Lessons in Songcraft from Kenny Rogers

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

When I learned that Kenny Rogers had passed away, I wasn’t sad. That came later. First, I picked up my acoustic guitar, and I played “The Gambler”, one of the most iconic songs he recorded.

I sang the first few lines with my eyes closed:

On a warm summer’s evening
On a train bound for nowhere
I met up with a gambler
We were both too tired to sleep

As I sang these lines, I saw myself on that train bound for nowhere, enveloped in a warm summer’s evening, meeting a gambler.

The next moment, I saw myself as a kid, sitting on the passenger seat of my biological father’s pickup truck, listening to Kenny Rogers sing the very same lines I was now singing.

This immersion into the fictional world of “The Gambler” followed by an unintentional voyage into my childhood showed me what I already intuited: Kenny Rogers and songs he recorded, such as “The Gambler”, “She Believes In Me”, and “Coward of the County”, are as much a part of me as anything else.

After performing “The Gambler” to no one, came the sadness.

After the sadness, came another childhood memory, one that made me laugh.

I saw myself as a kid growing up in Central America, speaking and hearing Spanish, surrounded by tropical flora and fauna, eating Latin American food, looking forward to going to a party where people would dance merengue and salsa…and having “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers playing in my head.

With that, here are five lessons in songcraft I learned from Kenny Rogers:

Lesson 1: It’s about the song, not about you, so collaborate.
Lesson 2: Tag melodic phrases with a two-note lick for embellishment.
Lesson 3: Modulate a half step up to keep your song fresh.
Lesson 4: Songs don’t have to be about romantic love.
Lesson 5: Don’t sing the notes. Be the character.

Lesson 1: It’s about the song, not about you, so collaborate.

By the time I was old enough to think deeply about songs and songwriting, a flawed but popular idea had already made its way into my brain, disguised in the succinctness that often makes flawed ideas sound like they are and have always been true:

Real artists write and play their own songs.

I was a kid, and I didn’t know any better.

Until Kenny Rogers.

I loved “The Gambler” so much that, for the first time in my life, I did some song-research. I couldn’t believe what I found: Kenny Rogers didn’t write “The Gambler”. It was written by a man named Don Schlitz.

I felt lied to, for a moment.

Then I listened to “The Gambler” again, and I had a thought: Who cares?

This is a great record! Who cares who wrote it? Who cares who performed it? Who cares if both the writing and the performing were done by one person?

It’s not about any of that.

It’s about the song.

If collaborating with others will make the song better, then do it. Getting all the credit doesn’t matter. Only the song matters. What’s best is whatever’s best for the song. If a collaboration is best for the song, then collaborate.

Focusing only on what’s best for the song makes the song better and makes it more likely that you will be successful in the long-run.¹

In time, I learned that Don Schlitz is a legendary singer-songwriter who often collaborated with legendary singers, just as Kenny Rogers was a legendary singer-songwriter who often collaborated with legendary songwriters. The world of songs is all the richer because of their collaboration and others like it.

Though I can’t help but wonder how many great records have never been made because “real artists write and play their own songs”…

Thanks for the lesson, Kenny.

Lesson 2: Tag melodic phrases with a two-note lick for embellishment.

This lesson focuses on vocals, but it also applies to instrumentalists, songwriters, and anyone else looking to add some embellishment to their melodies.

Here is “She Believes In Me” as performed by Kenny Rogers:

“She Believes In Me” by Kenny Rogers

How beautiful is that?

“She Believes In Me” is one of my favorite love songs, in part due to its unique take on romantic love and how it can conflict with vocational love. It was written by Steve Gibb and released by Kenny Rogers in 1979.

For the purpose of this lesson, let’s focus on the first two lines of the song:

While she lays sleeping
I stay out late at night and play my songs

Notice how Kenny ends each of the two melodic phrases corresponding to each of these two lines. What does he do on the last syllable of each line?

On the word sleeping, Kenny starts the last syllable of the word singing a Bb, and then tags it with a quick two-note lick, singing G down to F.

On the word songs, Kenny starts the one-syllable word singing a G, and then tags it with a quick two-note lick, singing F down to Eb.

The melody is all the richer because of these subtle licks.

Something to consider: If you listen to the full song, you’ll notice that Kenny doesn’t tag every phrase this way. He’s intentional and tasteful about it.

Many vocalists, from Randy Travis to Ed Sheeran, tag some of their phrases in this same way. However, given that Kenny Rogers was the first vocalist I ever noticed doing it tastefully, I have him to thank for this lesson.

Thanks, Kenny.

Lesson 3: Modulate a half step up to keep the song fresh.

As a songwriter, I’m interested in keeping the listener engaged with my song, from start to finish.

For the first few lines, this might not be that challenging.

But when your first chorus has just ended, and you still have several verses to go, and you don’t have a bridge section in your song to break up the verse-chorus pattern, how in the world can you keep your song fresh and the listener engaged?

Here’s a solution I learned from Kenny Rogers: Modulate a half step up!

Here’s “Coward of the County” as performed by Kenny Rogers:

“Coward Of The County” by Kenny Rogers

What a story, what a song, and what a rendition. “Coward Of The County” was written by Roger Bowling & Billy Ed Wheeler, and it was released by Kenny Rogers in 1979.

Notice what happens at about the 1:30 mark.

Then again at about the 2:49 mark.

Led by Kenny’s voice, the entire record modulates a half step up!

This is an effective, simple way to keep a record fresh without altering a song’s form or structure.

Thanks, Kenny.

Lesson 4: Songs don’t have to be about romantic love.

Even though Kenny Rogers recorded one of my favorite love songs of all time (see Lesson 2), he also taught me that songs don’t have to be about romantic love.

When I was a kid, I thought songs absolutely had to be about love.

After all, every song I’d heard on the radio (yes, the radio) was about love: finding love, losing love, loving love, loving loving love, and so on…

As such, I wasn’t interested in songwriting; writing short stories seemed more appealing. Not that I wasn’t interested in love, but an art form that could only deal with love seemed restrictive.

Then, my biological father played me his Kenny Rogers records.

I still recall how the speakers in my biological father’s pickup truck amplified Kenny Rogers singing the last chorus of “Coward of the County”:

And I heard him say:
“I promised you, Dad, not to do the things you’ve done
I walk away from trouble when I can
Now please don’t think I’m weak
I didn’t turn the other cheek
And, Papa, I sure hope you understand
Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man”
Everyone considered him the coward of the county

Once more: How beautiful is that?

Feel free to listen to the song again (see Lesson 3). I know I will.

I’m back.

What a great song that’s not about romantic love. Yes, there is romantic love in the story, but it’s supporting what the song is really about: a man who, having over-corrected for his father’s violence with avoidance, learns that though there are times when one should walk away from trouble, there are also times when one must fight.

To this day, “Coward Of The County” is one of my favorite songs, and it’s responsible for my learning early on that a song doesn’t have to be about romantic love.

Thanks, Kenny.

Lesson 5: Don’t sing the notes. Be the character.

I started singing when I was 18, which is late compared to most singers.

I had been writing since I was a kid and playing the guitar for about five years, and I wanted to study singing so I could compose and sing vocal melodies. As any musician can relate to, I’m still learning. It’s a lifelong journey.

Luckily, my journey as a singer has been made slightly easier, thanks to a lesson I learned from Kenny Rogers: Don’t sing the notes. Be the character.

When I first started singing, whether for a show, a co-writing session, or a serenade (it’s not all about songcraft!), I was constantly thinking about the notes: “E to G, to D, and back to C…”

I was getting the notes right, but I was communicating little to no emotion.

In time, I began to notice what great singers like Kenny Rogers did when they sang: they became the character.

A perfect example of this is, of course: “The Gambler”.

“The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers…Bonus! Can you spot the modulation discussed in Lesson 3?

Listening to “The Gambler”, you’re in the story. You’re on that train bound for nowhere, enveloped in a warm summer’s evening, meeting a gambler. You can live in that reality, not only because Don Schlitz wrote a perfect lyric, but also because Kenny Rogers is the traveler on the train.

He is the traveler on the train in “The Gambler”, just as in “She Believes In Me” he is the singer of songs torn between his art and the woman he loves, and in “Coward of the County” he is Tommy’s uncle.

If it is true that “your own identity and self-knowledge are the main sources for any character you may play,”² then it follows that Kenny Rogers’ identity and self-knowledge were as vast and deep as the songs he interpreted and the characters he embodied.

More than his technical proficiency as a singer, which is a given, this was the gift of Kenny Rogers.

Luckily, we can learn from it.

Thanks, Kenny.

A few hours after learning of Kenny Rogers’ passing and performing “The Gambler” to no one, this particular lyric from the song came back to me with new-found poignancy:

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep
’Cause every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep

However sad the passing of Kenny Rogers might make those of us who learned so much from him, the truth is that he got the best any of us can hope for.

For that, I am glad.

Thank you, Kenny Rogers.

Notes

  1. Ryan Holiday, “Follow the Canvas Strategy,” in Ego Is the Enemy (New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin, 2016).
  2. Uta Hagen, “Identity,” in Respect for Acting (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), p. 29.

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