The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs
Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” in a nutshell, is the story of a poker game disguised as a metaphor for life. It tells of two travelers – one barely living and one barely alive – where the message shows that it’s not the metaphorical cards one is dealt in life that defines them, but, rather, the way they use them. Ultimately, it’s a story of two strangers with nothing in common connecting over lessons learned, showing how we may not really be so different from one another.
In other words, even if Rogers didn’t write it, it’s the perfect song to describe his discography – a journey spanning country, pop and beyond, where his various styles and sounds often intertwined with one another, but never clashed. It’s also a way to describe the yin and yang of ‘70s country music, in which the Outlaw movement opened the artistic doors of freedom wide – allowing for the obvious frontrunners of the movement in Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson to dominate the charts while creative talent from afar, like Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, entered a healthier creative environment. So, too, now could crossover crooners like Rogers, Crystal Gayle and Ronnie Milsap enter, though that didn’t stop debates of “outsider” versus “insider” from happening within the industry.
When it come to Rogers’ country material, though, there was no denying his rougher, grittier voice didn’t perfectly suit story-driven songs like “Lucille” and “Coward Of The Country,” especially with his conversational tone. The story of one of his biggest hits, “The Gambler,” starts as a familiar tale in the country music industry. A struggling songwriter named Don Schlitz was working the “graveyard shift” as a computer operator at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, in August 1976. One of Schlitz’ contemporaries, Bob McDill, always offered to help him, and in one particular visit to his office, McDill demonstrated a new “open D” tuning on the guitar to Schlitz.
Basically, the tuning gave way to a droning noise, which Schlitz grew quite fond of; he wrote three songs in two hours after that visit, one of which would become “The Gambler.” Unfortunately, it went unfinished for several weeks, at least until another of Schlitz’s contemporaries, Jim Rushing, urged him to finish working on the song. Schlitz finished the final eight lines and cut a demo of the song, but no would record it. So his publisher released copies of the demo to an independent label. Then, by chance, Capitol Records picked up the master and released it nationally. Schlitz’s version only reached No. 65 on Billboard, though the song caught producer Larry Butler’s attention, enough to where he first recorded the song with Johnny Cash, who realized the song’s potential. Meanwhile, Butler also brought the song to Rogers, whose version includes the changing of a few words and an added key change.
In November 1978, Rogers’ version of the song was shipped to radio, with Columbia Records ultimately opting not to release Cash’s version. Singer/songwriter Bobby Bare had also performed the song a year before Rogers issued it, but his record label didn’t think the song had “hit” potential. Obviously, that prediction wasn’t true; the song only took six weeks to rise to No. 1, giving Rogers his fifth chart-topping hit and a signature song that provided the basis for several television movies, two Grammy awards and a slew of Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association awards. There’s room for debate as to what Rogers’ biggest hit is, though it’s hard to argue against “The Gambler” as his signature one, performed masterfully by him and written with a deft touch by Schlitz.
Fittingly, the song ends with one traveler, an older man, observing, from afar, the sad aimlessness in his younger companion’s eyes. The older man implores the younger man to take charge of his fate because, after all, “there’ll be time enough for counting, when the dealin’s done.” One man’s final words become the inspiration for the next generation, and as we say goodbye to Rogers, that lesson offers needed hope in a very troubling time.
Next time, we’ll finally discuss John Anderson’s “Straight Tequila Night.”