LISTEN: Johnny Cash Recorded ‘The Gambler’ Before Kenny Rogers

by Clayton Edwards

Most country fans will agree that “The Gambler” tells one of the coolest stories in country music. It’s all about one old gambler passing on the most important life lessons he has learned before slipping off into the great beyond.

Countless country musicians have covered it over the years. There are even some rock and metal covers of the song. Before Kenny Rogers released the iconic song, Johnny Cash cut his own version of it.

Johnny Cash’s discography is so vast that it is nearly impossible to know every song he put out. He released dozens of cover songs and made each one his own. From bluegrass tunes to industrial hits, Cash could mold just about any song to his sound. While recording his 58th studio album “Gone Girl” in 1978, he cut a version of “The Gambler.”

According to Classic Country Music, Johnny Cash’s producer Larry Butler encouraged Cash to cut a version of “The Gambler” for the album. In the end, Butler was unimpressed with Cash’s version of the song. Since he had also produced Kenny Rogers’ cut of the song, he called Rogers’ label and told them to go ahead and release it as a single.

The song was huge for Kenny Rogers. It became his most iconic song and even gave him his long-standing nickname. Rogers’ classic version of the song sat on top of the country chart for weeks before “Gone Girl” hit shelves.

Comparing Johnny Cash’s and Kenny Rogers’ Cuts of ‘The Gambler’

“The Gambler” is an amazingly well-written song and both Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers are master musicians. So, both versions of the song are going to be solid. That really goes without saying. There are, however, some major differences between the two versions.

To start with, the production values are completely different. While they’re both clean and clear. Johnny Cash’s version has a much smaller sounding production. Kenny Rogers’ version has a much bigger and brighter production. It was, in short, more radio-friendly for the era.

The subtle differences in instrumentation make a huge difference. Johnny Cash’s version features nothing but real instruments. On the other hand, Rogers’ version features a drum machine. Another thing that stands out is the guitar style.

In Cash’s version, the guitar is played in what almost sounds like Carter style. The strumming hints at the melody. However, in Rogers’ version, the guitar is played fingerstyle throughout. It sounds similar but the variation in style goes a long way in setting the two apart.

Finally, we have the vocals. This really just comes down to whose voice you like better. To my ears, Johnny Cash’s vocals sound more like they’re coming from a guy who traded his last shot of whiskey for some advice from an old gambler. Kenny Rogers sounds great but Cash has a way of sounding like he’s been through hell and back that really fits the song.

Which version of “The Gambler” would you throw away and which one would you keep? Let us know on Facebook.