Kenny Rogers’ self-titled album of 1976, his second official country release, was his breakthrough in country music. Rogers’ voice, mixing the gruff and tender, is strong, and his penchant for story songs is effectively realised on this collection. Larry Butler’s production is sometimes a bit heavy on the strings, but on the whole Rogers’ voice is allowed to shine.
The first single, ‘Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got)’, a cover of a 1967 chart topper for Leon Ashley (who wrote the song with his wife, singer Margie Singleton), was a top 20 hit. Kenny’s vocals work well on this song, an appeal to a straying wife which mixes sex and financial support, ending with a threat to kill her. It also features what was to become a Rogers trademark, the spoken final phrase.
Kenny’s career in country music was sealed with the next single, ‘Lucille’, now a classic. The lyrically intense story song and simple, singalong melody (written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum) is surely familiar to all country fans and many from other genres. It crossed over to become an enormous international pop hit (it is probably still the best known country song by a male singer in the UK, where it reached #1 in 1977).
My favorite song after ‘Lucille’ is the very country ‘While I Play The Fiddle’, written by Ronnie Sessions and Ray Willis. It is about a country fiddle player whose marriage is falling apart, and the arrangement is appropriately fiddle-heavy.
Other story songs include an emotional cover of the Death Row themed classic ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’, and (probably less well known to a country audience at that time) ‘The Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, the tale of a loving mother who turns to prostitution to support her large family.
A cover of the Tammy Wynette hit ‘Till I Get It Right’ is also very good, understated vocally although the backing vocals and strings date it a bit. Kenny is also good on Don Williams’ tender ‘Lay Down Beside Me’. I was less convinced by ‘Mother Country Music’, where Vern Gosdin’s contemporary cut (a minor hit single) is much better. ‘Puttin’ In Overtime At Home’, written by Ben Peters, is a very nice song about calling in sick to work to stay home with one’s sweetheart. A rival take was a hit for Charlie Rich in 1978, but in this case I prefer Kenny’s version.
Of the lesser known material, the downbeat ‘I Wasn’t Man Enough’, written by Larry Butler and Roger Bowling, is a heavily orchestrated ballad which is well sung but not very country sounding. ‘Why Don’t We Go Somewhere And Love’, written by Kenny O’Dell and Larry Henley, suffers from a dated arrangement, but is a very good song about seeking an escape from everyday life.
‘Lucille’ was a career making hit for Kenny, although perhaps not a career defining one. That particular song is an essential download if you don’t already have it. The remainder of the album is pretty good too, and it’s worth checking it out.