August 11, 2004

Kenny Rogers "42 Ultimate Hits"

I hate the way some artists get tangled up in their image. For some reason, I can envision that you who come to Mundane Sounds are thinking "Kenny Rogers? Joseph, where are you going with this?? Have you lost it?" I can't say that I blame you, but that's okay, I've got some love to give, and I'm gonna give it here, and as Mundane Sounds is all about breaking societal taboos, we're gonna give a little bit of love to The Gambler. So out of the closet I come, full of pride about the man I love.

I grew up with Kenny. He was ubiquitous in my house and on the radio stations that I grew up listening to back in that lovely decade we call the Seventies. His country-pop stylings--along with artists like Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, George Jones and Roger Miller--helped to define my idea of what music should be: lush, melodic pop that should be laced with a heavy-duty dose of great lyrical content. Kenny was all of these things and more, but sadly people only seem to know him as a chicken restaurant magnet and a guy who has a website dedicated to hirsute men who look just like him, and that's a damn shame.

42 Ultimate Hits is a long overdue collection, and it just the hits, ma'am. You might not know it, but he was actually a pioneer of psychedelic country, first making waves with his band The First Edition. Psych-rock and Kenny Rogers? Yeah, I know it's an odd concept, but that's exactly what it was-- "Just Droped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" was pure competition for 13th Floor Elevators and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" was a scathing, disturbing commentary about Vietnam. These great songs highlighted Rogers' whiskey-smooth singing voice, and set the standard for what was about to come--detailed, moving narrative songs of love and loss and losers who wanted nothing more than to be loved and redeemed. "Lucille" and "The Coward of the County" are tales that, twenty-five years later, are still moving..

Rogers was a ballad man, too, and when he did a ballad, he did it right. Strings? You got 'em. Backing vocals? Yup, they're gonna be done to the hilt. Much like Elvis Presley, Rogers might not have been the writer of most of his songs, but that didn't stop him from getting inside the words and making them all his own. Listen to "Lady" or "You Decorated My Life" and "She Believes In Me" or "We've Got Tonight" and you'll instantly fall in love with the feeling of love, and lemme tell you folks, Kenny was damn good at what he did; his songs did love right. None of that whiny 'does she love me' pensive Bright Eyes crap is anywhere to be found here--Rogers was a man and his music, while sensitive, was sensitive in a loving, masculine way. He also wrote one of my favorite love songs ever, "Love Will Turn You Around," the theme song to the long-lost classic film Six Pack. The distinctive guitar intro was permanantly etched in my brain when I was nine, and the moment I hear it I'm instantly transported back to my youth, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Of course, like so many great country artists, Rogers was frozen out by the 'New Country' movement of the mid-Eighties, and though he still made music, he quickly became ignored by the format that made him famous. Though it must be said that the days of having great songs like "The Gambler" were gone, Rogers did have a really good run, leaving behind a string of really great hits. Yes, some of his later hits like "The Vows Go Unbroken" and "Twenty Years From Now" are saccharine and somewhat schlocky, but you shouldn't dismiss his earlier career for that. 42 Ultimate Hits fixes the upsetting absence of a good, comprehensive Rogers greatest hits collection--most have been incomplete, poorly mixed or inferior rerecorded versions. If you ever wondered about the man, or if you simply want to be wowed by really beautiful, moving songs, then I recommend 42 Ultimate Hits in the biggest of ways.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website:
Label Website:

No comments: