Country music legends and pop contemporaries paid tribute to the late Kenny Rogers in a star-studded CMT special Wednesday night while also giving fans a chance to give back in the Gambler’s name.
“Kenny Rogers was both larger than life and down to earth, a man who always went out of his way to help people - people who needed it,” host Rita Wilson said during the “CMT Giants” event that raised money for MusiCares COVID-19 relief fund to help musicians and crew members affected financially by the pandemic.
Blake Shelton, Jennifer Nettles, Vince Gill, Lionel Richie and others shared their feelings for Rogers (who died last month at age 81) as well as performed – in quarantined settings – stirring renditions of his famous duets, love songs, storytelling tunes and other works that made the singer a pop-culture icon.
“The guy had crossover hits but he was always one of ours," Shelton said. "He was a country artist... he was just one of the most famous people on the planet.”
Of course, they played the hits. Randy Houser chose to do Rogers’ signature track, “The Gambler,” a personal one for Houser since he first heard it “riding in my daddy’s Cutlass Supreme,” he said. “A lot of my memories associated with my father have to do with Kenny Rogers’ music and his career as an actor.”
Lady Antebellum performed Rogers and Dolly Parton’s famous duet “Islands in the Stream,” a song inspirational to the group “because it opened up a giant audience to the country music genre,” Charles Kelley said. Lady A bandmate Dave Haywood praised Rogers’ “extraordinary” voice: “The tone and the texture really lets the listener feel like he’s lived some life,” and Rogers’ gravel and rasp “tells a story. I think that’s what connects with so many people.”
Gavin DeGraw performed the Rogers and Sheena Easton duet “We’ve Got Tonight” solo with piano, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires did an acoustic version of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (with a bright blue 1981 Rogers tour jacket next to them), and Rascal Flatts sang “Through the Years,” a tune band member Gary LeVox called “the most perfect love song that’s ever been written.”
When she was a girl, Nettles grew up loving Rogers and Kim Carnes' “smoky” voices on the duet “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” and Nettles ended her version by blowing a kiss to heaven. Carnes herself appeared on the program to tell a story about how the song was recorded, where she changed the key to fit Rogers’ voice even though it didn’t suit hers: “I call it my desperation vocal, but it all worked out great, so no problem.”
But there were some deep tracks as well. Surrounded by candles, Parton performed her favorite Rogers song, “Sweet Music Man” (“Sometimes I sit around and sing it on my own,” she revealed), while Michael McDonald went back to the ‘60s with “Just Dropped In (To see What Condition My Condition was In”, which Rogers recorded with his band The First Edition. Vince Gill strummed a song he wrote for Rogers, “The Rock of Your Love.”
“He was very commanding, no matter what setting you found him in but in a way that was always led by kindness and by grace,” Gill said of Rogers. “When he walked onto a stage, he owned it, and that’s what the greats do.”
The hourlong special ended with a montage of vintage photos and footage set to Rogers singing “Goodbye,” a song originally written by Richie when he was “losing a lot of my friends,” Richie said, “never thinking for a moment that the future is going to happen. And here we are.
“He is now singing the song that at the time had a different meaning in our relationship,” Richie added. “We lived a lot of years together. We lived a lot of life together, a lot of laughs. And I promise you, ladies and gentlemen, there will never be another gambler like Kenny Rogers.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kenny Rogers: Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie honor legend in CMT special