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Remembering Houston Native Kenny Rogers

Houston native Kenny Rogers. Rogers died on Friday at the age of 81.
University of Houston Digital Library /Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)
Houston native Kenny Rogers. Rogers died on Friday at the age of 81.

From Texas Standard:

He was a Texas native, but wasn't really known as a Texas musician. He was "country," but he was also a big part of the pop music world. And he was a solo artist whose biggest hit was a duet. Kenny Rogers was an artist who wore many, sometimes contradictory, hats. He died Friday at the age of 81.

Rogers was more than an icon, says fellow Texas Medal of Arts winner Ray Benson. The Asleep at the Wheel frontman played shows with Rogers back when Rogers worked with Dolly Parton.

"He was just a pro," Benson says. "He understood the business. He was very ambitious – he wanted to be what he became. But he was also a really nice guy. ... We would play a show together and I'd go to say "Hi," and he would just shoot the bull with you, and, you know, we all had the same upbringing … you worked from the bottom up."

In an appreciationof Rogers published in Texas Monthly over the weekend, Michael Hall wrote that Rogers' family was so poor that young Kenny used to like to take walks in the wealthier parts of Houston to marvel at the sprinklers and the manicured lawns.

"When he finally made it, he made sure to put a bunch of sprinklers on his 18-hole golf course at his spread outside Athens, Georgia," Hall says.

Rogers' father was a carpenter; his mother was a nurse's assistant. The family, including eight children, lived on the edge of Houston's Fourth Ward.

"He definitely had to scrape to get his first guitar," Hall says. "Nothing came easy for the young Kenny Rogers."

When Rogers broke into music in the late 1950s, it wasn't as a country artist, or even the kind of pop singer he would become in later years.

"This high, plaintive, sweet voice years later would be that low, husky, Kenny Rogers voice," Hall says. "Back then, he was 19 years old and he sang like a teen angel."

In the 1960s, Rogers' hit song "Just Dropped In" showed another part of his range. Recorded with Rogers' band New Edition, the song, written by Mickey Newbury, was a nod to the freewheeling drug culture of the time.

"It's this really kind of kitschy, bad-trip LSD song," Hall says.

Rogers broadened his musical horizons by playing with Austinite Bobby Doyle, whom Hall calls "a white Ray Charles." Rogers played bass with Doyle, and picked up a lot of blues, jazz and R&B knowledge that served him well in his career.

Rogers' hits from the 1980s includes "Coward of the County," "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," "Lucile" and "Lacy." These songs helped him become a country music star even as his popularity also grew among mainstream music fans. That's because his sound was country, but a bit more polished – more polished than some country music purists would have liked, Hall says. 

Rogers' most enduring hit, "The Gambler," came from an unlikely source.

"That song was written by a 23-year-old guy who apparently did not even play poker," Hall says. "But he totally nailed that song, and Kenny really made it his own."

Hall says most people don't think of Kenny Rogers as a Texas musician.

"That's what's so fascinating about Kenny Rogers," Hall says. "He was a great Texas musician, even if he didn't sound like a Texas musician."

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Rhonda is the newest member of the KUT News team, joining in late 2013 as producer for KUT's new daily news program, The Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.