Opry Stars Pay Tribute to Kenny Rogers in Special on Circle Network; Gambler Songwriter Says Rogers Was ‘The Best Any Songwriter Could Hope For’

Vince Gill, Marty Stuart and Brad Paisley paid tribute to Kenny Rogers during a moving Opry television broadcast on Circle TV Network and on Gray Television stations across the country Saturday night. Rogers passed away Saturday at 81.

Gill opened the show with “Sweet Music Man”, a song Kenny wrote and recorded, calling it “one of my most favorite songs Kenny every did.” Paisley then sang a part of what is considered Kenny’s biggest hit, “The Gambler,” written by Don Schlitz.

Schlitz told Circle Network before the telecast, “The song says the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep. Maybe, I don’t know. But I do know this: The best any songwriter could hope for was to have Kenny Rogers sing one of your songs. I am forever grateful.”

Schlitz was a computer operator at Vanderbilt University when he wrote the song that catapulted his songwriting career. But it took two years for it to find its way to Rogers. Singer Bobby Bare recorded it, then Schlitz himself and then Johnny Cash. But Kenny made it a smash hit that garnered the song a Grammy and a CMA Award and spawned five TV movies.

Don Schlitz and Kenny Rogers talk on ACM red carpet
‘The Gambler’ songwriter Don Schlitz and late country star Kenny Rogers share a moment on the ACM red carpet.

“I wrote it at 23, and the song was cut when I was 25,” Schlitz said in an interview conducted by the Library of Congress two years ago. “It freed me for the rest of my writing life; I began to write the songs I wanted to hear. If I had not been given that gift I would never had been able to write later songs for Randy Travis, for and with Mary-Chapin Carpenter. Songs like ‘On the Other Hand,’ ‘When You Say Nothing At All,’ ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.’ And it all goes back to that one song, that one record. I thank Kenny for doing that for me.”

Dan Rogers, Opry general manager and executive producer said, “Thank you sweet music man, for your songs that’ll ease our souls in these unsettling days and for years to come.”

Kenny’s hits like “Lady,” and “Lucille” took him to superstardom as did his duets with Opry members Dottie West (“Every Time Two Fools Collide”) and Dolly Parton (“Islands in the Stream”).

“I loved Kenny with all my heart,” Dolly shared Saturday on Twitter. “And my heart is broken. A big ol’ chunk of it has gone with him today. I think that I can speak for all his family, his friends and fans, when I say that I will always love you.”

Reba, who recently lost her mother, said of Kenny on social media, “Go rest high on that mountain. Please tell mama and daddy hi for me. Thank you for your friendship and love.”

Kenny, a country pop hitmaker, broke down barriers and helped other performers, including Lionel Richie who wrote Kenny’s huge hit, “Lady”.

Stuart, Gill and Paisley paid tribute to Kenny as part of an Opry one-hour special. Bobby Bones hosted the tv show, while Bill Cody hosted the radio portion on WSM-AM. The show was done without an audience and with only minimal crew in the midst of a global COVID-19 outbreak.

The night marked the 4,916th consecutive Saturday night performance of the Opry.

“Country music is no stranger to hard times,” Stuart said. “The Grand Ole Opry is no stranger to hard times, either. It’s 94 years old and has been through world wars, catastrophes, and presidential assassinations, but somehow the show has just gone right along and never gone off the air.”

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