Willie Nelson Turned Down Kenny Rogers Offer to Cut ‘The Gambler’

Despite being 87-years-old and quarantined due to COVID-19, Willie Nelson is staying busy as always, releasing his 70th studio record First Rose of Spring on July 3rd, headlining a virtual presentation of his annual 4th of July Picnic, and planning a new book with his piano-playing sister called Me and Sister Bobbie due out September 15th.

But that is not all. During a recent interview with Jenna Bush on The Today Show, Willie dropped quite a few nuggets about some other things he has coming up, including a tribute to his friend and running buddy Roger Miller, and another to one of his musical heroes he’s toasted before, Frank Sinatra.

“Well, like everybody else, just kind of hiding out, hanging out, hunkered down,” Willie responded when Jenna Bush asked him what he’s been doing during the quarantine. “It’s no fun, especially for an old guitar picker … My son Lukas is here, and my son Micah is coming in, and we’re going to do some recording in the studio. We’re doing a Roger Miller album, and I’m doing another Sinatra album. So I’m trying to stay busy.”

Willie and Roger Miller go way back to when they both did time in Ray Price’s backing band The Cherokee Cowboys. Willie Nelson released another tribute album to Sinatra called My Way in 2018 after regularly covering Sinatra songs over the years.

But a new batch of tribute records was not the only nugget Willie Nelson dropped in the interview. He also told the story of how he once turned down recording “The Gambler.” Written by Don Schlitz, it became the signature song for Kenny Rogers when Kenny released it in 1978.

“He tried to get me to record ‘The Gambler,'” Willie says of Kenny Rogers, who passed away on March 20th. “We were somewhere, I don’t know. He said, ‘I got this song here, I think you should do it.’ And he played it for me, and I said, ‘It’s a great song, but I don’t think I’ll do it’ because I was doing every night a song called ‘The Red Headed Stranger’ which has 100 verses in it, and it’s a long song. And I said I just don’t want to do another long song, and I can’t quit doing ‘Red Headed Stranger.’ So he said, ‘Okay, I’ll record it myself.’ And so he did, and there it is.”

When asked if Willie had any regrets turning down the song, he said, “No, that was Kenny’s song all the way.”

It’s hard to contemplate the alternative country music universe where Willie Nelson recorded “The Gambler” instead of Kenny. But it’s sometimes those key decisions that lend to some of the biggest songs ending up in the right hands. For example, Garth Brooks wanted George Strait to cut “Friends in Low Places,” which ended up being the breakout hit for Brooks. Who knows if “The Gambler” would have been a hit for Willie, or “Friends in Low Places” a smash for Strait. But it’s hard to argue those songs didn’t end up right where they needed to be.

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