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Kenny Rogers: Sheer simplicity just as music truly should be

On Saturday, the world woke up to news that country music star Kenny Rogers had passed on at the age of 81. The singer, who is survived by a 52-year-old wife and five children, is said to have died “peacefully on Friday night of natural causes at his home in Georgia.

Big Tril, of the ‘Parte after Parte’ fame, has a headache. He will not admit it, of course. In fact, on Twitter, the rapper — who had one of the biggest hits of 2019 on the continent — played it cool, recently, on when he will next emerge from the recording studios.

If you asked Kenny Rogers that same question in 1958 after he released his first hit single, ‘That Crazy Feeling‘, he probably would have smiled at you and said, “When I can say what every man wants to say and what every woman wants to hear.”

Musicians world over have sleepless nights over what to release next to keep them relevant. Not Rogers. He just kept his husky voice simple, his lyrics commonplace and style unconventional, at least at the time.

Country music? What was that? The world did not appreciate it. But Rogers did not care. He just kept writing simple lines, the same you would hear from a drunk making snide remarks about the rear of a waitress.

Years ago, I said Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were menus for geezers watching wearily over the setting sun as if wondering if it would be the last they ever see.

“I swear you will understand the true meaning of music if you listen to Kenny Rogers,” a friend retorted.

“Not country music,” I said.

“Just try Coward of the Country.”

I did. That song changed my perception of country music. The simplicity in lyrics, arrangement and little to nothing of chord progression made for some unique melody. In ignorance, I had stayed hooked to pop, rumba and reggae while shunning country music, the same issue that Rogers faced when picking his way around music notes.

Many could not understand why a man who talked rather than sang was calling himself a musician. Music critics had a field day. Rogers’ sprechgesang and sprechstimme (vocalisation between singing and speaking) style had no place in their review.

But Rogers did not give in; he kept his style. He did not give up; he kept smiling and talk-singing. Until Friday, March 20 when he gave in and up in the only way.

Rogers was 81.

His family said he “passed away peacefully at home from natural causes.”

Peacefully, like a man who has accomplished his mission. A legend who took country music to pop world.

Born Kenneth Donald Rogers on August 21, 1938, in Houston, Texas, Rogers grew up poor, living with his parents and six siblings in a federal housing project, according to his official biography.

While in high school, he bought himself a guitar and started a group called the Scholars. He played bass guitar in their rockabilly, but did not last with the Scholars, releasing his first single, ‘Crazy Feeling‘, in 1958.

The song did not give him the identity he craved. The following year, he was back experimenting with a fusion of pop, folk and country under Kenny Rogers and First Edition. The second band registered some success.

But, again, that was not him. Rogers went solo again, in 1974, with ‘Love Lifted Me‘ (1975) his first top 20 country hit. Two years later, he reached the top of the country charts with the mournful ballad, ‘Lucille‘, about a man being left by his wife.

Rogers had arrived. He had found his identity and etched it on stone. It was time to go wild and wide, musically. He released The Gambler in 1978 for which he won his second Grammy.

The critics turned fanatics and were eager to know how he had made it despite the slow uptake of his country music. Rogers responded with a book, Making It with Music: Kenny Rogers’ Guide to the Music Business (1978).

Global Icon

By the 1980s, the silver-haired Rogers, complete with similar shade of well-tended beards, had become a global icon. He enjoyed duets with country and pop stars but it was that collaboration with Dolly Parton, ‘Islands in the Stream’ that got the most love ballads oozing from Rogers.

Dolly, vivacious with one of the most talked about bosom in the world, and Rogers, always smiling. Such was a pair. It was difficult to convince anyone that the man who was married five times and has left behind five children was not dating his stage half. No surprises that their 1983 duet remains a favourite of millions across the world. Written by the Bee Gees, the tune went to the top of both the country and pop charts and won them the Academy of Country Music Award for Single of the Year.

But it was not only Dolly who took the pleasure of sharing a studio with a world famous Rogers. A series of hits with Dottie West such as ‘Every Time Two Fools Collide‘ (1978), ‘All I Ever Need Is You‘ (1979) and ‘What Are We Doin’ in Love‘ (1981) cemented Rogers’ reputation as a true crossover artiste, enjoying enormous success on both the country and pop charts and collaborating with such pop stars falling for his charms.

But on Friday, Rogers’ candle burned out. He has sailed to an island in the stream, where he has to belong anyway, with no one in between. He would ask, “how can I be wrong?”

Surely, he cannot be wrong. He is resting, in another world. Eternally.

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