Merle Haggard‘s “Kentucky Gambler”
Penned by the talented Dolly Parton, the song “Kentucky Gambler” holds a captivating backstory that resonates with the hearts of country music enthusiasts. Back on December 21, 1974, Dolly Parton achieved an extraordinary feat as a songwriter when three of her compositions found their place on Billboard’s country singles chart. These included Porter Wagoner’s “Carolina Moonshiner” at an impressive #19, her own enchanting rendition of “Love Is Like A Butterfly” soaring to the coveted #1 spot, and, of course, the iconic “Kentucky Gambler” recorded by the legendary Merle Haggard.
The moment Merle’s rendition claimed the chart’s pinnacle a month later, it marked a significant milestone for Dolly Parton—her first number one single as the writer behind someone else’s record on Billboard’s esteemed country singles chart. The magic didn’t end there. Dolly’s prowess as a songwriter continued to shine as other artists found success with her compositions on the country chart. Emmylou Harris struck gold with “To Daddy” at an admirable #3, Zella Lehr’s spirited cover of “Two Doors Down” made its mark at #7, and Waylon Jennings’ poignant rendition of “Waltz Me To Heaven” gracefully danced its way to #10. It’s worth noting that “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” had two successful runs on the charts. Bill Phillips scored a remarkable #6 peak with the original version in 1966, where Dolly herself provided mesmerizing harmony vocals, and The Kendalls’ cover followed suit, earning a respectable #9 in 1980.
A highlight in Dolly Parton’s illustrious career came with her timeless composition “I Will Always Love You.” The song transcended genres and achieved worldwide acclaim when the incomparable Whitney Houston turned it into a massive pop hit. Houston’s rendition spent numerous weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart in 1992, solidifying its position as one of the best-selling singles of all time.
Delving into the depths of “Kentucky Gambler,” we uncover a tale deeply rooted in Dolly’s own family history. Inspired by the stories of her Grandpa Parton, a notorious gambler, Dolly composed this captivating piece. In her childhood, she often heard tales of her grandfather’s gambling adventures—how he would venture out, only to return having squandered his hard-earned money.
Coincidentally, Merle Haggard, the man behind the microphone, experienced the very addiction that inspired this evocative song. Haggard himself succumbed to the allure of gambling and, on several occasions, lost staggering amounts, exceeding $100,000 in a single night while playing blackjack in Nevada’s opulent casinos. He admitted to a phase in his life where he believed he was a professional gambler, riding an extraordinary wave of luck that spanned three years. Secretly, Merle maintained a gambling account with a staggering peak balance of nearly $300,000—an account unknown to anyone. However, fate had a twisted sense of timing. Just as Dolly’s “Kentucky Gambler” took shape, Merle suffered the misfortune of losing the entire $300,000 from his hidden account, along with an additional $300,000. The song perfectly captured the tumultuous period Merle was enduring.
Destiny weaved their paths together long before the composition of “Kentucky Gambler.” Merle Haggard first crossed paths with Dolly during his performance in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee, in the early 1960s. At that time, she was introduced as the “local talent.” Their lives intersected once more when Dolly and her Travelin’ Family Band joined Haggard for a series of unforgettable shows in 1974-75.
Although Dolly did not specifically pen “Kentucky Gambler” with Merle in mind, nor was she present during its creation, fate orchestrated a unique turn of events. Dolly happened to be touring with Haggard when he decided to record the song. Serendipity intertwined their destinies further as Merle found himself captivated by Dolly’s charm, eventually falling in love with her, or so he believed. In a testament to their connection, Haggard poured his emotions into the heartfelt composition “Always Wanting You,” a song he dedicated to Dolly. Unapologetically, Merle discussed this chapter of his life in his autobiographies, “Sing Me Back Home” in 1981 and “My House of Memories” in 2010, leaving a lasting testament to their unique bond.
“Kentucky Gambler” embodies not only the talent of Dolly Parton as a songwriter but also the intricate intertwining of destinies that shaped the lives of two iconic figures in the world of country music. It serves as a timeless reminder of the powerful narratives hidden within the fabric of songs, forever etching its place in the hearts of music lovers worldwide.
Artist: Merle Haggard
Album: Keep Movin’ On
I wanted more from life, than four kids and a wife
And a job in a dark Kentucky mine
A twenty acre farm, with a shackey house and barn
Thats all I had and all I left behind.
But at gambling, I was lucky, and so I left Kentucky
And left behind my woman and my kids
Into the gay casinos, of Nevada’s town of Reno
This Kentucky Gambler planned to get rich quick.
Kentucky gambler who’s going to love your woman in Kentucky
Yeah and who’s going to be the one to give her all she needs
Kentucky gambler, who’s going to raise your children in Kentucky
And who’s going to keep them fed and keep them shoes on their feet.
There at the gambler’s Paradise, Lady luck was on my side
And this Kentucky gambler played just right
Hey, I wanted everything I played, I really thought I had it made
But I should have quit and gone on home that night.
But when you love the green backed dollar, sorrow always bound to follow
And Reno’s dreams fade into neon amber
And Lady Luck, she’ll lead you on, she’ll stay a while, and then she’s gone
You better go on home, Kentucky gambler.
But a gambler never seems to stop till he loses all he’s got
And with a money-hungry fever, I played on
I played till I’d lost all I’d won, I was right back where I’d started from
Then I started wanting to go home.
Kentucky gambler, there ain’t nobody, waiting in Kentucky
When I ran out, somebody else walked in
Kentucky gambler, looks like you ain’t really very lucky
And it seems to me a gambler loses much more than he wins.
Much more than he wins.