“I’m kind of like a boomerang,” Kenny Rogers tells CMT.com. “You can throw me away, but I’m coming back sooner or later.”
Rogers returns with this week’s release of Back to the Well, an album featuring guest appearances by Dolly Parton, Tim McGraw and Alison Krauss. It happens to be his 61st album. Granted, many of these are greatest hits compilations, but the statistic supports Rogers’ status as one of the most successful artists in country music history.
“I have more greatest hits packages than I have greatest hits, that much I can tell you,” Rogers laughs. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know how they do that.”
Rogers estimates that he has recorded approximately 500 songs during his career and listened to another 200 demos just for his new album.
“We don’t record until we have something we think is really sensational, like a cornerstone,” Rogers says. “I try not to tie up songwriters’ songs. I don’t think it’s fair to them to say, ‘I’m gonna record next January. Put this on hold.’ When January comes, you may change your mind, and then that song has really lost its immediacy. People know it’s been floating around. I tend to say, ‘I’m going in the studio. Send me what you’ve got. If I don’t do it in the next three days, I’m not gonna do it.’ So I think people will give you the best songs under those conditions.”
Back to the Well covers a lot of musical territory, including songs written by Mark Knopfler, Steve Wariner and Phil Vassar.
“The thing you have to be careful with is repeating your last album,” Rogers says. “I’ve always said that it’s not how many you please, it’s how few you offend that determines your market. I know there’s a certain nucleus of people who will buy my records. I think that as long as I don’t offend the masses, I take the chance of picking up new people and not losing those old people. The minute I go too far left or too far right, I’m going to lose that core audience. But I do think you have to be constantly trying to be getting better at what you do. If you don’t learn anything from your last album, then it really was a waste.”
The album’s first single, “Handprints on the Wall,” deals with a parent’s emotions of watching children grow up all too fast. “Those songs that make you stop and take a moment are important songs for all of us,” Rogers says. “We do tend to live in that fast-blown mentality where something has to happen every eight seconds or we’re not stimulated anymore. Occasionally, I think it’s good to just stop and say, ‘I can’t let this time pass.’”
Back to the Well reunites Rogers with Parton, who wrote the playful song “Undercover” for them to record. They scored a megahit in 1983 with “Islands in the Stream,” but it had been 20 years since the duo had sung together.
“We had gotten so closely identified with each other that I don’t think it was healthy for either of our careers,” Rogers says. “You don’t want to become a tag team, so we decided to back off for awhile and see what happened. And then as careers do, we took separate journeys and had different places we needed to be and really seldom saw each other, except in passing at award shows.”
They began talking about the reunion earlier this year at an Atlanta charity event hosted by Jane Fonda. When Don Henley heard they planned to record, he offered them one of his songs, “I’m Still in Here.” Rogers says, “It was an incredible song, but it just wasn’t right for me and Dolly. … I said, ‘Dolly, nobody knows us better than you do. Go home and write something.’ She did — and it was wonderful.”
Referring to Krauss’ work on “Love Like This,” Rogers says, “She has been the sweetest thing to me. I think she’s been on the last three albums I’ve done. I just love her sound and I love the way she plays fiddle. I’ll just call and say, ‘Alison, I’ve got another song.’ And she’s always been so cool about coming over and doing things. I try not to put her in such a position that it would interfere with her singles, but I just love the flavor she adds to anything she’s on.”
McGraw joins Rogers on “Owe Them More Than That,” a tribute to country pioneers Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins and Waylon Jennings. “I only see Tim at award shows, and I didn’t really know him,” Rogers explains. “I don’t hang out with those guys because I live in Atlanta, and everybody else lives in Nashville. But he’s always been so nice to me. I remember so many times going on award shows and looking down, and he and Faith would just be smiling. Whether or not they were, they pretended they were really enjoying what I was doing.”
As for the song’s message, Rogers says, “I think it really is a simple lesson that we all are where we are because of other people, and we need to appreciate that. I think sometimes the young generation — just like in sports — think they started it. But interestingly enough, not everybody’s country music roots go back to Ernest Tubb and Tennessee Ernie Ford and that group of people. Some of them start with Tim McGraw. But I do think that the guys who are where they are — like the athletes that are making hundreds of millions of dollars — wouldn’t be there without the Larry Birds and the guys that didn’t make nearly that kind of money. They kind of broke the ground.”
Rogers broke some ground of his own a few years ago when he and former Capitol Records/EMI America president Jim Mazza formed Dreamcatcher Entertainment, which includes an independent record label. With added control of the business and creative endeavors, Rogers had major hits with “The Greatest” [a song about a youngster dreaming of acclaim as a baseball player] and “Buy Me a Rose.” The success propelled the 1999 album She Rides Wild Horses to platinum status.
Asked what Dreamcatcher has meant to his career, Rogers answers, “An opportunity to compete. More than most people out there, I understand this is a business, not just for record companies. People have to step back every now and then to take a look at things. If radio stations don’t make money, they’re going to go out of business. And if radio stations play things that people don’t like, they’re not going to work. They also have advertisers they have to cater to. They cater to a certain age group with their advertising, so their music has to cater to that group — or the advertisers go to pop music. And that is the truth.
“Country music is not really an art form; it’s a business. And within that business, you have a certain amount of latitude, but you don’t have a lot. If you’re a big enough, hot enough artist, you can move that box. But if you’re not, you’d better be in it — or you’re not gonna get played. And that’s OK. As long as there are rules and everybody knows the rules.
“Dreamcatcher has allowed me to release records and throw darts, for lack of a better term. What radio has said to me — and it has been a wonderful gift — is, ‘We’re not going to play mediocre records just because you were successful. If you make a great record that’s unlike anything anyone else has done, but it’s within the box, we’ll play it. We’ll give it a shot.’ I think if ‘Buy Me a Rose’ had been released first, it would not have been nearly as big a record. But ‘The Greatest,’ because of the uniqueness of that song, radio had to play it. There was nothing else like it. They were like, ‘That was pretty good. He’s not 30 years old, but people like it.”
Taking a break from his concert tour, Rogers is currently in China where he’s working behind the lens on another photography book he has planned. He resumes touring later this month and will spend December on the West Coast with his holiday show, Christmas From the Heart Featuring the Toy Shoppe.
Having toured nationally as a solo artist and previously as a member of the New Christy Minstels and the First Edition, Rogers has done roadwork with a diverse range of acts, including Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Pryor and the Captain & Tenille. One of the most memorable shows was a double bill of the First Edition and bluesman B.B. King.
“Somebody booked us together,” Rogers recalls. “And we couldn’t figure out who was gonna open the show and who was gonna close it. We didn’t really care, and he didn’t care. He said, ‘If it doesn’t matter to you, I’ll go on first because I can catch a late flight home after the show.’ We thought we had snookered this guy and we were gonna be the headliners.
“He did about an hour and a half of ‘The Thrill Is Gone,’ and we felt like the Partridge Family when we came out. It was so wrong. It was just so wrong.”