Kenny Rogers, Who Brought Country Music to a Pop Audience, Dies at 81

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A decade later, Mr. Rogers and the First Edition were guests on prime-time variety shows like “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Thirty years on, their hit single “Just Dropped In” was used in a dream sequence in the Coen brothers’ movie “The Big Lebowski.”

Mr. Rogers was also a successful entrepreneur. His best-known enterprise was Kenny Rogers Roasters, a chain of chicken restaurants he opened with John Y. Brown Jr., the former governor of Kentucky and chief executive of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Opened in 1991, the chain closed in the United States 20 years later but continues to prosper overseas, particularly in Southeast Asia.

In 2013, Mr. Rogers published a novel, “What Are the Chances,” written with Mike Blakely.

Mr. Rogers received many accolades during his career, among them three Grammy Awards and recognition for lifetime achievement from the Country Music Association. In 2013 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Mr. Rogers is survived by Wanda Miller, his wife of 22 years, and the couple’s twin sons, Justin and Jordan.

Eclecticism in music is sometimes attributed to a lack of originality or focus. But for Mr. Rogers, drawing on an array of styles and collaborating with a wide range of artists worked in his favor.

“One of the strengths of my eclectic musical history,” he wrote in his memoir, “perhaps dating all the way back to that day as a child when I heard gospel music pouring out of the little church in Houston, is that I never felt hamstrung by one form, even if I had been successful with it.

“During the First Edition days, for instance, I was perfectly comfortable going from a drug-culture song, ‘Just Dropped In,’ to a country-tinged story song like ‘Ruby.’ Having been exposed to and well versed in all kinds of music before Nashville, I saw no reason to limit the range of songs I could do after getting there.”

David Moll contributed reporting.


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