“Sitting down with Kenny Rogers is like warm sunshine on your face…it’s as great an experience as you imagine it to be. Undoubtedly a musical icon across a plethora of genres, he is also a true and kind man with a solid, down-to-earth spirit who still has the ability to laugh at himself. Perhaps his 9-year-old twin sons Justin and Jordan keep him young, or perhaps it’s because he himself still has a uniquely youthful spirit – even at the age of 75.
In lieu of trying to relate his thoughts to you, we thought we’d let Kenny speak for himself, starting with how this “stardom” thing got started.
“I sang in glee club and the church choir as a kid. When I was 12 years old, my mom made my sister take me with her on a date to see Ray Charles. My sister didn’t want to take me, of course, but I went and just couldn’t believe it. Everybody laughed at everything he said, and they clapped for every song he sang, and I thought, ‘Wow! What a great job that would be!’
“When I was in high school, I put together a band because I’d heard that the guys that sang in the groups got all the girls. For the first 10 years, I played upright bass in a jazz group, and I loved it. I think it gave me a good foundation for music in general. Then I joined the New Christy Minstrels, which was folk music. One was very intricate, and the other was real simple. But they were both great learning experiences. From there, things just seemed to move in the right direction for me.
“I came in at a time when country music was really country – Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and George Jones. “Lucille” was a country record. Then I did “Lady” with Lionel Richie, and I worked with Barry Gibb – then with Dolly. We took country music to a place that country music wasn’t really comfortable with. I think it brought a lot of people to country music who weren’t real country but were looking for a place to go – at least that’s what I’d like to think is true.”
“As for longevity, I think the people who survive in this business are those who are what they say they are. It’s my theory – right or wrong – that the longer it takes to reach the pinnacle, the longer the glide ratio down. If you go straight up, you go straight down. So if you’ve got a fan base who’s going to be there, you might survive.
“That being said, I’m not sure that’s available anymore. When I was coming up, you had to buy 10 songs to get one. In buying those 10 songs, the listener found out what I was about. So the sentiment went deeper because the fans knew the artist better.
“Nowadays, we can download one song. If we don’t like any of the others on the CD, we don’t have to buy it. That puts the artists under great pressure to record a song that will likely get played on the radio. That’s hard!
“That’s why I did this album with Warner Bros. They were so gracious and gave me this opportunity, and I even told them I wasn’t sure any of this would get played on the radio. They told me to do what I wanted and they’d be responsible for getting it on the radio, so that took all the pressure off…which is why I think it turned out as great as it did.
“I got to record really great songs like “Dreams of the San Joaquin” and “You Had To Be There,” which is about a young man on death row, and his father – who’s been absent from his life – coming to see him, but they’re out of time. That’s always been my strength – “Reuben James,” “Coward of the County,” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” I like material with social significance.”
SPEAKING OF SIGNIFICANCE
What about the longtime friendship with Dolly and the new duet?
Rogers laughingly says, “Barry Gibb wrote “Islands in the Stream,” and I’d been in a studio in California four days trying to learn this song. I finally told Barry, ‘I don’t even like this song anymore!’ And he says, ‘You know what this song needs? Dolly Parton!’ My manager had just seen her out on the street, so he went out and literally found her and brought her into the room. The minute she walked in the door it was a whole different world for me. There is something special about our relationship. This new song, “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” is about two friends who are like one soul. It’s really a true story of our longtime friendship. I even told Dolly, ‘I don’t even care if it’s not a hit. To have our relationship documented is worth it to me.’”
“I can do it, but real songwriters have a need to write. I tend to write more assignments than I do out of a need to write. We did a thing called “Toy Shoppe” (an all-original Christmas show written by Rogers), and I did write some songs for it. I used to have a golf course at my house, and I had a big runway lawnmower. I would start on one end of that fairway, and I’d drive down. I’d stop and write down my thought, and I’d turn around and come back – stop and write down some more thoughts. I literally wrote those songs out on my fairways.”
Are others following in your footsteps?
“Well, there are actors and then there are people who can act. Let me just say I think Tim McGraw’s a much better actor than I am. I’ve seen him in different things, and he is really good. An actor, you give them unbelievable dialogue and they can make it believable. Me, you give me believable dialogue and I can keep it believable. I’m good at playing me – I’m me with different clothes on.”
“Well, there’ll definitely be more music, but I don’t have any original working parts for acting anymore (laughs).”
Rogers has received multiple awards – ACMs, CMAs, Grammys and most recently, the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. On October 27, 2013, Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. “I’m actually glad this has happened late in my career – so I have time to savor it. It’s a real high point – it’s certainly not the end of my musical journey, but it’s something that I’ll always remember and that my family will remember…I’m truly honored.”
Before we left, Rogers took the time to share some of his thoughts on photography with our staff photographer, which we’ve in turn shared with you in this separate story.
When departing, one thing we didn’t expect was Rogers’ final thoughtfulness when he stated, “Thank you for coming down here and giving of your time. I appreciate you doing this.”
For Rogers, being “a star” doesn’t take place just on the stage – he shines in his everyday life in the way he treats others. “I found out there are people you help without even knowing it. I think you can help by setting a good example. So that’s all I try to do – I try to set good examples.”
This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of National HealthCare