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Blotter: Kenny Rogers and The Gambler

While it seems doubtful that Kenny Rogers knew his single, “The Gambler,” would one day reach iconic status, he did make it the title track on his 1978 album of the same name, showing early confidence in the song that would ultimately define him and his 50+ year music career. In interviews, Rogers has repeatedly cited “The Gambler” as his favorite song from his own catalogue; whether this is in appreciation of the song itself or of what the song has done for him is anybody's guess. Many times over the country legend has been asked about the inspiration behind the song's stories, and each time Rogers has to make the same old confession: he didn't write “The Gambler.”

Kenny Rogers - The GamblerThe man behind “The Gambler” was Don Schlitz, a twenty-something computer operator and aspiring songwriter from New Hampshire. Schlitz recorded and released the first version of the song early in 1978. It had moderate success—reaching #65 on the country charts—but music producer Larry Butler thought it could do better. When Butler first latched on to the single, he was producing albums for both Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers and actually encouraged both to record a version. What many of the song's fans don't realize is that Johnny Cash actually did record and release his own version of “The Gambler.” It came out only one month after Rogers' own now-famous recording of the song, but in that month Rogers' version had already raced up both the country and pop charts. It was Rogers' grizzled persona that best embodied the song's message, to the point that Rogers himself came to be called The Gambler (a role he would expand upon in several made-for-TV movies inspired by the song).

Why are we so ready to credit Kenny Rogers with the worldly knowledge conveyed in the lyrics of “The Gambler?” Because the story suits him. In fact, the story suits anyone that's fallen on hard times and found a way to rise above it; that's a large part of the song's continued relevance. Music historians will tell you that the significance of “The Gambler” lies in its metaphor for life. When real gamblers listen to “The Gambler,” though, it speaks to us on two levels. Take for example the song's famous refrain:

“You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.”

Even knowing that these words have a deeper meaning, at face value we can relate these words to the games we play. We've all looked at our hands and worried about our next move. We've all played our cards right, and sometimes wrong too, and in the end you just hope to come out ahead. That life plays out in the same way simply makes poker a more poignant game for its dedicated players, and likewise makes “The Gambler” a song that only poker players can truly appreciate.


30-Sep-2009, 20:47

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