Record #409: Kenny Rogers – The Gambler (1978)

I have to admit something.

This record has been sitting on the shelf for years without me listening to it. My assumption was that I would only ever listen to it once, then get rid of it, so I might as well make that one listen the review.

I was wrong about a couple things…

For starters, I expected Kenny Rogers’ music to be as boisterous and over-the-top as the man himself. I mean, no one expects the sort of guy who possesses both a perfectly manicured pure-white beard and a fried chicken franchise to have any concept of subtlety.

But that’s not the case. The record gets far more mileage out of tenderness and balladry than honky tonk. Rogers’ voice is surprisingly delicate—nowhere near the booming baritone you’d expect from looking at him.  There are a few rock songs thrown in the mix here—and one disco tune (“Hoodooin’ of Miss Fanny Deberry”), but most of the songs are surprisingly restrained. And Middle Of the Road though they may be, they are more enjoyable than not.

And while Kenny Rogers is a star within the country music industry, this album is surprisingly absent of country music cliches. Kenny’s voice is not encumbered by a thick, manufactured drawl like so many country singers. The instrumentation is closer to soft rock than a country band. Most songs are led by an acoustic guitar and electric piano, strangely absent of twanging guitars or lap steels. The liner notes even credit someone with an ARP synthesizer, though I can’t readily identify it in the mix. edit: oh, there it is in “Morgana Jones,” the sole Rogers composition, which even has a break for a jazz fusion guitar solo.

The album isn’t all pleasant surprises though. A few of these songs did not age well. Most notably “Makin’ Music for Money” in which Kenny grits his voice and does his version of a rock and roll man. And not necessarily well, at that. But for the most part, the record stands up surprisingly well. It might not get many repeated listens, but I’m not ejecting it from my shelf immediately. And in this case, that’s a win.

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