With a new single (“My World Is Over”) and a recently released career compilation (42 Ultimate Hits), Kenny Rogers’ silver-haired profile continues to loom large on the country music landscape. Here, he answers fans’ questions about mistaking his wife Wanda for her twin sister, his days as a space cowboy and why he wants to get in touch with Hot Tub Kenny.
1. I had a chance to meet you sometime back when I was a teenager. It was just you and your Harley, and we chatted for a bit. I was wondering if you still have the same bike, or what kind of bike do you have now?
I don’t have a bike anymore. I always loved those things. It’s like sports cars. I buy them, and I drive them for three weeks, and then I go, “What am I doing?” I love the thought of having them more than I like having them. I had Harleys when I lived in Las Vegas, which was 10 years ago, I guess. Wanda and I each had one, and we used to drive out to Red Rock, and it was great fun. One day, I was driving along, and I thought, “You know, I don’t do my own maintenance on these things. Something could be so badly wrong with this bike. This wheel could come off, and I’m doing 80 miles per hour. I don’t need this.” So I sold them the next day.
2. What has been your favorite music video to make so far?
OK, it’s not one anybody remembers. …. There were two that were pretty good. I did a song called “This Woman” … and it was so clever in its concept. In the middle of it, I had to ballroom dance with this girl, so that was pretty interesting. And then the other one was a video I did called … now what was the name of that song? I did the cowboy thing, the space cowboy. Oh my God, I can’t think of the name of it now. But it was a great song that was just way ahead of its time. He was a cowboy from outer space. We spent $600,000. It was the most expensive video of all time at that time and only to find out that it was too hip for country or something. I don’t know. They didn’t play it that much, but it was a great video. But it was before they had the ability to do the things they can do now with computers, so it was animation generated. I keep saying “Rhinestone Cowboy,” but that was Glen Campbell’s. I can’t think of the name of it. … Oh! “Planet Texas.”
3. If you could work with any of the new country artists, who would you pick?
Brad Paisley. I watched that 100 Greatest Love Songs the other night, and I think he and Michael McDonald were head and shoulders the best singers on that night’s show. Here’s a kid who had some unique choices of music, he’s a great guitar player and he just seems like a great guy. I’ve met him three or four times. He sang background on a song I did a couple of albums ago, and he was so nice to do that. I did a duet with Tim McGraw, who I liked a lot as a person. I don’t know that many of the new young artists that are out there. I think Rebecca Lynn Howard is one of the great singers, and even with her success, truly undiscovered yet. This girl has so many different places she can go vocally, and I think she really stands a chance to make a huge impact in this business.
4. Which artists have you always wanted to see in concert but haven’t seen?
I always thought Prince would be a great artist. Now if you’re talking about country, I’ll have to back up and re-gear. I never saw Garth live, but Garth opened for me when he first started. But when he was at the peak of his success, he did some pretty amazing things. I think I might have enjoyed that.
5. Do you think you’ll ever do any more movies?
I’m offered stuff all the time, but I live in Atlanta. The problem with movies is, they say, “OK, we’re going to film March 1 to May 15,” so you block that out of your schedule. March 1 comes and they say, “OK, well, we’re not going to start ’til June now.” I just can’t keep my schedule that open to do movies. I don’t enjoy it that much. That’s why everything I’ve ever done I’ve produced, and I can control the schedule. I can make sure it starts when it’s supposed to start. Every time I do a movie, about three or four weeks into it, I always say, “Oh God, help me remember how much I hate this next time.” Because, you know, you don’t act but about 10 minutes a day. The rest of the time you’re sitting around in your trailer with nothing to do. I think computers will solve a lot of that problem now, but at the time it was really boring. But I must say, when it’s all said and done, I do enjoy the process.
6. What do you remember the most about making the movie Six Pack?
Being in a van with six kids, and I swore I would never do that again. Do you know who the young girl was in that movie? Diane Lane. She was the 14-year-old girl in there. And Anthony Michael Hall, he was one of the kids. It was a pretty good cast of kids. And I remember jumping in the Chattahoochee River when it was about 45 degrees and them trying to tell me to put on a wet suit because the water was cold. And I said, “Look, all I have to do is make three strokes,” and then they were going to put a body double in to swim out and do all that stuff. So I said, “If I can’t do three strokes in this water and get out, then, you know, I don’t need to be here.” I hit that water, and it was like hitting a brick wall. I’ve never had an experience like that in my life. I’m surprised I got to make three strokes. That was so cold. And I was cold the rest of the day.
7. Do you ever think of a movie of your life, producing one?
My life was boring to me. I don’t know why anyone else would want to listen to it. I’ve never had a need to write a book about my life. Everybody wants all this salaciousness, and I’m just not going to go there. I’m really happy where I am. I’m expecting identical twins in the next maybe week, and so my life is about to shift gears again, which is typical of the way my life has been. I kind of rock along, and then I shift a gear and go somewhere, and I shift a gear and go somewhere else, so it’s about to get exciting, I think.
8. How do you keep your hair so perfect all the time?
(laughs) Oh my God, if you could see my hair in the morning. It looks like I slept on the top of my head when I wake up in the morning, but you know, I’ve been really, really lucky — along with a couple of hair transplants, as well — to keep some thickness to my hair.
9. What do you think of the Web site, www.menwholooklikekennyrogers.com?
I think that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I actually tried to get a hold of some of the original pictures so I could use them on stage. I had a comedy bit I was going to do with them, but the pictures they send in are usually sent in digitally, and the resolution’s not good. When you blow them up on a big screen, they’re just dots, so I couldn’t do it. But we are trying. The Hot Tub Kenny, I’ve got to have a picture of that guy. And Chick Magnet Kenny, I mean, there are some really funny ones in there. The Web site was going to try to locate those guys and see if they could get me the original pictures so I could use it on stage. I just think it’s hilarious, and I’m very flattered by it. He asked me when he started it if it was OK. I said, “As long as you do it in good taste and don’t go down a road that I think is not really what I’m about, then I don’t care how much you make fun of me. That doesn’t bother me. But don’t get into bad taste, because then I’d have to talk to you about it.” They seem to have really stayed pure.
10. Have you ever gotten your wife and her twin mixed up?
You don’t make that mistake but once. Actually, I did one day. When we would walk, I would put my hand in her back pocket. Instead of holding hands, that’s just kind of how we walked. We were standing in line at a cafeteria one day, and Wanda was in front of me. I turned to talk to somebody and I guess (her twin) Tonya got in her place and Wanda went somewhere else, and I reached under and I put my hand in Tonya’s back pocket, and she looked at me, and she smiled, and she said, “Can I assume you think I’m Wanda?” “Well, yes you can, thank you.”
11. Who is your best friend?
Wow, that’s interesting. You know, I think my band guys are my best friends because we’ve been together, some of us, for 30 years out here. Friends are people you know you can turn to when you need them, and it’s hard to find guys like that. Jim Mazza, who runs my record company, would probably be my closest friend. Then I have a guy named Kelly Junkerman who runs the movie part of my company. I think you tend to surround yourself with your friends if you can. Jim used to be the president of Capitol Records, when I was with Capitol. And Kelly’s been with me since he was 20 years old, so we’ve all grown together and taken on different roles as we go along. Those two guys would be my best friends.
12. When is your next book of photography coming out?
I never know the release date on these things. It’s one of those things I just finally say, “OK, I’m through now.” I have one called Faces and Places that are photographs I took in Saudi Arabia and Africa, China and Alaska and some pretty exotic places, which includes some of the local people in those areas, and it’s really a wonderful book. There’s stuff I’ve done in the past that’s been real thought-specific and the first was landscapes specifically, and then the second one [featured] celebrities in Your Friends and Mine. It had Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson. It had three presidents of the United States, George Burns and Jimmy Stewart and just some great people in it. And then the last book I did was called This Is My Country, and it was all country artists, and they were all portraits. When I go to a place, what makes me enjoy seeing these countries and these places are the photographs that I take because you look at things differently if you’re going to admire the countryside or if you’re looking to take photographs. I think you do see more stuff when you’re photographing.
13. Being a huge fan through the decades, I’m wondering if any of the albums or forgotten TV appearances might resurface on today’s new technologies. Are there any plans for re-releasing any of the great albums on DVD audio or the HBO concert from the ’80s on DVD?
Well, there’s a brand new one on DVD. We did that thing with A&E called Live by Request and that’s on DVD. That’s a very cool album. It’s a 5.1 audio surround, so it’s really wonderful. And as far as just music goes we have the new album on Capitol called 42 Ultimate Hits, and it goes back to pick up all the First Edition stuff, and it’s a pretty all-inclusive album and almost chronological.
I did a television show with the First Edition called Rolling on the River, and it was done in Canada. We had Ike and Tina Turner. It was the last [television] show that Rick Nelson did and the last television show that Jim Croce did. It was the only variety show on television for about three years. We did it in Toronto, and there were a lot of great people on there. There was some talk about me doing something with that just for the fun of it.
14. What discs are in your CD player right now?
Oh, that’s a good one. I’m trying to think of what’s in there right now. There’s a Jo Dee Messina album in there that I just love. It’s the one that has “Lesson in Leaving” on it, I’m Alright. I just think that’s one of the best albums ever done. That’s the one with “Even God Must Get the Blues.” That’s what really put her on the map for me. Oh, there are a couple of demos in there. I listen to demos — people send them to me. I listen to everything as long as it holds my interest. If it loses me in the first four words, it’s gone, you know. If it holds me through the first verse, I listen through the first verse.
15. Are you in touch with any of the other guys in the First Edition?
Yeah, occasionally Mickey Jones, the drummer, he comes around. When he was in Atlanta doing a film called The Fighting Temptations, he came to see me when I was at Chastain Park. And occasionally I run into … well, I shouldn’t say occasionally, I’ve run into her twice … Mary Arnold, who was the girl in the group, and she was married to Roger Miller. Terry Williams, who was the guitar player, he and I manage to talk every few years, but everybody else lives in L.A., and I live in Atlanta, so we don’t get a chance to see each other that often.
16. I love the song “Islands in the Stream.” Do you plan on doing any more duets with Dolly or anybody else?
Dolly and I did a duet on my last album, and Dolly is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life. Everything like that has its time, and Dolly and I had our time before, and I just don’t think it means anything anymore. … We did a song that she recorded, and I was really excited about it, and it was on the album, and no one seemed to care. I don’t mean that in a bad sort of way. I just mean it just didn’t have the electricity that I thought it would have had, and I certainly don’t blame her.
Like I said, things have their moment, like me working with Lionel Richie. That wouldn’t make any sense now, but it did make sense at the time. Me working with Barry Gibb for “Islands in the Stream” was a wonderful thing at the time, but doesn’t work now. You have to find new partners to create new electricity. It’s like those reunion tours. They last for a while, but once you see them … “OK, that was fun. I gotta move on now.” Like it or not, everybody lives in the moment. The past is a great place to visit, but nobody wants to stay there.
17. What was Dottie West really like?
Out of everyone I’ve ever worked with — and I say this all the time — I miss her so much because I’ve never met anyone, with the possible exception of Jo Dee Messina, that if she sang about happiness, you felt her joy. If she sang about sadness, you felt her pain. I think that is a great gift. There are a lot of people that sing sad songs, a lot of people that sing happy songs, but for someone to have that range of emotions and to be able to capture it in their music is such a great gift. I think that she was really a great communicator in her music and just an incredible person.
18. What were your feelings on including a new artist, Whitney Duncan, on your new greatest hits record, and what are your impressions of her?
What makes a star is package. There are a lot of people that just sing circles around everybody you’re hearing on the radio today. There are a lot of people who are great-looking people, a lot of people who can dance well, a lot of people who do all these things, but very few of them that do it all. I think that she’s green right now, she hasn’t had a lot of experience, but she’s — at this very moment — opening for me in two or three shows. She has great stage presence. She carries herself so well on stage. She still needs to work on — and she knows this — on her dialogue on stage and how to relate to an audience. But she’s an incredible talent who really sings much better than someone her age normally would.
My problem is, that duet with Whitney Duncan was difficult because of the age disparity. The great songs are love songs, and even this song that Whitney and I did originally was brought to me as a love song. I said, “Guys, I can’t do that. We would catch so much flak [for] singing a love song with a 19-year-old girl.” So we took the song, and we did an interpretation where it’s a father-daughter, and it has a lot more meaning and a lot more value. But it’s hard to find. It’s like songs that two guys can do together. It’s really hard to find those. I did a duet with Ronnie Milsap called “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine.” I did one with Travis Tritt, but they’re really hard to find — duets that men can sing together. And same thing, we have an older guy and a younger girl, assuming your conscious of that, and for whatever reasons, I am. Maybe since it’s art you shouldn’t be, but I don’t like to have that hanging over me.
19. You have said in the past that you didn’t need to be on top, you just wanted to be in the running. Is that harder to do now?
I still believe that. I defy you to find anyone that says the happiest time in their life was when they were at the peak of their success because you have no life when you’re at the peak of your success. You don’t know where you are half the time, and you don’t really care, quite honestly, once you get there. It’s my opinion that most successful people create their own demise, because you just get tired — and not just physically, but you get emotionally tired — of having to be somebody and be somewhere, and it’s nice to be able to dictate. That’s why performing is so much more fun for me now. I can pick and choose where I want to work and how often I want to work and whom I want to work with. That’s a much more comfortable and pleasant position. But to do that, I have to maintain a certain degree of visibility and success, otherwise you become a retro act. Then you’re just coasting off your success of the past. That, I don’t want to do.
20. What keeps you motivated to keep on performing?
I’ve kind of coined the phrase that said, “Success is no reason to quit.” Music is really what I’m all about. There are a lot of things I can do and I think be successful at them. When Ken Kragen was managing me, he would say, “I think we need to go focus on movies” because radio wasn’t playing my music. He said, “I think that you could have a great career in the movie business.” And I said, “Ken, if you made me the biggest movie star in the world, it would not make me happy because that’s not what I want to do.” So we decided to just stay focused on music and just see what happens because, you know, I don’t need to work. I just love to work. Getting there is not as much fun as it used to be, but once I get there, there’s no place I’d rather be than walking out on the stage.