Ask most of today’s country stars about their long-term goals, and they’ll say something like this: “Man, I still want to be doing this when I’m in my 60s!”
At 68, Kenny Rogers is living their dream. Thirty years have passed since his first Top 40 country hit (“Love Lifted Me”). And in a staggering display of stamina, his new single, “I Can’t Unlove You,” is at No. 34 with a bullet on Billboard’s country airplay chart. He’s also back on Capitol Records, joining an impressive roster that includes Trace Adkins, Dierks Bentley and Keith Urban.
“I don’t think that I truly felt I would have another shot at major, major success, which I think I do at Capitol,” he said.
On the cover of his new album, Water and Bridges, Rogers sports a shorter, more youthful cut — thanks to an overzealous stylist. As he tells the story about how a quick trim at a photo shoot gradually turned into a full-fledged haircut, he seems more amused than angry.
“Right now, it’s a little spiky,” he says. “I feel like the guy from Rascal Flatts.”
In other words, the days of the signature big beard and perfectly coiffed hair are long gone. He says the goal is not to look young, but merely younger.
“At my age, I think it’s so great that I have a chance to throw darts,” he says. “I don’t want to look so old that young radio doesn’t relate to me.”
Although Rogers says he ponders the future more than the past, Water and Bridges spends a lot of time reflecting on how the wrong (or right) decision can alter the course of your life. The album begins quietly with the cinematic title track, written by Craig Wiseman and Tim Nichols, who also wrote Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.”
Without being preachy, he sings about a guy who takes his girlfriend to get an abortion, then later in life wonders if he made the right call. In the second half of the song, a son refuses to come home when his abusive father is dying, knowing an apology will not ease the pain. Rogers says, “It’s really about choices you make. You make a lot of choices when you’re young, and you pay for them when you’re older.”
Rogers chose a music career early in life. Growing up poor in Houston, he found comfort in singing, eventually joining the Kirby Stone Four and the New Christy Minstrels in the 1960s. Just shy of turning 30, he formed the First Edition in 1967, scoring big with the trippy hit, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”
After going solo in 1973, Rogers attended one of the earliest Fan Fairs in Nashville, quietly watching famous (and formerly famous) singers from the sidelines. Witnessing the dedication and loyalty of the audience, he decided to give it a go in country music. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, he racked up monster hits like “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” “She Believes in Me,” “You Decorated My Life” and “Coward of the County.” By the time he teamed with Dolly Parton on 1983’s “Islands in the Stream,” he was a worldwide superstar and sex symbol.
Though he vanished from the airwaves through most of the 1990s, Rogers rebounded at the turn of the century with “Buy Me a Rose,” released on his own label, Dreamcatcher Entertainment. It reached No. 1 and was also his first Top 10 country hit in a decade. Even better, he didn’t dip into his substantial savings account to make it happen.
“You never spend your own money on your own career,” he says. “If your career’s worth it, someone else will do it. That wasn’t my money I was spending, and we had a lot of success with it, but it was one of those things that had run its course. We didn’t have the funding to do it correctly. Capitol stepped up and said, ’We want to do it, and we want to do it right.’ I’ll have a shot anyway.”
Rogers’ son, Chris, stars in the video for “I Can’t Unlove You” as a young man struggling to heal from a crushing heartbreak. (Rogers’ youngest children are his stout 18-month-old twin boys, whom he refers to as “little linebackers.”) If the song turns out to be a bona fide hit on radio, Rogers anticipates he’ll see fresh faces in his concert audience.
“As you know, radio and television is geared to a younger audience — 18 to 35, give or take,” Rogers says. “So when you start selling to that audience, and they start showing up, it makes all the people who have been fans all along feel like they’re part of something much more hip. And then they have a better time, as well.”
Rogers says he immediately loved the demo recording because it’s not a straight-ahead love song.
“This is a guy trying to unring the bell,” he says. “He got in love and committed to the whole thing. Now some people can just disconnect and move on, and others really struggle with that. I think people like vulnerable people. They don’t like weak people, but they like vulnerable people. Here’s a guy who really feels deeply. That’s what makes it so unique.”
Asked about making another Gambler movie — which would be the sixth installment of the series — Rogers says he’s looking at the possibility.
“We’re not sure where they’re going with it right now, but they better hurry,” he says. “I figure that in order to make it really work, in the opening scene, somebody’s going to have to shoot me in the left leg and the right shoulder. Then I can just be myself again. Otherwise, I’ll be limping through the whole thing.”