By Matt Chandler
I shed more than a few tears on Saturday after waking to the news that country music legend Kenny Rogers had died.
My connection to the Gambler dates back more than 20 years. Living in New Hampshire at the time, I wanted to take my mom to a concert (at 60 years old, it was something she had never done). She was a fan of what she called “old-time” country music, and after weighing some options, I settled on tickets to see Kenny.
It was an outdoor venue on Lake Winnipesaukee. Kenny took the stage and played an hour of songs so iconic, you know them even if you aren’t a fan of country music.
During that show, I watched my mom, whose life had been a struggle in every sense of the word, smile more than I could ever recall. The joy on her face and the experience she had was enough for me. We were hooked.
Over the next 20 years, we saw Kenny perform in six states and two countries. Many of the shows took place in Western New York. I moved here in 2003 and moved my mom out shortly thereafter. We saw the Gambler perform multiple times at Seneca Niagara Casino, Seneca Allegany Casino, the University at Buffalo and Fallsview Casino. But the most magical night was a 2011 show at Kleinhans Music Hall.
We had front-row tickets for the show, and thanks to the amazing generosity of my coworker at the time, Jim Fink, I also held in my pocket a pair of backstage passes to surprise mom with. As I led her backstage before the show, we arrived at a point where we were directed to descend a long flight of stairs to the meet and greet.
Mom was long overdue for a double knee replacement, and stairs were no longer an option for her. As the rest of the fans hurriedly made their way down, we stood on the upper landing, heartbroken. Kenny’s road manager came out and told us to head downstairs. I explained the situation and he paused. He told us to wait there, and he disappeared.
A few moments later, he returned with Kenny. He gave my mom a warm smile and a hug. He said he heard about her knees and wanted to make sure he came and met her.
The two of them, both in their 70s, stood and compared ailments. From their hips, to their knees, to their backs and the pain when it rained. For what was a minute or two, but felt like so much more, they talked and laughed. Then, Kenny posed for a photo, said goodbye and disappeared.
My mom carried those magical memories with her for the rest of her life.
Kenny’s last show in Western New York came in 2017, and we were there. By that point, my mom was in a wheelchair, and Kenny performed from a chair as well. They had both lost a step, but he sang his hits, she sang along and it was every bit as magical as it was 20 years earlier.
My mom passed away less than a year later, with the framed photo of her and Kenny on the nightstand next to her bed. She showed it to every visitor, every nurse and every doctor who stopped by. She told the story. And she smiled. Amidst a life filled with more than her fair share of pain and sadness, my mom was given immeasurable joy by Kenny Rogers, and isn’t that what music is all about?
Matt Chandler, of Blasdell, had a special emotional connection with the late Kenny Rogers.