Kenny Rogers’ gifts won country, pop fans

In his words, we found an ace that we could keep.

Kenny Rogers sang lyrics almost universally beloved across country music, and across all of pop music. Written by Don Schlitz, the refrain of “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em” from “The Gambler” will always be associated with Rogers’ unique timbre, his voice’s singular mix of smoky cool and fatherly warmth.

But he delivered so many more: His delicate take on Lionel Richie’s “Lady,” his work with Sheena Easton on Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” his Bee Gees-penned duet with Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream.” Rogers, who died on Friday at 81 at his home in Sandy Springs, Ga., could take anyone’s words — anyone’s work — and make it purely his.

Back in the ’70s when Rogers began singing country music, the genre remained distinct from pop and rock. The idea of crossover artists such as Shania Twain or the Dixie Chicks was fantastical. But leading the charge with “Lucille” in 1975, Rogers began slipping into pop radio, sliding into record collections between James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac LPs. Over his career, he became a giant of country, scoring 21 No. 1 hits in the genre. But he also sent 20 tunes into the Top 40 pop chart, including No. 1’s “Lady,” and “Islands in the Stream.”

“All the songs I record fall into one of two categories, as a rule,” he told NPR in a 2012 interview. “One is ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear. The other is story songs that have social significance.”

The first category will seem obvious to listeners — for millions of fans, across a few generations, Rogers’ love songs helped them fall in love, make love or reconcile love. The second category emerges after considering the singer’s surprising catalog. A 1969 hit with early band First Edition, “Reuben James” tells the story of a black man raising a white child. “Coward of the County” balances pacifism, revenge and justice in the light of rape. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” looks at the plight of a disabled Vietnam veteran.

Maybe Rogers’ distinctive style came from his distinctive history. After high school, Rogers began working full-time in the business as, of all things, a jazz bassist in the Bobby Doyle Three. Later, in the mid-’60s, he joined the iconic folk group the New Christy Minstrels. By the end of the decade, he fronted the rock-country-psychedelia outfit First Edition, which scored a hit in the groovy “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” — the Coen brothers used the cut gloriously in a dream sequence in “The Big Lebowski.”

But whatever Rogers sang — be it hippie jam, country twang, pop gem or something in between — he made the words hang in the air. His voice lifted them up, clear and rough all at once. So many lyrics delivered with so much sincere and winsome emotion, and yet nothing will ever compete with, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/Know when to fold ’em/Know when to walk away/And know when to run … ”

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