Kenny Rogers Lost Me Long Ago

So, Kenny Rogers died overnight.

He was, without doubt, one of the most popular and successful pop and country performers of the last third of the last century. Here are the raw numbers:

A total of fifty-seven records in the Billboard Country Top 40 between 1969 and 2003. (My country book goes to 2006, so there may have been a few more hits; I don’t know.) Of those fifty-seven records, twenty-one went to No. 1, starting with “Lucille” in 1977 and ending with “Buy Me A Rose” with Alison Krauss and Billy Dean in 2000.

He was, of course, a presence on the pop chart before he went country: Before “Lucille” hit in 1977, he had fifteen records reach the Hot 100, credited first to the First Edition, later to Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, and then simply to himself. The best-performing of those singles were “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which went to No. 5 in 1968, and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” which peaked at No. 6 in 1969.

And as I went through my life, I heard him all around me, from the pop stuff before I really cared about pop music, to the country stuff that crossed over before I cared much about country music. Kenny Rogers, during the last third of the 1900s, was inescapable.

But after enjoying some of the early pop stuff and recognizing that 1978’s “The Gambler” was a great story record, I quit listening, switching the station or turning the radio off entirely whenever I heard his voice coming from the speakers.

Why?

Because of “The Coward Of The County,” Rogers’ 1979 hit that uses gang rape and vengeance as plot points. The first time the Other Half and I heard it, we were disgusted. And it felt like nobody else noticed the repugnance of those plot elements, as the record went to No. 1 on the country chart, No. 3 on the Hot 100, and No. 5 on the adult contemporary chart.

Were we being selective in our reactions? Don’t many other pop and country songs use similarly unseemly topics? Yeah, they do. But something about “The Coward Of The County” felt so unnecessarily blatant.

So the Other Half and I quit listening to Kenny Rogers. Forty years later, I have nothing from his days as a country star on any of my shelves. I do have seven of his earlier works in digital form and four of his early hits in the iPod, and I’m often uneasy about even those.

I’m sorry he’s gone. I’m sorry for his family and friends. But just as his voice has for more than forty years, the news of his death reminds me of the shock and horror I saw on the Other Half’s face and the sick feeling I felt in my stomach at the same moment when we first heard “The Coward Of The County” coming into our living room.

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