Though the COVID-19 pandemic made a traditional public memorial for Kenny Rogers impossible, CMT still managed to stage a proper socially-distant remembrance for the legend on Wednesday night. The Texas native died of natural causes at the age of 81 on March 20.
Actress/singer Rita Wilson — recently recovered from the coronavirus herself — hosted the one hour Giants: Kenny Rogers, with the help of The Gambler’s fellow superstars like Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie and more.
Lady Antebellum kicked off the tributes with an elaborate, emotive update of “Islands in the Stream” that stayed true to the original while also managing to bring it into 2020.
Gavin DeGraw accompanied himself on piano to recreate Kenny’s version of “We’ve Got Tonight,” though his soulful take often seemed more reminiscent of Bob Seger‘s original, because he lacked a duet partner like Sheena Easton.
Jennifer Nettles also went it alone, playing keys for herself on another Kenny collaboration, the Kim–Carnes-penned “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer.” The Sugarland front-woman reminisced about how she was “always in love” with the “smoky voices” of both Kenny and Kim. The “Bette Davis Eyes” hitmaker herself revealed her famous, earth-shattering vocal was so because it was “not a good key” for her, since she recast it for Kenny.
Michael McDonald soloed on guitar for “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Americana favorites Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires took on “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town).”
Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill chose a song he co-wrote that Kenny recorded, “The Rock of Your Love.” Rascal Flatts relived “Through the Years,” while Randy Houser ably re-created “The Gambler.”
The most anticipated number of the night came from Dolly, of course. She revisited her own version of “Sweet Music Man,” the hit Kenny himself wrote after allegedly taking a flight beside Jessi Colter, the wife of the legendary Waylon Jennings.
Lionel Richie may’ve written Kenny’s crossover smash, “Lady,” but that wasn’t how the show ended. The American Idol icon introduced another song he crafted, as an answer to his own monster hit, “Hello.”
Kenny himself closed the show with one of his final Capitol recordings, “Goodbye.”
The hour-long tribute was a benefit for MusiCares, the charitable arm of the Grammys, to help all the members of the music family, who are unable to work during the COVID-19 crisis.
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