Last time on World Records, we veered away from the depths of outlaw country to explore the pop-country crossover phenomenon, showcasing how they ran parallel to, rather than against, one another. Of course, if we’re looking for the leaders of that movement, we really need look no further than Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson for obvious picks. But what about this one? Well, that just might be our focus for today. Onward!
I explored this once before in my tribute to Olivia-Newton John, of all things, but just like how “traditional” country music blatantly denotes an everlasting chain that connects pieces of history and various eras together, pop-country has its own history that dates almost all the way to the beginning. The most popular act on the Grand Ole Opry before Roy Acuff came along was a trio of male harmony singers from Chicago: The Vagabonds. And let us not forget that Vernon Dalhart’s smooth, operatic tone gave way to country music’s first million-selling record. What I’m trying to say without copying too much from that piece is, just as there is a chain that can connect, say, Clint Black to Merle Haggard and Haggard to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, there’s also a legitimate chain that can connect pop-country performers to Dalhart and the Vagabonds, albeit perhaps more loosely.
It’s a far more fascinating history than it’s often given credit for, perhaps because the term itself is often used in a negative manner to denote music that’s formulaic, or is simply used as a scapegoat when traditional country sounds fall out of favor. To be fair, there’s a history to that as well that involves both sides of the divide pushing one another away for a certain time period, but if there’s one reason I like this particular decade, it’s because those rough-edged sounds ran freely and parallel to the pop-country crossover moment.
And because there’s a legitimate history to pop-country as well, it also means that it’s had to change and adapt. Even Charlie Rich’s music we discussed last week stands in sharp contrast to the smoothed-over Nashville Sound of the ‘60s. I found that album to be a mixed bag in actual quality, but I can’t deny that the more refined, tasteful, elegant edges which showed more restraint weren’t, at the very least, gorgeous to listen through.
And if we’re looking for the catalyst to that change, it’d probably be through Kenny Rogers. Unexpectedly, too, given his roots through the First Edition outfit, which was very much of a product of its era in the way it’d trade between psychedelic folk, bouncy pop, and Beatles-influenced rock. A business-savvy Rogers would also eventually emerge as the leader of the group and bill the outfit as “Kenny Rogers and the First Edition,” but following a significant slowdown in the early ‘70s, the group would part ways. The turn toward country wasn’t too far-fetched, however. Rogers’ icon was Conway Twitty, and he and his band were also able to make a pop hit out of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” written by Mel Tillis. Ironically, too, they shared production duties with Jimmie Bowen, a pop producer who would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in Nashville in the ‘80s.
And in a way, when Rogers turned toward a solo country career, he altered the genre’s course. He had a soft, conversational tone that could appeal to anyone, but with just enough rougher texture to sell modest arrangements with undeniable country flavor, like “Lucille.” It’s an odd combination at first glance, but one that would reconfigure the typical string and backing vocals combination that defined the pop-country of yesteryear. And as an example of that, we have today’s focus, The Gambler – the iconic single and album.
Granted, like with Charlie Rich last week, this is another review where I wanted to establish proper context before diving into the actual album itself proper, complimenting the talent on display even in the face of weaker material. Because “The Gambler” is a classic I certainly respect and love, a type of story song that Rogers excelled at with all of its worldly wisdom offered on life and its many, many games. Told, too, as an exchange between a drifter and a professional gambler with real stakes behind the former’s desperate urgency and the latter’s years of hardbitten experience, it’s not just a series of platitudes. It’s hard-knock stuff, where only Rogers’ velvet tone and the soft-picked acoustics provide the levity. It’s also country storytelling with the pop refinement in its melody and hook to be an anthem for the ages. Rogers wasn’t the first to record the song (Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash both recorded it as an album cut, and the song’s writer, Don Schlitz, pushed his own version that reached No. 65 at country radio), but he was the one to immortalize it.
However, aside from the nod to the song through the excellent album cover, this isn’t an album that plays toward that rougher lane. And if the question is whether it’s enough to carry or define the entire album regardless on its own merits … well, it certainly helps. But fitting for the era, Rogers’ albums during this period were more haphazard melting pots than cohesive artistic statements, pulling from a variety of writers and influences that do come together at points. Other times, however, they can feel very dated, schmaltzy, and overblown in a way where I’m not even sure they were good for the era, let alone have held up today.
That’s ultimately the tough part about actually discussing this album, because if there is a connective throughline, it’s only there slightly, and likely not intentionally. But if said connection is rich storytelling detail full of risks that either do or don’t pay off – reflecting the nature of the game itself – there are some winners. “I Wish That I Could Hurt That Way Again” would later become a hit single for T. Graham Brown, but this is cut from the same country and pop formula that would define Rogers’ work at its best. It’s straightforward heartache where the burn will always linger in a good way, and where the muted keys add an intimacy one can’t hide from in hearing Rogers’ delivery at the front of the mix.
And through it, despite knowing he’d have to go through that pain again if it meant ever reconnecting with a lost lover or doing it all over again, it’s a gamble he’s willing to take; a losing hand in theory, but a winner in every other regard. The same goes for the album’s other hit single, “She Believes In Me,” which I should write off as a sickly sweet love song playing exactly like you’d think through the huge string crescendo for the chorus and hook. But it’s framed as an honest portrayal of a struggling musician thankful and humbled that someone has actually stuck it out with him despite him knowing that big break may have already passed him by. It’s big and sweet, but there’s an emotional pathos there that resonates.
And if it shows anywhere else, it’s in “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” a Mickey Newbury-penned cut that sets up the city-versus-country narrative but through a genuine love story and as a demonstration of class systems, where a country boy gets involved with the wrong girl and her family and ends up paying dearly, all because of that rift. If anything, “The Gambler” sets the game of life up as one worth playing, and indeed, it is, but it’s also careful enough to detail how, naturally, not everyone is a winner within it; there just may be more losers in it, actually.
Elsewhere … well, see, this is the problem with a scattered release like this. There are far more detours taken here than there should be, and that’s a twofold statement. For one, when you’ve got several solo writes here, all written with different sounds and ideas in mind, it can lead to some offbeat moments that just don’t connect. And the other part of that statement is reflected in the instrumentation and production, which, when it doesn’t plays to softer, ‘70s country restraint, tries to integrate badly dated funk moments that don’t belong here at all. Again, with Rogers, that melting pot was to be expected given his background, but when he opts for overblown swagger on “Making Music For Money” off of the rock guitars and horns, it’s just an odd fit – especially given how it’s an anti-industry song coming from an artist who worked very comfortably within it. Of course, on that note, there’s also the thinly written “Tennessee Bottle,” which seems like Rogers’ attempt at outlaw-era swagger but just comes across as campy as a whole.
But look, I can’t say any of this is that out of character for Rogers. He was intentionally campy and schmaltzy on some of his biggest material, and his performance abilities were often enough to make it work or even save it. The problem is that a lot of the material here just feels very dated and offbeat in a weirdly unflattering, experimental way. I mean, nothing quite says “’70s” like a song called “The Hoodooin’ of Miss Fannie Deberry,” and it’s as weird, trippy, and nonsensical as you’d think it’d be. Or take “The King of Oak Street,” an otherwise honest look at a struggling couple where the husband cheats and forgiveness doesn’t come easy … until his wife writes it off as him “just being a man.” But they’ve got nothing on “Morgana Jones,” a Rogers solo write that sounds awful off the weird, fart-like bass groove that’s once again trying to be funky but ends up feeling wonky and clunky instead. Uncomfortable, too, given that it’s a weird little number about the titular character that gets very misogynistic very quickly. It feels like one of those odd little experimental bonus cuts that should have been axed before it ever got recorded.
So yeah, “The Gambler,” the song? Undeniable classic. And there are other cuts present here that, while nowhere near that same level, are still quality. But The Gambler, the album? That’s a definite mixed bag, emblematic of the era, and sadly, for worse – even if the singles it did provide shaped country and pop music for the better.
Join me next time, where we’ll bring the focus back down to discuss our final ‘70s-era album, with Guy Clark’s Old No. 1.
One thought on “World Records, No. 9: Kenny Rogers – ‘The Gambler’ (1978)”
Hi Zack – this is kind of a bizarre album. The Gambler (the song) is undeniably great and one of the best country songs of all time and Kenny Rogers delivers it perfectly. It could have been the basis of a great concept album (What was the back-story for the two main characters? What happened after the train stopped?).
Some of the songs are just weird (eg. Hoodoing, Morgana Jones), but there are a few that I like outside of the title track. I actually quite like Making Music For Money and Sleep Tight, Midnight Man and San Fransisco Mabel Joy are both decent. But, overall, this is a sub-par album with one great song and a few other good ones.
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