Kenny Rogers Is Gone. And So is a Little Part of All of Us

Photo: University of Houston Libraries

Country Music Hall of Famer and cultural icon Kenny Rogers is dead. And it comes at a time where we’re strangely relieved to learn that it’s from natural causes, and not the incursion of disease we are all trying to comprehend and adapt to. But we’re devastated nonetheless, because a man that meant so much to who we are has left us behind in this most unusual of moments when we search so desperately for compass points to pin our noses to and satiate our fears over—something like the voice, the music, and the man that was Kenny Rogers.

With passing of Kenny Rogers, there’s the passing of a little part of all us—a little part of our childhood where he loomed so large, a little part of our silly little slivers of life in this world where he reigned so iconically, a little part of ourselves where we separate certain eras in our own histories to the contributions of this bearded singer and actor whose efforts and popularity surpassed cultures and genres. Kenny Rogers was like that building that’s always been there in your hometown. A constant. The occupants or occupation might change, but it remains. Now you’ve returned to find it’s gone. It’s equal parts sad and unsettling.

It wasn’t just the music of Kenny Rogers. His contributions were vast and varied, from the psychedelic stylings of the Brit pop First Edition, to the Vietnam-era sentiments found in “Ruby,” to the feathered-hair pop crossover smashes of the 80’s like “Islands in the Stream” with Dolly Parton—to a man of the silver screen playing The Gambler and Brewster Baker from Six Pack. We never got to be an iconic card shark or a NASCAR driver that chose love over victory. But we got to live those lives through Kenny Rogers, and we’re incredibly grateful for it.

Though his roles may have been omnivorous and the mediums of expressions varied, the message that came from Kenny Rogers often stayed the same. He was the rambler, the wayward soul, but one that found his way home through love. The simple notions found in “She Believes in Me” and “Love Will Turn You Around” are the lessons we all eventually find, but must test life before we choose to believe them. Kenny Rogers was a heartbreaker of the highest order. But one that always came to the most important of realizations to turn around the car to make it right.

Kenny Rogers was an unlikely hero with his salt and pepper beard, and paunchy build. But he was a hero nonetheless. He’s perpetually 52-years-old in our minds. The steadfastness of this man’s legacy, and the weight with which it looms over our consciousness is what made things like the Not Kenny Rogers twitter account, or the old MAD TV fake Jackass skits satirizing Kenny Rogers so hilarious. He was a rock. You knew who he was. Everyone did. And saying or doing things so against that steadfast nature came across as so alien, it was side splitting.

It’s also the reason it was so jarring when a poor attempt at plastic surgery turned the visage of Kenny Rogers eerily unrecognizable. No, not Kenny. We need that face, no matter how wrinkled and weathered. That’s a face we can count on. It’s the face we’ve always known. Beyond the movies and music, just the notion of the man could give you a warm feeling, and still does. Kenny Rogers is the capstone of America’s cool uncle archetype. He’s Kenny freaking Rogers.

As the news of his passing gets circulated throughout the world, there will be lists of contributions, awards, records, and other accolades for people to peer through. No doubt they are impressive. The 81-year-old sold over 50 million records in the United States alone. He’s a Country Music Hall of Famer, and could end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when all is said and done. But he’s known and beloved internationally as well, a big part due to his long-time friendship and one very important song with singing partner Dolly Parton. Kenny Rogers was the embodiment of the rugged, but gentle American man that everyone understood, and many labored to be.

Few people, if any need to be told who Kenny Rogers is, and why his passing is so significant. His legacy doesn’t transcend country music. It transcends country, and music. Everybody knew Kenny Rogers, both through the name, and in their hearts. And he will be remembered forever.

1+