The country music legend, who died March 20, leaves behind a lasting legacy of music — and inspiration

By Jason Sheeler Jeff Nelson Liz McNeil Sarah Michaud
March 25, 2020 03:15 PM
Kenny Rogers
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Kenny Rogers was the voice of country music for 40 years. Everyman modest yet rock star poetic, his unmistakable tenor will echo for generations — one of the most recognizable ever to hit radio.

Rogers, a Houston, Texas, native, died on March 20 at age 81 as a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, with 165 million records sold. He tirelessly built a career that spanned decades as his songs straddled genres: “Lady,” written by friend Lionel Richie; “The Gambler,” his biggest hit and inspiration for five movies; “Islands in the Stream,” with Dolly Parton; and “We’ve Got Tonight,” with Sheena Easton.

On Sunday, social media was flooded with benedictions from Dolly Parton, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, and President George W. Bush.

Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum — whose mother toured with Rogers as a backup singer and later opened for the country legend with her own band — remembers the late artist as “truly The Greatest.”

She tells PEOPLE exclusively, “He was an incredible gift to the world through his decades-long career. Our family got to know his generosity, his kindness and his brilliance first-hand. My mom toured with him for years and Lady Antebellum got to open up for him in Switzerland, but he also opened so many doors for us on tour in Europe. His family and all of his friends are in my prayers as they grieve.”

RELATED: Lionel Richie Mourns Death of Kenny Rogers: ‘I Lost One of My Closest Friends’

Other friends, fellow country music stars, and duet partners also shared their memories and appreciation of Rogers exclusively with PEOPLE.

Tim McGraw

“During Soul2Soul in 2007 in Atlanta [McGraw’s world tour with his wife Faith Hill], Kenny came out to the show. I’ve always been a huge fan, so I invited him to sing a song with me. But it was a bigger ask than just walking out from the side of the stage. The stage sat in the center of the arena with fans all around it. The only way to get Kenny out to the stage without anyone seeing him was to have a stagehand roll him out in a big industrial-sized laundry hamper. Kenny was game to take the ride! We sang ‘She Believes In Me.’ I started the song and Kenny came up out from under the stage on a lift. It was just an incredible moment. And one I’ll never forget.”

Sheena Easton

“It was a privilege to work with Kenny. His voice was unique and his talent made every note seem effortless. I learned so much just watching him work and I will be forever grateful that he touched my life and made it better.”

RELATED: Dolly Parton, Blake Shelton and More Mourn Kenny Rogers’ Death: ‘Rest in Peace Gambler’

Sheena Easton and Kenny Rogers

Reba McEntire

“I was thrilled to get to open the show for Kenny’s Australian tour. We had a blast and he was so easy to work with. The time [with him] I remember most was in 1991, after the plane crash [in Tennessee which killed eight members of McEntire’s band], Kenny and his manager asked if I would be interested in being in the Gambler movie. That probably saved my life, my sanity and my marriage because it took my mind off the crash and losing all my friends. I had a wonderful time working with Kenny. I met a lot of people that continue to be a part of my life all these years later: Chris Rich, who I worked with on the Reba TV show, and Rex Linn. We are very close friends today, all thanks to Kenny. Also, he was the best joke teller! What a great man, great entertainer, great family man and a great friend.”

Jessica Simpson

“Kenny Rogers was a sweetheart of a soul, effortlessly happy, genuinely kind, a lover of entertaining and truly inspiring. I will never forget the moment I dressed up as one of his dear friends Dolly Parton and sang ‘Islands In the Stream’ with him for an ABC variety hour. He was totally in the moment and I felt his pride for the gift of the song. It was special. I believed that he is sailing away to another world right now blessing the heavens, as he blessed all of us, with his voice and his heart.”

For more about Kenny Rogers, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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