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The complicated misogyny of Kenny Rogers

If art is a delving into our psyches, Kenny Rogers reached in deeper than most pop singers

The songs Kenny Rogers chose, gave an insight into his personality (Photo: Getty Images)
The songs Kenny Rogers chose, gave an insight into his personality (Photo: Getty Images)

There was a narrow window from the end of the 1970s to the middle of the 1980s during which every young Indian interested in American popular music listened to Kenny Rogers. The country singer, who died last week, produced a succession of chart-topping albums after 1985 but gained few new Indian fans, while those who had come to love his songs during his breakthrough years stuck with familiar tunes, disregarding the fresher material.

When I travelled to the UK as a graduate student in the 1990s, I carried a few mixtapes with me, one of which included Rogers’ greatest hits. A few weeks into the first academic term, I was chatting with a housemate in my room with music playing in the background, and The Coward Of The County or Lucille came on. Noticing him roll his eyes, I asked, “You don’t like Kenny Rogers?" He responded, “I’m white, but I’m not that white."

In the India of the 1980s, which was relatively deprived of choice, we had focused on music itself without bothering too much with the politics associated with it in its country of origin. Snobbery of taste existed, as did the teenage desire to know and like the coolest, latest stuff, but eclecticism was the norm. There wasn’t enough of any genre available to build a specialist collection unless one was extremely committed and resourceful. A college student’s library of a dozen albums might place Kenny Rogers next to AC/DC, Bob Marley and Aretha Franklin.

Though the racial associations of country music did not affect my reception of it, I was disturbed by the way some of Kenny Rogers’ songs framed relationships between men and women. The tune that first brought him widespread recognition, Lucille, describes the singer’s encounter in a Toledo bar with a beautiful married woman looking for some fun. He finds himself unable to have sex with her in his motel room because he can’t get past the sight of her husband walking into the bar and delivering a tearful monologue:

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille

With four hungry children and a crop in the field.

The heartless woman trope recurs in Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town, which offers the perspective of a disabled Vietnam veteran watching his wife dress up for a night out. He seems understanding at first:

It’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed

And the wants and needs of a woman your age, really I realize

But later, as she shuts the door on her way out, his thoughts turn to murder:

If I could move I’d get my gun and put her in the ground

Oh Ruby, don’t take your love to town

The protagonist of The Coward Of The County is sworn to a life of pacifism by his dying father who regrets his own violent transgressions.

It won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek

I hope you’re old enough to understand

Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.

The boy, named Tommy, grows up mocked for faintheartedness because of his refusal to fight. He finally breaks his vow when his girlfriend Becky is gang raped by the “Gatlin boys".

Twenty years of crawling was bottled up inside him

He wasn’t holding nothin’ back, he let ‘em have it all

Having dispatched the Gatlin boys, Tommy addresses his dead father.

Now please don’t think I’m weak, I didn’t turn the other cheek

And papa, I sure hope you understand

Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.

The song’s perfect three-part structure appears to balance the danger of violence against its occasional necessity, but puts its thumb on the violent side of the scale by describing Tommy’s years of eschewing fights as “twenty years of crawling". The implication is that the Gatlin boys would never have assaulted Becky had Tommy appeared from the get-go like a man capable of protecting his woman. I found that hard to swallow, already having an inkling that women face the most institutionalized brutality precisely within societies that glorify the guarding of female honour by men.

Kenny Rogers sang a number of hit tunes which were of sunnier mood than the three I have described, and contained little that anyone could find objectionable. Yet, it was the darker melodies that I favoured over his biggest-selling single, the love song Lady, or the massively popular duet with Dolly Parton, Islands In The Stream. I admired Lucille, Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town and Coward Of The County for the way they created strong characters and conveyed emotive stories through simple yet memorable melodies. I could feel within myself the anxieties of masculinity these songs explored, even as I was repelled by aspects of the articulation. If art is a delving into our psyches, Kenny Rogers reached in deeper than most pop singers.

So I thought, until I discovered he did not write any of the tunes he made famous. Although the choice of songs undoubtedly provides an insight into his personality, they were conceived by a disparate group of composers and he, at best, tinkered with the arrangements. This was true even of his signature number, The Gambler, which was written by Don Schlitz and first recorded by Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash. Rogers’ deep, raspy voice perfectly suits the tale of a down-and-out young man on a train meeting a professional gambler who gives him sterling advice before dying in his sleep.

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em

Know when to fold ‘em

Know when to walk away

And know when to run

I took to poker long after I first heard The Gambler, by which time it had outgrown the shady world of underground games played by questionable characters in smoke-filled rooms. In the years since, it has moved further, to be dominated by mathematically inclined young men (and, very rarely, women) who attempt to approximate what is called a game theory optimal strategy, bolstering their understanding by tracking improvements in Artificial Intelligence. However, the game’s mythology still looms over it, and was never better expressed than in The Gambler. The veteran’s advice was, in any case, not meant as a guide to winning at poker, but as a way to approach life. It remains as valid as ever in that respect.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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