Leaning into the space, I walked confidently into the cave-like structure, which was actually the tunnel leading to the Star.
The Star’s name was Kenny Rogers, who I had first heard sing a plaintive song about losing the love of a woman after a crippling war-time injury in Vietnam. The band was the First Edition, and the woman called Ruby. Kenny’s signature gravelly voice, pleaded to his love, “Don’t take your love to town”. She did, to the sound of a slamming door.
When I first heard him, he wore what was known as a leisure suit, with broad lapels. His hair had already begun to go salt-pepper and he curiously wore pink-orange tinted sunglasses, much more attuned to the more psychedelic song of “Just Dropped In”, another fave of Dave.
By the time of my charge into the tunnel, he had left the group and gone solo, as a country-pop singer. He had a string of hits, a number of killer duets with a variety of country women stars, but he was best known for a ballad, a great “story” song, The Gambler. I sang it once in a show, trying my best to imitate his whiskey graveled voice. Limited success would be a kind way of assessment.
My girlfriend had gotten choice tickets from a radio station, with seats right down front. I had learned, early on, that if you look like you know what you are doing, you can pretty well go anywhere you want. Worked pretty well for me as a priest. I went right up to Kenny in his entourage, waiting for their cue to enter the floor of the Omni. I shook his hand, welcomed him to Atlanta, as if I was an official greeter. Just call me Mayor.
Suddenly, a spotlight found my silver-haired friend and we were off together, walking through the crowd toward the stage. It was crazy as the crowd went wild, women reaching out to touch the hem of his garment, with me at his side. When we reached the stairs to the stage, I uncharacteristically wisely decided to hold back, staying on the floor for a minute, but finally returning to my seat where my girlfriend waited patiently. What a show he put on for us.
That was not my last time with Kenny. Far from it.
Many years later, after his career had crested, Kenny moved to Atlanta and bought a mansion. Not any old North Atlanta colonial mansion, but a big ass, ostentatious, nouveau riche ass mansion, with golden lions at the gate and all that. Kenny wanted you to know where the boy lived. And it happened to be near my church.
One day my receptionist called me in my office. I thought she was playing a joke on me. She said that Kenny Rogers was in the waiting area, wanting to talk to me. I could not help my response, telling her that he would have to wait. I was talking to Dolly Parton. Norma put a tone in her voice which told me I had better get serious. “Kenny Rogers is out here with his wife. They want to talk to you.” I don’t think I ever moved that quick.
There he was, The Gambler, in jeans and a casual shirt, open down about three buttons, about two buttons too much for an aging star. His young, did I mention she was young, wife was standing beside her man, lovely, straight from Central Casting. He wanted to inquire about his two young twin sons getting into our Episcopal prep school. They came back into my office, commenting on my wall-to-wall bookcases. “You read all of them?” Kenny asked. “Every one of them…. twice.” I lied. He knew right away not to play cards with the Rev..
His two sons were not old enough for our school at the time but I gave him and his wife the information they needed as well as the proper office that could take care of them when the time was right. I think I went out of my way to convey how pleased we would be to have them. I couldn’t help myself chatting him up about music, us both playing bass with mediocrity, and having some Nashville kin. It was a huge surprise, a pleasant one, to have Kenny Rogers in my office. I fought hard against my burning temptation to have him call my mom in Newnan. I had gotten her Bob Goulet’s autograph and a note when I wound up with him after his show in Minneapolis. But here I was, a priest in the saddle. It would not be kosher.
I thought that might be it, maybe my only chance to meet him. but I was wrong. I ran into him several times in early morning, both of us alone at the Waffle House on New Northside Dr.. He was more than kind, and shared some stories about the early days, which you know I loved.
On the last time we were together, he seemed to shift mood in the middle of the meal, between his pecan waffle and hashed browns. He asked me about my faith, how I had grown up South of God, and why I had chosen the Episcopal Church. I told him about the sense of presence I felt as a boy at communion, on the rare occasion that we “observed” it, maybe four times a year, “quarterly”, whether we needed to or not.
I told him that I remembered vividly those Sundays, coming into the “church house”, seeing the altar table down front that was normally bare, but on that day, covered with something that looked like a white bedsheet. It appeared as if it were covering a body laid out on a table, like I had seen on Ben Casey or Dr. Kildare. I came to know that it actually covered a series of trays stacked with individual communion glasses, filled with grape juice, and plates with small Saltine crackers. South of God communion, by God.
In spite of the uncomfortable formality, and the underlying feel that these folks did not know what they were doing, there was a sense of the Holy for this boy-child. Rather than being lectured from a podium “about” a distant God, or listening to music sung by a robed choir, or one particularly bad soprano or tenor, I was asked to participate. My spirit, even as a child, was engaged.
I sensed God’s presence in a way that caught my senses and imagination. I filed it away in my little scientist mind, that faith is about experience, not just learning facts or passive listening. It still is for me, I told Kenny.
It took me a while but I told him that I eventually learned that this holy meal was the last thing Jesus did with his disciples, to break bread and share the wine, promising them that when they did that in the future, he would be with them. Kenny seemed to lean in a bit. He surprised me when he reminded me of the other thing Jesus did on that last night with his disciples. He washed their feet, to make the point that they should be servants. I shot back that the church seemed to like the bread and wine a good bit more than the washing of feet. He laughed, knowingly and said, “Ain’t that the truth!” I later wished that I had asked him what made him say that, but it just didn’t seem right. That was the last time I talked to him.
It seems funny now, looking back. Here in my office, I have a favorite album cover next to my desk. It’s the album, Kenny Rogers the Gambler. It has Kenny, pre-facelift, staring straight ahead, standing at a card table, with a vest and string tie. He has women at his side looking up lovingly, wantonly. It’s a great album cover, from back in the days when that was an art. It’s my mother’s record. I took it before the estate sale, along with the Red-Headed Stranger, her two favorites. The old vinyl is still in the sleeve, with a coffee cup stain I am willing to bet is an imprint of my mom’s favorite cup, filled with Maxwell House coffee. I’ll make that bet, right now.
Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. Good advice from my friend, the Gambler. I took it on more than one occasion. Funny that it was not on a train bound for nowhere, but a booth at a Waffle House that I sat across from that man, and listened to his talk, looking for an ace that I might keep. His words haunt as I go on down the line. Every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser. The best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.
After my long Lenten article last week, I thought you might enjoy a good story. It was prompted by an ad I heard on the local St. Simons Island public radio station promoting a Kenny Rogers exhibition at the amazing Booth Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, near where a country strain of my kinfolk have resided. I hope it made you smile….and think a bit. See you at the Waffle House…covered and peppered.