Kenny Rogers’ rehabilitation has been going on as long as he’s been making music. Each stage of his nearly 60-year career has hinged on reinventing himself, from a clean-shaven rockabilly kid in a group called The Scholars to a jazz bassist in The Bobby Doyle Trio; from a folksinger in The New Christy Minstrels to a psychedelic rocker in The First Edition; and from a country upstart to a crossover pop icon in the ’70s and beyond. That perpetual makeover (minus any mention of his extensive plastic surgery) forms the backbone of Rogers’ lightweight, amiable memoir, Luck Or Something Like It.
According to Luck, one thing Rogers has never needed is actual rehab. Born in 1938 to alcoholic yet benevolent parents in the poverty-stricken Houston projects, he chalks up his relative lack of substance abuse to the negative example his father set as a man who worked ferociously, made ends meet, but drowned his sorrows in whiskey. It’s the stuff of country songs, which makes it almost odd that it took Rogers so long to gravitate toward country in the mid-’70s, after the dissolution of The First Edition—the group that put Rogers on the map with its harmlessly trippy hit, 1968’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Reversing the usual route many entertainers take, Rogers went from playing Vegas to trying to make it in Nashville.
His surprise success in 1977 with the novelty-ish country song “Lucille” cemented his penultimate reinvention, catapulting him to instant fame as a solo artist. He was almost 40, but he attacked this new phase of his career with gusto, and became one of the bestselling recording artists of all time. His mainstream success with smashes like “The Gambler,” the Lionel Richie-penned “Lady,” and the Dolly Parton duet “Islands In The Stream”—and, to a far lesser degree, his acting stints—didn’t detract from the small cache of country cred he accrued. Instead, his chameleon-like past allowed him to pivot effortlessly into the awkward yet lucrative role of avuncular heartthrob.
Rogers’ soft-focus charisma is the key to his appeal, and that applies equally to Luck. Absorbing a knack for storytelling from his father and fair-minded pragmatism from his mother—named, allegedly by complete coincidence, Lucille—he dwells on the hardships of his life with sensitivity, though not depth. His father’s early death; his struggles and setbacks as an obstinate, opportunistic musician; and his numerous marriages (five to date) are relayed with poignancy, and only the slightest hint of bitterness. At times, his distance comes across as guardedness or even whitewashing; in a revealing passage, he reprints a letter from an old schoolmate detailing a traumatic experience when he was in first grade. He lets the letter speak for itself, adding only that he hadn’t previously remembered it, only that he “never forgot the pain.” Then again, his music has likewise rarely lingered on cold, hard reality, which is part of its unending appeal. While offering little soul-trawling angst or tell-all confession, Luck Or Something Like It is as immaculately crafted, breezily told, and easygoing as a Kenny Rogers song.