These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.
There aren’t many other figures in popular music whose decline from pretty cool to comically insipid is so clear and stark. The first Top 40 single that Kenny Rogers sang on was “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which made it all the way to #5 in 1967. That was with his first truly successful band, the First Edition. The song is a dark, tough slab of spooky psychedelia and Rogers’ vocals contribute to the mood. He’s not an especially inventive singer, nor does his show off a lot of range. There is, however, something evocative and truthful about his singing. The First Edition had six more Top 40 songs over the following couple of years, the last being the folky, hippieish “Heed the Call,” stalling at #33. They soldiered on for a while, but it effectively came to an end in the mid-seventies when guitarist Terry Williams left, ostensibly for a solo career, though it doesn’t seem like much came of that.
By the point of the final break-up, the name of the band had long been officially Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, so the lead singer was fairly well-positioned for a solo career. He cleaned up, cut his hair, ditched his earring and completely embraced country music, figuring there was greater potential for longevity in that genre, a judgment that proved sound. He had his first country #1 and first solo Top 40 hit, again reaching as high as #5, in 1977 with “Lucille,” which is about as archetypal as a country song can get, referencing barrooms, whiskey, hungry children, hotel room trysts, wronged men, sad women and crops in the field. All that’s missing is the pickup truck and the hound dog. That started a remarkable run for Rogers with eighteen of his next twenty-one singles over the next six years or so making it into the regular pop Top 40, including two #1 hits.
Clearly, that level of success buys a lot of chicken shacks. Even though Rogers remained a mainstay on the country charts his crossover success largely faded, and, before long, he was better known by the general populace for his unfortunate plastic surgery than anything he was doing musically. The little exception to that came in 2000, fifteen years after he’d last made an inroad onto the Billboard “Hot 100.” “Buy Me a Rose” was the third single Rogers released from the album She Rides Wild Horses, released on his own Dreamcatcher Records label. Giving prominent billing to back-up singing guests Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, the song became Rogers’ first song to top the country chart in years, which apparently gave it just enough oomph to slip ever so gently and briefly into the Top 40. This was around the time that Faith Hill and Shania Twain were proving there was room near the top of the charts for treacly country-pop ballads, so why not give some airplay to one of the progenitors of that particular form?