Graded on a Curve:
Kenny Rogers &
The First Edition,

Today we remember Kenny Rogers who passed away on March 20th with a look back from our archives and our introduction to “The Gambler” via The First Edition. Ed.

Kenny Rogers & The First Edition would be groovy with me if they’d never cut another song besides acid burnout anthem “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Is In).” I love it, you love it, Jimi Hendrix loved it–hell, even Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski loves it, and if that ain’t the Definitive Imprimatur of Indisputable Cool, I’m a walking 7-10 split.

But–and let’s just stick with the bowling metaphors for a moment–during their surprisingly long tenure (from 1967 to who knew?–1975) on both the pop and country charts The First Edition rolled a couple of strikes and a few more spares in the form of a bunch of songs that must have sounded just dandy in the confines of your average Dixie bowling alley. Probably even started a few brawls, a couple of ‘em; The First Edition may hardly be your idea of a socially conscious protest group, but they ruffled feathers with the likes of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (a crippled vet? What are these fellas, COMMIES?), “Something’s Burning” (is this Kenny Rogers some kind of slobbering sex fiend?), and “Reuben James” (you talk race, we get nervous).

The First Edition were an eclectic bunch; a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll, Kenny and the boys brought the former to suburban Northerners and the latter to rural Southerners, effectively bringing the whole wide world that much closer together. In short they provided an important public service in their desperate bid for radio airplay; hell, even your Muskogee marijuana haters and their long-hair enemies found common ground in writing ‘em off as a shameless commercial shuck.

The First Edition’s Contribution to Western Civilization can be best heard on the 2004 best-of compilation Anthology. Its twenty cuts give us The First Edition in all their splendid diversity; country tear-jerkers rub shoulders with MOR ditties and the kinds of treacle that would later make Rogers a country-pop institution of higher earning. Talk about range; a continental divide separates “Just Dropped In” from the maudlin “For the Good Times” (or “Sunshine” or “Poem for My Little Lady” or “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” for that matter), and if you’re like me you’ll find yourself bypassing the tripe in favor of The First Edition’s more upbeat material, regardless of what label (rock, country, country rock) you want to put on it.

At their best The First Edition produced country songs that swung their way down the middle of the road, appealing to just about everybody. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” works on the basis of a great shuffle that makes a mockery of the wheelchair-bound protagonist’s painful inability to stop his young wife from stepping out on him; if he could just get to his gun he’d show her a thing or two but he can’t because, I don’t know, his randy wife put it on a high shelf or something. Similarly, “Reuben James” boasts a relentlessly perky beat that stands in stark contrast to its woebegone lyrics. Meanwhile, “Something’s Burning” works against itself, what with its tender verses about young love giving way to incendiary choruses that sound like they were recorded in the back seat of your daddy’s Plymouth Fury on some Saturday night lover’s lane.

One of the things I love most about The First Edition is their unapologetic capacity for mimicry. The ersatz prophetic “Heed the Call” is the sound of Buffalo Springfield turning into Crosby, Stills and Nash; “Where Does Rosie Go” is the sound of the Band slumming in order to pay the electric bill. As for the chukka-chukka heavy “Heed the Call,” it’s the sound of every “let’s get it together, brothers and sisters” song ever recorded during the Age of Aquarius. And the same goes for “Tell It All Brother” (inspirational lyric: “In the dungeons of your mind/Who you got chained against the wall?”) and the lovably cheesy “We All Got to Help Each Other,” which tosses some gospel shouting atop a jaunty country melody and adds some vague anti-war sentiments in a doomed ploy to win the elusive Yippie vote (Rogers’ nickname during his First Edition years wasn’t “Hippie Kenny” for nothing).

My faves on Anthology are the outliers. “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In)” is the band’s sole nod to psychedelia, but what a nod! From Glen Campbell’s backwards-guitar intro to Terry Williams’ mind-bending solo (which captured Jimi’s heart) to the very lysergic lyrics (“I found my mind in a brown paper bag within/I tripped on a cloud and fell eight miles high/I tore my mind on a jagged sky”) to the very cool vibes that percolate throughout, “Just Dropped In” is an ace example of Acid Rock for the Denim Set.

Other faves include the very weird “Church Without a Name” which opens, as it must, with some funky church organ, before some touched-by-the-Holy-Spirit soul shouter (it’s either Mike Settle or Terry Williams; I’m guessing it’s the former) interrupts the cool “Whiter Shade of Pale” vibe to deliver the great lines, ”Don’t confuse me with the in-crowd, yeah/I bought my ticket at the door.” The great “Elvira” is a jet-fueled boogie on which Kenny jousts with some funky female backing vocalists and tests the limits of his vocal chords while doing so. And I loves me that rollicking honky-tonk piano. Meanwhile, “Love Woman” comes on like Grand Funk (is that Don Brewer on drums? Sure sounds like him!) and puts the tambourine right up front where you can’t miss it. Terry Williams’ guitar is every bit as gritty as the vocals, and his solo is nasty nasty nasty. As for Kenny, he just leans back and lets the female back-up singers do all the heavy lifting on the choruses.

Which leaves us with what? A couple of other half-decent songs that include the very syncopated “Me and Bobby McGee,” on which Kenny proves he has just as much soul as the click track. And the lumbering “Ruby Mountain,” which walks on the choruses but just kinda lies there while Kenny sings the verses. And the very mellow but still kinda “up” “Always Leaving, Always Gone,” which either works on the basis of its Band-like horn section or founders on account of it (I change my mind every time I hear the damn song). And a couple more songs I skip past on sheer reflex.

Is Anthology a mixed bag? For sure. That said, if you’re a fan of “The Gambler” and have all of his Muppet Show appearances carefully archived on DVD and never pass up on an opportunity to dine at one of his chain chicken restaurants (you have to go to Asia nowadays but it’s worth the trip!) you’ll almost certainly consider this compilation an aces-high full-house you’d have to be crazy not to hold onto.

But–and this is important–this comp also has lots to offer to people who think “Lady” is the worst song they’ve ever heard and would sooner drown themselves in their bathtubs than listen to Kenny’s duets with Dottie West, Dolly Parton, Kim Carnes, Lynda Carter, Sheena Easton, and Ethiopia’s beloved emperor Haile Selassie, the last of which you’ve probably never heard because it only got airplay on Addis Ababa Top 40. Say what you will about The Gambler, he’ll sing a duet with anybody. Including Charles Manson I suspect, if Charlie had only thought to ask.


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