The early 1980s was a strange musical time period. As a child, I didn't really know that pop and country were distinct genres because the local radio station played songs of both types all the time. My favorite singers around 1981 were Stevie Wonder and Kenny Rogers – weird, huh? Kenny Rogers was huge back then, though. Lucille, Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town, Coward of the County, Long Arm of the Law – these are great cross-over hits that made Kenny Rogers a star. Then there was The Gambler, a song so popular and enjoyable that it spawned a TV movie (as did Coward of the County). The kicker, though, was the song Lady (a song written and produced by Lionel Richie); I had a teacher who would melt at the very thought of this song, and I myself, a lad barely past the "cooties" stage of growing up, pretended to woo the young ladies with my own rendition of the song (in the utter privacy of my room, of course).
As an adult, I have an even greater appreciation of the songs included on this album. She Believes in Me is one of those rare ballads that speaks directly to your heart; it's a great tribute to all the women who put up with all of us men who don't deserve their love. A man doesn't want to admit he needs anything or anybody, but the love and trust of a good woman means much more than most men would ever admit. Just ask the husband of Lucille, who finds himself trying to raise four children by himself after his wife picks "a fine time to leave" him. You Decorated My Life is a beautiful homage to the miraculous life-giving power of love, and Love the World Away works the same kind of wonders. Lady, of course, is one of the greatest love songs ever recorded.
Story songs were one of Kenny Rogers' greatest strengths. Virtually everyone is familiar with the story of The Gambler. Coward of the County illustrates the point that, while you don't have to fight to become a man, sometimes you do have to fight when you are a man (especially when some ruffians hurt the woman you love). Long Arm of the Law is a rather moving song; here, a judge is determined to punish the young man who got his daughter pregnant – until the face of his new grandson softens his heart. Then there's Reuben James, who is still walking the fertile fields of our minds; there's plenty of giddy-up in this tribute to an ordinary, hard-working black man. Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town goes in yet a different direction, presenting us with an injured Vietnam veteran struggling to keep his marriage intact. This album also includes two duets. The husky-voiced Kim Carnes teams up with Kenny to deliver the energetic, pop-oriented Don't Fall In Love With a Dreamer, then the incomparable Dottie West joins Kenny for Everytime Two Worlds Collide, a classic country duet.
I'm not what you would call a country fan, but Kenny Rogers is much more than a country singer; he represents country, pop, and contemporary music all rolled up in one distinctive voice. This is a singer who still appeals to different generations of listeners. The great success Kenny Rogers enjoyed in the late 1970s and early 1980s can best be seen by his continued fame today, many years since his last bona fide hit song. Certainly, there are better, more complete Kenny Rogers collections out there than this one (which was released in 1980, after all, long before Kenny stopped releasing chart-topping hits), but I can't say anything bad about an album containing twelve songs of such high caliber and lasting appeal.
This compilation was originally released to capitalize on the monumental success of Lady, which spent several weeks at number one in the American pop charts. That song, which was also a sizeable British hit that nearly made the top ten, never appeared on any of Kenny's original albums so anybody who wanted Lady had to choose between this compilation or the single. Not that anybody really minded because we were due another compilation of Kenny's music anyway since the previous compilation had been released and a lot had happened in that time.
Apart from Lady, this album featured one other new song, Long arm of the law, which is actually a fun song about a relationship. Unlike most of the other tracks here, which turn up frequently on compilations of Kenny's music, some more so than others, this one only turns up occasionally. Of the other tracks, Love the world away, which was a huge American hit for Kenny, first appeared on album on the Urban cowboy soundtrack. Like Lady and Long arm of the law, it never appeared on an original Kenny Rogers album. Every time two fools collide, a duet with Dottie West, was the title track to one of their duet albums.
Two songs that were originally successful for Kenny as lead singer of the First Edition (Ruby don't take your love to tow, Reuben James) are included here, but they aren't the original versions. They are among five re-recordings that Kenny did especially for his earlier American compilation, Ten years of gold, which was later repackaged with extra tracks for the British market and re-titled Singles. If you want the originals, you have to buy a First Edition compilation (unless you buy the 4-CD boxed set of Kenny`s music, which as far as I know is the only compilation featuring both First Edition and solo tracks). Many of the First Edition compilations are budget releases and don't mention the First Edition, but you can tell from the track listing what they are. They include those songs and others from the early part of Kenny's career but don't include any of the later classics, only some of which are featured here.
My favorite Kenny Rogers song is and always has been Lucille, the song that got me interested in his music. It made number one of the British pop charts, as did Coward of the county. Both songs were huge American pop hits but didn't make number one there. The gambler, Don't fall in love with a dreamer (a duet with Kim Carnes) and She believes in me are all outstanding songs. That just leaves You decorated my life, which is a great song although I feel that it's somewhat overshadowed in the exalted company in which it finds itself here.
One other point to note is that when this compilation was originally released on vinyl, the British version was titled Lady rather than Greatest hits, which was the American title, and included Kenny's brilliant cover of Goodbye Marie instead of the re-recording of Reuben James.
In its day, this was a truly outstanding compilation although some notable songs were missing (Daytime friends, Love or something like it, Sweet music man, Love lifted me and some other Dottie West duets among them) because vinyl albums were often restricted to ten or twelve tracks. Given the plethora of CD compilations now available, mostly having many more tracks, you may be better to buy one of those instead, but if you can pick up a cheap copy of this compilation, it still provides a great introduction to Kenny's music.