When people ask me, "Sam, how did a Jew from Manhattan become such a big country music fan?" I tell them a story that begins the summer before seventh grade in a rental car in Massachusetts. The year was 1987, the sedan a Ford Sable, and the afternoon unusual in that I was granted the rare opportunity not only to sit in the front seat, but to flip endlessly through the radio stations. At the time there were no country radio stations in New York City, so when I happened upon "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers, I was positively mesmerized. I had found the most brilliant metaphor for all existence: "Every gambler knows, the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep. Cuz 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." It was about gambling... yet it was about life! It captured everything I knew about the world at age 11.
Although I quickly outgrew the idea that Kenny Rogers possessed any great insights or originality, his incredible gentle calmness, his absurd insistence that everything is right with the world, that justice is served, love endures, and honor is a possibility, did continue to hold a certain appeal. During the transition from ratty public elementary school to the city's most elite competitive middle school (such an idea actually exists in Manhattan)--where some of my classmates researched systems theory, some gave blowjobs in the hallway, and I doddered around in a too-tight polo shirt wondering what either of those things were--Kenny Rogers was the only thing that could get me to sleep. In college, freaking out on acid, I ran a mile to my dorm room, fished around for Rogers' greatest hits tape, put my stereo speakers under my quilt, and huddled there thinking if anything could restore order it would be his voice.
As is the case with Jennifer Aniston or Cameron Diaz, Rogers' appeal lies not in an extraordinary talent, but in enthusiastic averageness. Aniston is what most people would like, more or less, their daughters or girlfriends to be. She's not endowed with unusual beauty--she's an average person who went through Jenny Craig and plastic surgery. Similarly, Rogers provides what most people want from their father or husband: to hear that they are loved "through the years" (never mind that Rogers ditched his wife for one of Barker's Beauties in the greatest AARP scandal ever) from a man who looks like Santa Claus, who is so gentle with women that the mean ones render him a victim ("Lucille," "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town"), and the good ones make him fight ("Coward of the County"). His songs are like greeting cards; they say the things people need to say to each other with a little flourish. Go to his shows and see rows of mini-van couples holding each other during the slow songs--and only the slow songs--like teenagers happy the lights went low enough to allay their awkwardness.
Rogers is placed at a crossroads between a bona fide country star and a hack in Branson. He's no John Davidson, and that's why his Christmas spectacular costs a good 15 bucks more than most Branson shows, and still sells out. But when he tried a show in New York, it was a straight-up disaster. Rogers' mawkish musical extravaganza--populated by a rainbow coalition of Christian children singers--ended up playing primarily to a tiny audience of indigent gay men suffering from AIDS; the theater had to give tickets to charity to get anyone to go.
Rogers sits on the fringes of country music like Neil Diamond sits on rock: occasionally accepted, mostly mocked, but always held up by a large core of middle-aged female fans. He will not disappear. He is a showman, making up for what he lacks in talent or originality with sheer dogged energy. He is always up to something--a chain of chicken restaurants, an infomercial--and that something usually involves a lot of costume changes and a torrent of fake snow. Of late, his live appearances offer the rare and fascinating opportunity to observe the diminishing returns of male liposuction. In the late '80s Rogers got hair implants (which honestly look nothing short of HOT) and his potbelly sucked off. He's gained the weight back, but since fat can't be replaced in areas that are liposuctioned, he now has enormous thighs and hips. At his last show, his costumes all involved suspiciously baggy pants held up with suspenders, until the finale, when he appeared in a tuxedo. The cummerbund cinching his waist revealed the more exotic first cousin to man breasts--man hips. In the same way that Cameron Diaz characters adopt the traits of her audience--they frequently like golf, cigars, and beer--this inadvertent sacrifice is another way for Rogers to identify with his fans.