Note: this biography is about Kenneth Donald “Kenny” Rogers the golden-voiced and immaculately bearded performer, not the dog.
1938. Small town on the outskirts of Houston, Texas. A rough-hewn town. Out in the cracked Texas plains. Tumbleweeds, cactuses, possibly other succulents. Scrub and chaparral. Low slung bungalows with no indoor plumbing. Instead a pineboard outhouse with a quarter moon shaped hole carved in the door like outhouses always have, that the locals refer to by some quaint vernacular such as “the jakes.”
The type of town that has a sign saying “N*gger, don’t let the sun set on you in (TOWN NAME),” which implies weirdly that they would be welcome in the daytime. N*gger, don’t let the sun set on you here– but by day, enjoy our fine restaurants and shops. Maybe it’s a courtesy. Like, they have vampires that only prey on blacks.
Also, one assumes every small town in Texas has one of these signs in 1938, so, this town might have saved money by not erecting the sign, since African-Americans could not have passed through the hundreds of surrounding towns to get to this town without the sun setting at some point. Or the unwelcome folks of color might merely have extrapolated. They might have deduced a rule: we, black people, are not welcome in small towns in Texas and indeed the greater American South. They might have then said well, to hell with our planned trip to this town. But the people of this town did not trust that black folks had the deductive skills to conceive of this rule. Because they are racist.
Or actually: in 1938, what was the literacy rate among African Americans in the south? 40 per cent? Didn’t the people of this town figure, especially since they were racist and a cornerstone of racism is the idea that blacks are stupid and illiterate– didn’t someone in this town think for a second hey wait a minute– these guys can’t read, what good is this fucking sign gonna be? Maybe at the sign erecting ceremony, someone spoke up about this. And was shouted down.
But yeah, better to have whatever the equivalent of today’s “walk” voice for the blind at crosswalks warding off black folks. Just a guy sitting there saying “n*gger, don’t let the sun set on you in this town” over and over.
Anyway, it’s a cattle ranching town. Maybe they have a feed store, which is probably just named “Feed Store,” and has an old-timey hand painted chewing tobacco ad on the side, and a creaky old porch where old timers sit in rocking chairs and talk about the coming rain they can feel in their bum knee. And also how we got to kill the Jews.
In this hardscrabble Texas town a woman is giving birth in the back of a shack. Her third child, but he’s a big one. The father is oblivious, off in the front of the house with the hounds, drinking out of a clay jug labeled XXX. Moonshine is his real wife, and for him to put it down would take something extraordinary happening before his eyes, such as a flying saucer descending, at which point he would do a bug eyed double take, spit out his last mouthful, shake his head, and toss the jug into a shrub. This has not happened however.
The child is a big one and it is hurting Kenny Rogers’ mother’s vagina to squeeze him out and the blood is rushing to her loins and she is screaming, screaming to the uncaring shack walls and her vision is swimming in a tunnel of blackness and the pain is just too much and she is going to die. Except an angel appears to her, a white bearded angel, and says Darlene, this boy you are birthing is destined to change the world. You must hold on to life. And the boy’s name will be:
Willie? That’s fucking stupid, she says.
All right, Kenny Rogers.
That was how he was born. Under inauspicious circumstances. Except for the angel, that was auspicious. But everything else– the ramshackle shack, the drunken hillbilly patriarch, the lean dust-bowl-looking siblings gaunt and hollow eyed on straw beds playing with an old carburetor they used as a doll– these were the humble beginnings of the Frank Sinatra of country music.
You probably think that Kenny emerged from the womb at age 53, already resplendent in lustrous white beard and muttonchops, maybe just a streak of dark hair lurking along the jaw line, gazing directly into the soft focus camera or in the case of the single cover for “Love Will Turn You Around,” oil painter’s brush. Wearing a snappy but not show-offy outfit, such as black dress shirt beneath black leather vest or or powder blue three piece suit with bolo tie– in any case, not some queer Aztec sun god outfit like a lot of those country guys would wear. But no. He was an ordinary looking infant like you or me. When his lungs cried out after their first breath it was not in a crackling expressive baritone gently tickling the melodic lines. Just a baby’s cry.
Little Kenny didn’t have the best things in life, but his mama did love him. While the boy was at her teat she would take the family’s handcrank Victrola and introduce him to the greats… but that’s a story for another day.