today.
2. You Can’t Make Old Friends
In 2013, with over thirty years of success in music together, it would seem that Rogers, in his mid 70s, and Parton, in her 60s, had achieved so much together that they could not outdo or match anything they had already created together. The list of their mutual accomplishments is too exhaustive to even go into. However, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” does something special. Released in the fall of 2013, the song masquerades as an unassuming collaborative record between Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, but at the heart it is perhaps their most genuine record together. The song features poignant individual verses from Parton and Rogers, and beautiful harmonies between the duo in the chorus. As Rogers put it himself, this was a song that was “important historically to have on tape.” It goes beyond the business of music: it is a true testament to the friendship between Parton and Rogers that spanned a lifetime.
1. Sweet Music Man
Fittingly, we close this list with a song Rogers wrote himself: “Sweet Music Man.” The song, which comes off his 1977 album “Daytime Friends,” is a curious record in its composition. The song features traditional country steel guitars and acoustic guitars alongside a bed of analogue synthesizers and strings. At the center of the record, of course, is Rogers’ voice. In a sense, this record encapsulates one of Rogers’ most enduring and perplexing capabilities. Rogers marries traditional elements of country with the zeitgeist of the 1970s and 1980s pop: synthesizers and analogue bass. The bridging element is, in the end, Rogers’ easy-flowing vocal performance. Ultimately, the lyrics of the chorus sum up our feelings on the great Kenny Rogers: “nobody sings a love song quite like you do.” Indeed, nobody sings it quite like Kenny Rogers. He will be dearly missed.
Written by Brennan White