A mixed bag, rather like Kenny Rogers’ career.
Sean Egan 2010
The compilers of this three-CD, 45-song overview of the career of country legend Kenny Roger have divided it evenly – a disc apiece – between Duets, Story Songs and Love Songs. If by doing this they are asking us to make a judgement on Rogers’ strength, the verdict must be returned that the story song is the artist’s metier.
While the duets disc is enjoyable, the format of such material lends itself more to schmaltz than sophistication, even if the interplay between Rogers and people like Dolly Parton, Sheena Easton, Don Henley, Gladys Knight and Kim Carnes is often engaging, especially, of course, on the 1983 Bee Gees-written Rogers-Parton smash Islands in the Stream. The love songs disc has pleasures like the courtly Lady and She Believes in Me (touching anthem of a loser who finds love anyway), but the overall result is soporific.
On the middle, story songs disc, we encounter compositions of greater nuance, including the onomatopoeic Sweet Music Man, the laconic The Gambler and the growlingly sung ditty about murder, Harder Cards. Best of all is Rogers’ first (solo) hit, Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town, which also remains his most daring: not many chart songs tackle paraplegia, impotence and the Vietnam War. Perhaps significantly, Rogers’ two UK number ones have been story songs, the tale of rustic romantic devastation Lucille and the vengeance narrative Coward of the County.
This compilation – which boasts a new recording on each disc, one written by Lionel Richie – mainly serves to demonstrate that, other than observing his skill at delivering story songs, it’s difficult to get a handle on Rogers. Sweet Music Man suggests that he would have done well to develop his own writing talent, but he has preferred to rely on other composers, and unlike that other archetypal non-writing recording artist Elvis Presley he does not possess a sufficiently magnificent voice or socio-political import to make the fact irrelevant. Meanwhile, the gleaming sleekness of tracks like Twenty Years Ago might demonstrate that Rogers has embraced modern technology over the decades, but it also raises the question of whether he even qualifies for the description country artist anymore.
The First 50 Years is a mixed bag, then – rather like Kenny Rogers’ career.