The eternal Kenny Rogers accepted Country Radio Broadcasters’ Career Achievement Award Tuesday night (Feb. 27), cheered on by Vince Gill, Billy Currington, songwriter Don Schlitz and hundreds of radio executives who had come to Nashville for the 38th annual Country Radio Seminar.
Rogers’ honor capped an evening at the Nashville Convention Center during which John Trimble and Joe Ladd were inducted into the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame and Les Acree, Larry Daniels and Bob Moody into the Country Music Radio Hall of Fame. CRB stalwart Charlie Monk received the organization’s President’s Award.
Schlitz, who wrote the Grammy-winning “The Gambler,” acknowledged to the radio crowd that he recorded and released the song in 1978 a few months before Rogers did — and saw it peak at No. 65 on the country chart.
“I’m in a room full of people who decided to play Kenny Rogers’ version of ‘The Gambler,'” he reflected, “which means that I’m in a room full of people who decided not to play my version. Good choice.”
After conceding he couldn’t possibly perform the song the way Rogers did, Schlitz offered his own more fluid version of the now familiar lyrics, accompanying himself on guitar. “I owe you my career,” he told Rogers, who sat applauding in the audience.
Currington then came out to sing “Lucille.” Before beginning, he said to Rogers, “Yours was the first concert I ever went to as a kid and the first cassette tape I ever bought.”
Gill wrapped up the musical hat-tipping. Wearing half-frame reading glasses, he stumbled on his way to the microphone. “I can’t see nothin’,” he complained amiably.
Always the songwriter, Gill lamented that songs tend to take a beating from people who insist on singing them without knowing the words. To illustrate his point, he recalled playing at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles on “talent night,” when amateur singers sat in with the band. A Mexican gentleman, he explained, announced that the wanted to sing “Japeeta.” When the band members protested that they knew no such song, the aspiring vocalist said, “Sure you do. It goes, ‘Japeeta fine time to leave me, Lucille.'” Gill swore the incident really happened.
Referring to his and Schlitz’s portly dimensions, Gill remarked, “The majority of people tonight who honored [Kenny] outweighed him.” He explained that he chose his tribute song — “Sweet Music Man” — because it was a hit that Rogers wrote. He warned the honoree that he didn’t know all the words, but with the aid of his reading glasses and a lyric sheet taped to the top of his guitar, Gill sailed flawlessly through the wistful ballad.
Marveling at the length and steadiness of Rogers’ career, Gill observed, “It’s a pretty heady statement to be able to say you’ve had hit songs in five decades.”
Rogers expressed his appreciation to Schlitz, Currington and Gill by telling affectionate stories about them. He said he was sitting backstage at an event with Shania Twain and Alison Krauss, and they became so transfixed listening to Gill sing “I Will Always Love You” to Dolly Parton that they all began singing harmony with him.
He remembered meeting Currington at the Academy of Country Music awards and instantly recognizing his intrinsic star power. Besides his musical ability, he said the young vocalist had the look in his eye of a fine actor.
But Rogers reserved his warmest praise for Schlitz. Still smiling at the image, he gave a vivid description of Schlitz’s appearance when he went on stage to pick up his Grammy for song of the year for “The Gambler,” noting that he wore a T-shirt with “The Knack” emblazoned on it and “an Afro out to here.” His acceptance speech, Rogers recalled, was a masterpiece of understatement. “He said, ‘This is my first country record, and I find this all very encouraging.'”
Added Rogers, “You said I made your career. Well, I promise you that you made mine. So we owe each other nothing. But I hope we’ll continue to work together.” He reminded the audience that Schlitz had not only written “The Gambler,” but also his 1999 charter, “The Greatest.”
The 68-year-old Rogers thanked his wife of 10 years, Wanda, with whom he has twin sons — a daunting responsibility for a man his age, he admitted. Of his longtime friend and business partner, Jim Mazza, he joked, “He believed in me from the first multiplatinum album.”
Although Rogers has been doing well with his own Dreamcatcher label, he told the crowd he has re-signed to Capitol Records at the urging and encouragement of Capitol/Nashville chief, Mike Dungan. He said Dungan has given him complete artistic control over what he records.
Turning philosophical, Rogers assured the crowd the best time in a performer’s life is not when he’s at the peak of fame — because too many demands are being made of him. He said a psychologist friend once told him that after a certain point “you stop striving for success, and you start striving for significance.”
Rogers stressed he was grateful to radio for always being open to his music. “All I ever asked for was the chance to compete,” he said. “Radio told me, ‘Give us a great song, and we’ll play it. Give us a mediocre song, and you’re going to stand in line with everybody else.’ I can live with that.”
The ceremonies began when Monk marched to the stage for the President’s Award. At his side was his 11-year-old granddaughter, McKenna Monk. In a prepared speech that started with “let us pray” — her grandfather’s usual comic gambit — the youngster speculated who he would thank for this honor and why.
A CRB mainstay since the organization’s inception, Monk has developed a reputation for saying the most awful things about radio and record people in the most delightful and quotable ways, particularly in his hosting of CRB’s New Faces show.
On this occasion, though, he stood by his pint-size mouthpiece in stony silence, only occasionally cracking a grin when one of her zingers hit home. Skimming over his checkered resume that embraces radio work, song plugging, music publishing and myriad related toils, the Monkette declared, “He’s had a wonderful career, and I know he’s enjoyed every 15 minutes of it.”
Each of the Hall of Fame honorees told stories of how they were lured into radio and shared tales of country artists they had worked with over the span of decades. Daniels said he was only two years into his career in 1959 when he got a call from the relatively unknown Buck Owens. However, Owens wasn’t calling Daniels to ask him to play one of his records. Instead, he was recommending an even newer artist who had just released her first single. That’s how Daniels became one of the first DJs to play Loretta Lynn’s “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” (Later, Owens began buying radio stations and became Daniels’ boss.)
A somewhat combative Moody said he objected to “people who should know better” talking about radio as if it were a “single-cell organism” instead of the varied voices it is. “Radio is not an animal,” he asserted. “Radio is a zoo.”
He reminded the audience they were in the entertainment business and should never apologize for playing songs listeners want to hear rather than songs someone thinks they should hear. He likened radio’s mission to that of a bookstore which may sell thousands of copies of The Da Vinci Code and a mere handful of titles by Faulkner and Hemingway.
“Does that mean Dan Brown is a better author than Faulkner and Hemingway?” he asked rhetorically. “No. It just means that the bookstores are selling what people want to read.”
Acree, who started in pop radio, said the shock of recognition that turned him to country radio came when he was playing and singing along with the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” As he took note of the lyrics, he said, it suddenly hit him: “What the hell is that about?” That evening, he went to a bar and heard Jim Reeves’ “This Is It” on the jukebox. After that, he said, he immediately began seeking work as a country DJ.
Ladd said he got his first on-air post by a fluke. “The morning man quit, and I got his job playing polka music and reading obituaries.” When he made some disparaging comments about a woman whose obit he’d just read, he was fired.
Ladd confessed he has made his share of errors along the way, none more flagrant than failing to check the wire service machine on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963. He said a station employee popped her head into the broadcast booth and asked, “Mr. Ladd, are you going to announce that the president has been shot?” Assuming that the woman was either joking or deranged, he ignored her. “By the time I checked the wire services,” he said, “[President Kennedy’s] body was back in Washington.” Ladd credited radio for giving him the chance to meet “several of my wives.”
Trimble, who made his name doing radio shows for truckers, expressed his gratitude by quoting a remark he said Ernest Tubb had uttered when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame: “I don’t know if I deserve this award, but I’m sure glad somebody thought I did.” Now based in Virginia, Trimble said he’s had success playing traditional country music, including lots of bluegrass, “all the Hanks” and “all the Rodgers, regardless of how they spell their last name.”