The casino music country song “The Gambler” was originally composed by singer-songwriter Don Schlitz in 1976. It was the version recorded by US country music star Kenny Rogers, however, which turned it into the big international hit which charted at Number One in many countries. The Rogers release of “The Gambler” in 1978 was the event which kick-started Schlitz’s own career, and since that time he has written dozens more country influenced songs which have enjoyed notable commercial success. Two of the best-known Schlitz tunes (both co-written with Paul Overstreet) are probably “Forever and Ever, Amen” recorded by Randy Travis and “When You Say Nothing at All”, perhaps most famously recorded by Irish pop singer Ronan Keating.
Composer Don Schlitz
Don Schlitz also recorded “The Gambler” himself, as well as releasing three albums as a recording artist in his own right. Yet it is his songs which have made this North Carolina songwriter a success in the world of country music, earning him two Grammys and four ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year awards. He wrote the song “Point of Light” in 1991 at the request of US President George Bush and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1993.
The gambler’s tale
Exploring life from a gambler’s perspective, “The Gambler” recalls an encounter between the song’s narrator and a mysterious gambler during a late-night journey on a train ‘to nowhere’. As both men are ‘too tired for sleepin’, they fall into conversation. And soon after, the gambler senses his new companion is very much down on his luck and so makes a deal to give the narrator some advice he can use to live by – but only in return for the ‘last swallow’ from his whisky bottle.
Downing that final drink, the gambler explains that in life – as with any poker hand – the secret is to ‘know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em’, and even more importantly to ‘know when to walk away, know when to run.’ Next, there is a warning to be careful to ‘never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table’, followed by a reminder to all would-be casino gamblers that the only time you should ever count your winnings is ‘when the dealin’s done.’
Continuing with what a life of gaming has taught him, the gambler reveals that his own ‘secret to surviving’ in the world, as well as being a good blackjack strategy, has been ‘knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep.’ Then, more darkly, the gambler adds that ‘the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep,’ whereupon he himself turns to go off to sleep.
As events turn out for the gambler in the song, this statement really is his last roll of the dice. We are told by the narrator that ‘somewhere in the darkness’ of the train, the gambler ‘broke even’ as he played his final hand and left this world. For the narrator, however, it seems the sound advice offered had now dealt him a strong ‘ace that [he] could keep’ – probably to improve the odds of getting his own fractured life back on track.
Kenny Rogers’ career highlights
“The Gambler” certainly turned out to be an ace for Kenny Rogers, and soon became one of his signature songs, even resulting in a starring role in a 1980 made-for-TV series with the same title which was loosely based on the broad concept touched upon in the original song. This too was to gather critical acclaim and gain commercial success, spawning a further four sequels. During Kenny Rogers’ solo career, his wide-ranging talent enabled him to build a crossover reputation which extended well beyond country music. Perhaps the first real signs of this came with his 1977 single “Lucille”, a song about a woman turning her back on her family, which scored major chart success all around the globe. This was followed in 1979 by the release of “Coward of the County”, another worldwide Number One chart success and a song about the troubles of a young man brought up a pacifist who eventually finds himself honour-bound to use violence to support his family.
These big mainstream hits were followed by further Kenny Rogers classics. However, some of the greatest musical and commercial success in the singer’s long career has been the result of collaborations with other music artists. An early example of this sub-genre were the songs “We’ve Got Tonight” (with Sheena Easton) and “Islands in the Stream” recorded with country legend Dolly Parton, both released in 1983 and both enjoying phenomenal chart success. Since that time, Kenny Rogers has regularly duetted with other artists, as well as performing as a guest on many other releases – perhaps most notably on the USA for Africa collaboration “We Are the World” which again became an international chart-topping success in 1985.