Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Kenny Rogers, “Twenty Years Ago”

“Twenty Years Ago”

Kenny Rogers

Written by Wood Newton, Michael Noble, Michael Spriggs, and Dan Tyler

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

February 27,  1987

They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To was Kenny Rogers’ last big push for pop stardom.

Or Adult Contemporary stardom, at least.  The lead single was the title track, and it peaked outside the top fifty of the country chart.  But it went top ten on the AC chart, one of his final singles to reach that level.

Country radio was back on board for “Twenty Years Ago,” which can count its overdone pop production as the only slight against it.  The chorus didn’t need to be so bombastic.  The song is strong enough to have worked as a quiet and reflective ballad all the way through and not just on the verses.

But what a song this is. If it had a more subdued arrangement, I have no doubt it would still be a power recurrent today.  Rogers revisits his hometown, realizing that everything has changed since he left twenty years ago.  There are many beautiful vignettes throughout.  This is the one that gutted me:

I guess I should stop by Mr. Johnson’s hardware storeHis only son was my friend JoeBut he joined the army back in 1964How could we know he would never come back twenty years ago

It’s an excellent composition that Rogers sings flawlessly.  A few production tweaks would’ve made it an all time classic.

“Twenty Years Ago” gets a B+.

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  1. Oh my goodness, did I love this song when it was first released. It hit so close to home on so many levels for me.

    Kenny’s vocals were incredible on this track. He sang with so much heart. But then, he usually did on all his songs.

    It would be impossible for me to list my 10 favorite KR songs, but this one would have a great chance of being on it.

  2. I barely remember this one but it was more compelling than I expected when I pressed play. The arrangement seemed much more 1984 than 1987 so I’m sure it seemed dated even when it first hit radio, but it’s hard to miss listeners’ sweet spots with heavy-handed nostalgia. It’s certainly worked for me in my adult years with “Turning Home” and “American Honey”, among the rare selection of contemporary country cuts that I’ve really connected with. Even when I was a young boy, the specificity of the lyrics on a song like this would have given me the feels to some degree. I agree though that less over-the-top production would have served this song better. The “twenty years ago” conceit would have been comprehensive enough to be timeless to most listeners if the sound wasn’t so dated. Instead, Kenny has yielded recurrent airplay from the “nostalgia” lane to Mark Wills!

    Grade: B

  3. When I hear a chorus this big, it is the sound of an artist declaring they have clearly committed to a particular path, having found the road they were on diverged.

    Kenny seemingly threw his hat in with the pop-country camp as opposed to following the path being blazed by the new traditionalists.

    He wanted to continue to chase cross-over success and not just exclusively country success.

    I commend his conviction, because you can increasingly see artists trying to play it right down the middle of what was happening in Nashville.

    Thematically, this song is adjacent to the themes of Alan Jackson’s “Little Man,” Hal Ketchum’s “Small Town Saturday Night,” and Dan Seals’ “Rage On.”

    As Kevin observed, this song is so tender, and thoughtful that it could have easily been better served by a more organic production and more traditional instrumentation, a more straight-up sentimental country ballad. Losing the piano, wind instruments, and synthesizers for fiddle, steel guitar, and dobro would allow this song to breathe more than bang.

    Kenny, however chose the later, to leverage vocal intensity and bombast to amplify the emotional impact of the story.

    And it still works because Kenny is a special singer.

    He is most definitely having a vocal moment on that chorus!

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