Look, the drive to feeling bad these days is a short one. Recognizing that fact, helped put the value of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler’s Last Deal tour into focus. The legendary pop country singer is nearing the end of a two-year farewell to fans. The actual end of the road is in October with a show in Nashville. After playing Stafford last year, Rogers dropped in on the Redneck Country Club, also in Stafford, Friday night.
This one should be the last, last show in the region where he was born, raised and first started performing.
Rogers is nine days shy of 79. And being perfectly honest, that amber grain voice of his has become a dried husk of its former self. He executed the moves his younger self once did, slowly pulling away the microphone during the songs’ more bombastic moments. But that was likely muscle memory. The show was a whisper.
And I couldn’t find anybody in the Club who found that to be problematic.
“Still got it!” one man yelled.
Well, no, but if you shift away from the pure sonics of it, Rogers does still have something, because the connection between performer and audience has been seasoned by decades of reverence. When the show required silence, it was met by a hushed collection of attendees that hung on every quietly spoken or sung word. And when it rose to froth, they were more than happy to help Rogers carry the load.
He limped out and opened with “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” likely the singsong-iest song about a wheel-chair-bound vet pleading not to be cuckolded.
The song complete, the talking began. If you weren’t in the front it could be a strain to hear him. And for a moment I thought the patter was dragging on too long. There was talk of knee replacements and “old age is a tricky thing.” A joke about Willie Nelson and judo and how maybe Kenny didn’t smoke the right stuff in the ’60s to keep him limber in his 70s. But what seemed like meandering talk then steered toward his childhood in Houston and his early career here when Kenny was still Kenneth.
TV monitors flashed a pic of the 45 for “That Crazy Feeling,” his regional hit from 1957, and then his band The Scholars, which he called a misnomer. “We were straight-D students.” Then an album cover for the Bobby Doyle Three. He talked of hearing music at the Shamrock Hotel. What started to my ears as elderly man’s rambling became an endearing history lesson that flowed nicely into the standard “Walking My Baby Back Home.”
“Through the Years” was the first big singalong of the night. (Singer and crowd both had to knock off the rust on “Ruby.”) and he stayed in ballad mode for more than a beat: “You Decorated My Life” and “She Believes in Me.” His final tally would be nearly 25 songs, though many were delivered in truncated form.
He offered photos and stories and songs from his First Edition years, which started lean: “We asked every radio station, ‘Will you play our record?’ and without exception they said no.”
He zipped through “Something’s Burning” and tipped his hat to late friend and fellow Houstonian Mickey Newbury, who wrote the First Edition hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”
“We Are the World” was an odd inclusion; I’ll leave it at that. Also Dottie West made a televised appearance.
Rogers said he sought suggestions from family for his setlist which explained the inclusion of “Love Lifted Me,” a pleasant surprise and my favorite tune of the night. I also enjoyed “Love Will Turn You Around,” where his voice showed a little of its old pliability.
Things took a hard turn toward celebratory with a loud crowd chorus on “Lucille,” the singsong-iest song about a farmer getting dumped by his wife, and “Coward of the County,” the singsong-iest song about gang rape and revenge. And cowards.
At this point the monitors were a montage of Kenny — often in old western garb — punching and being punched. “I’m no actor and I have seven movies to prove it,” he said, a line he’s probably milked for half of his professional career. Didn’t matter.
Rogers could’ve dropped the mic after “The Gambler,” “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream.” He certainly could’ve left the stage, which he referenced. But his bad knees forced Rogers to ditch the theatricality of a disappearance and encore.
He thanked the assembled for 60 years, which is an insane amount of time for one man and his voice to entertain people.Others have done it, but not many. Stick around that long and you cease to be measured by the fickleness of things like charts and hits and radio play. The word “relevant” becomes irrelevant with regard to your music. It’s an old master situation, and reverence immerses the songs in amber. They become conduits and not just three minute artifacts.
So despite a rousing near-finish, Rogers then played “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and “Blaze of Glory.” Neither song is Kenny-canonized. Yet both were beautifully curated inclusions. “Who’s going to finish the stories I start?” goes a line in the former.
The assembled answered that for him.
And the latter: “Let’s go out in a blaze of glory, all good things must end.”