As the shock of Kenny Rogers’ passing settles we take a close look at “The Gambler”, one of the songs that defined him as global superstar, and unpick what lessons its writer taught by using poker as the song’s central metaphor.
Kenny Rogers – A brief History
Kenneth Donald Rogers was born on August 21, 1938, in Houston, Texas. He grew up poor, living with 6 siblings and decided early on in life to pursue a career in music. With this in mind he bought himself a guitar and formed a rockabilly group called the Scholars.
He had his first hit single as a solo artist in 1958 with the song “That Crazy Feeling”, released by Carlton Records. He made an appearance on Dick Clark’s popular music program, American Bandstand. He then went on to play bass in a jazz group the Bobby Doyle Trio.
His first breakthrough single was “Love Lifted Me”. Released in 1975 it was the turning point in Rogers’ career as he went from jazz musician to a solo country singer.
In 1978 he hit the big time with “The Gambler”, a song that would go on to become a cornerstone of his career and will be the focus of this article.
The Dolly Parton Years
Following the popularity of “The Gambler”, Rogers could be considered an established country music singer. However, he found superstardom through his collaboration with Dolly Parton, as the pair smashed the international pop charts with a song that became staple for couples at karaoke nights across the globe.
Islands in the Stream was written by the Bee Gees and was originally intended to be a Marvin Gaye song. How it went from being a soul song to the most popular country music duet in recording history is unclear, but whoever made the decision clearly made the correct one.
That song, released in 1985, was based on a Hemmingway short story of the same title, released 9 years after the author’s death. It would go on to top the Top 100 and would be the last country release to do so for 17 years.
The song would be reprised in the UK in 2009 as part of a charity single that would make Tom Jones the oldest living artist to land a number one single.
In an emotional tribute to the singer Dolly Parton left the following message on her Facebook profile:
“I know that we know that Kenny is in a better place than we all are right now,” Parton said, holding a framed photo of the pair, in a video posted to Facebook. “I know he’s going to be talking to God some time today — if he hasn’t already — he’s going to ask him to spread some lightness in all this darkness right now.”
“I loved Kenny with all my heart and my heart’s broken,” she continued, trying not to cry. “A big ‘ol chunk of it has gone with him today. I think I can speak for all his family, and all his friends and fans, when I say that I will always love you.”
Of course, for this article to have relevance on ThePogg we need to leave Islands in the Stream alone for now and instead focus on Rogers’ other big hit, The Gambler.
The song was written by Nashville songwriter Don Schlitz and is a first person monologue about an encounter with an old poker player who hands out life lessons on a train in the form of some arguably clichéd gambling related metaphors.
Like all the best country songs this one tells a story and is structured just like one. The opening verse introduces the Gambler to the Boy, our narrator, who quickly sets about offering words of wisdom. He explains that he has made his money reading tells and in the short time that they have been sitting across from each other he knows that our narrator is “all out of aces”, something he offers to remedy for a drink of his whiskey.
He explains that if the narrator wants to “play the game”, which we can only assume is a reference to getting by in life, that he needs to learn how to play it properly, and with that the narrative is established, allowing the wise old Gambler to set the Boy off in the direction needed to get by in a world of dog-eat-dog.
Poker has been used countless times in popular culture when wanting to distil life into a series of random events that we can learn to control if we play to our strengths and other people’s weaknesses. Whilst poker might be a game of chance, it also requires expertise and skill. It can often be used as a metaphor for physical, psychological and even sexual control. In this instance Schlitz paints a picture of a world where we need to take risks to survive. Standing still and waiting for life to reward us will take us nowhere. For Schlitz and his Gambler life is survival of the fittest and if the Boy is going to get through it he will need to know when to, “hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run”
Those basic elements of the game, when to stay and compete and when to admit defeat, offer a simple set of rules to help guide us through a world where no one is waiting to offer us a helping hand.
The Gambler goes on to explain that unlike other games, in poker a winning hand can become a losing one and that even weak hands can see you come out on top. It is what we do with life’s offerings and opportunities that really counts. We need to make the most of the good and the bad and be prepared to throw anyway anything that might hold us back.
It is a mercenary outlook on life. One where we look out for ourselves and see others fail so that we can succeed. I guess you could call it capitalism in its most rudimentary form.
The Gambler then warns the Boy that as long as he stays in the game he can never consider himself a winner until he walks away. That as long as he hangs about for one more hand someone will be waiting to take it all from him. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all, the one that almost every gambler struggles with the most is knowing when enough is enough.
If all that wasn’t bad enough his final message is about as grim as it gets. The best the Boy can hope for is to “die in his sleep”. At this point the Gambler has abandoned metaphor for a harsh, brutal reality. Life is tough, it is a struggle and the best we can hope for is that ends without us knowing, that we die in our sleep oblivious to the pain.
When you juxtapose the tone of the lyrics with the tone of the melody you have a contrasting blend, a ying yang of dark and light that work in harmony with each other. The song’s popularity is testament, not just to the melody but also to Rogers’ delivery of it. The warmth he added to such a bleak depiction of reality was so universal that he even performed it alongside Kermit and Piggy on the Muppet Show in 1979, something that emphasises just how much our attitudes towards whiskey, smoking and gambling have changed in the 40 years that have followed.
When Don Schlitz wrote the Gambler it was a tribute to his late father. Schlitz explains that his father was no gambler, that the was “the best man I ever knew” and that “the song was my way of dealing with the relationship that I had with him.”
This suggests that in Schlitz’s eyes his father was someone who had to duck and dive to make a living. That he found a way to survive in an unforgiving world and that his way of life led drove him to an early grave.
Whilst the song may be a sentimental look at the life of a wise old gambler, let’s not forget that in the twilight of his life our hero is left bumming smokes and whiskey from strangers on a train for a few pearls of wisdom that it would appear he has struggled to apply to his own life.
Schlitz doesn’t glorify gambling, if anything he uses poker as a mirror to reflect the struggles we all face in life and in doing so “The Gambler” should be viewed, not just as a warning to anyone who thinks that a living can be made at the poker table, but as a warning to anyone who thinks they can get through their life without having to struggle towards the bitter end.
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