Kenny Rogers: bittersweet tales of morality and mindless violence

Bleeding heart

Country god Kenny Rogers is about to open his bleeding heart to Scottish audiences in the Unforgettable tour. But there is more to King Kenny than broken marriages and dreams, writes David Harris.

16 The List 15-28 Nov I996

he world, it has been said. is a comedy to those that think and a tragedy to those that feel. And a country song to those that feel pretty lousy. The West of Scotland is second only to Nashville in its concentration of country fans. and when the Unforgettable tour hits Glasgow this month. it should seem like a home fixture to its stars. Kenny Rogers. Tammy Wynette and Glen Campbell.

Tammy may be the queen of country, and Glen among its aristocracy. but nobody has taken the genre’s potential for absurdity beyond our Ken. Though purists balk at his tendency to dilute the redeye with lashings of pop. his back catalogue remains the acme of country’s penchant for making melodrama out of mid-life crisis. What’s more, ifyou listen hard enough to the lyrics, there are profound moral lessons for us all. Who knows, within a couple of years he could be on the national curriculum.

With a Texan drawl that oscillates between husky and corny. Rogers came to prominence in 1969 with The First Edition’s version ofthe Mel Tillis classic, ‘Ruby’. At the height of Vietnam, this tale of a crippled Korean war veteran and his faithless wife was guaranteed to reduce the most hardened pacifist to tears. The narrator

‘Success was never a big thing for me. As long as I could make a living and meet my car payment and my house

payment I was happy.’

assures us he didn’t start that crazy Asian war, but we begin to doubt him when he announces his desire to put Ruby in the ground. We can sympathise with the woman it is hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralysed. Even harder is diagnosing the medical condition of our hero. That he hasn’t long to live and knows the sun is going down only by watching the shadow on the wall leads us to suspect that he resembles the narrator of Dalton Trumbo’s ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ - a mere head and torso. In which case, Ruby is a veritable Mother Teresa for putting up with him.

Kenny’s brother Lelan Rogers was the man who discovered and produced The 13th Floor Elevators, so it’s no surprise that The First Edition weren’t all homespun hokum. There’s also a fair dollop of psychedelic hokum. such as their Number 8 UK single. ‘Something’s Burning’. and their first US hit, ‘Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was ln)’, recently heard as a Supergrass encore. After a successful TV show the band folded, and it wasn’t until 1977 that Kenny found his form again with the mighty ‘Lucille’.

If he has always presented a virtuous front, the song shows Kenny at his least moral. In a bar in Toledo (across from the depot, because it rhymes) he sidles up to the nearest available woman, only to be interrupted in his advances by her abandoned husband, who has a strange look on his face. it soon becomes evident why: he’s had 400 children (and a crop in the field). Okay, it’s probably four hungry children. but for all we know they could be school governors. Unswayed by the poor man’s tale of woe, Kenny . goes off to a hotel with her, and only when the drunk and naked houri throws herself on him does he have a crisis of conscience. So much for the family values he espoused on the set of The Gambler. when he refused to participate in any kissing scenes, being a happily married man.