The Gambler Leaves the Table

Kenny Rogers died on March 20 at age 81

Kenny Rogers at the Westbury Music Fair 2002 (Photo: Mark L. Schoen)

The lyric that Kenny Rogers became best known for singing has in many ways transcended his own life.

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run…”

When word arrived late Friday night that Rogers, The Gambler himself, had passed away, it left a hole in the music community that is sadly likely to be brushed over as people around the world panic about the coronavirus pandemic. Concerns over the virus are certainly legitimate, but this artist’s life is worth taking a moment to press pause and remember the music he left behind.

Considering the trillions of recorded songs out in the ether, it’s pretty remarkable when one is able to penetrate the noise and last the way “The Gambler” has. Written by Don Schlitz in 1976, the song has been recorded by several artists over the years, but no one’s been able to give it legs quite like Rogers did with his 1978 recording. His distinctively coarse voice gives the song’s narrator character in a way that feels fitting to the context. The storytelling structure of the song bolstered the power Rogers derived from it, enabling him to slide into the “Gambler” alter ego he became so comfortable with years later as he side-hustled by filming advertisements for casinos.


VIDEO: Kenny Rogers “The Gambler”

Rogers’ hit with “The Gambler” came early in his career as a solo artist, though by that point he’d already been performing and recording with other groups for about two decades. The 24 No. 1 hits and armfuls of awards he picked up from the Country Music Awards and the Grammys earned him a spot within the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013, all testaments to the slice of success he was able to carve out in the country and pop genres.

After hearing about Rogers’ death, the Country Music Association described him as a musician who “has forever left a mark on Country Music’s history.” Other tributes from the country community came pouring out on Saturday, with Dolly Parton addressing the shock she felt upon hearing the news in a tearful video posted on Twitter. “I loved Kenny with all my heart,” Parton said. “My heart’s broken. A big old chunk of it has gone with him today.”

Rogers’ impact extends well beyond his hit from 1978, but that song will be what he’s best remembered for—and, fittingly enough, “The Gambler” moniker is one he embraced throughout his life. Few musicians manage to build tangible identities around their careers in the way Rogers did—Johnny Cash was the “Man in Black,” Elvis Presley was “The King,” Jim Morrison became the “Lizard King”—and the handful of times it has happened says just as much about the artist’s skills in personal branding as it does their success in connecting with audiences.

Over time, younger listeners will likely lose an awareness of who Rogers was, as they may also with Cash, Morrison and even Presley.

But the story of “The Gambler” is sure to live on.



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Meghan Roos

Meghan Roos is a music journalist living in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @mroos163.

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