Willie Nelson Rejected Kenny Rogers’ Offer To Record “The Gambler”

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The Iconic Kenny Rogers Song “The Gambler” Could Have Gone To Willie Nelson

When Kenny Rogers discovered “The Gambler,” he thought it was the perfect song for his friend, Willie Nelson. But when Rogers offered the track to Nelson, he turned it down. Why?

The history of “The Gambler” goes back a bit further than Rogers’ exchange with Nelson. Don Schlitz wrote the song in 1976, and it was first recorded by Bobby Bare two years later. Unfortunately for Bare, his version didn’t take off.

Schlitz went on to record the song himself. Johnny Cash recorded the track too and included his rendition on his 1978 album Gone Girl.


Also in 1978, Rogers released his now-iconic version of “The Gambler.” He turned the song into a #1 country hit and crossover success. It reached the 16th spot on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart.

“The Gambler” also led Rogers to a 1980 Grammy win in the Best Male Country Vocal Performance category. 

Rogers scored many hits throughout his career. But “The Gambler” was always known as his signature song.

Why Willie Turned Down “The Gambler…”

However, if one conversation had gone in another direction, who knows if Rogers would have recorded the track that became his signature piece.

Shortly after Rogers died in 2020, Willie Nelson sat down with TODAY‘s Jenna Bush Hager to speak about their friendship. That’s when he divulged that Rogers originally offered “The Gambler” to him, but he turned it down.

Willie Nelson performs with Kenny Rogers
Larry Brown / YouTube


He tried to get me to record ‘The Gambler,'” Nelson said. “We were somewhere, I don’t know. He said, ‘I got this song here, I think you should do it.’ And he played it for me, and I said, ‘It’s a great song, but I don’t think I’ll do it…‘”

So why did Nelson reject Rogers’ offer? He explained:

“…because I was doing every night a song called ‘The Red Headed Stranger’ which has 100 verses in it, and it’s a long song. And I said I just don’t want to do another long song, and I can’t quit doing ‘Red Headed Stranger.’ So he said, ‘Okay, I’ll record it myself.’ And so he did, and there it is.”

After seeing how Rogers turned “The Gambler” into a massive hit, does Nelson regret turning down his offer? He answered, “No, that was Kenny’s song all the way.”

He’s right. “The Gambler” will always be known as a Kenny Rogers song.