Kenny Rogers knows how to tell a story. Songs like “The Gambler,” “Coward of the County” and “Lucille” are proof of that.
Yet when CMT Insider host Katie Cook asked him if he always knew he’d get around to writing his autobiography, the iconic country singer replied, “Actually, I never thought I would. I never wanted to do this.”
And that’s because he initially thought his publishers might be expecting a salacious memoir about his star-crossed love affairs or behind-the-scenes scandals.
“When I met with the people about doing it in the first place, they said, ’No, this is really about a musical journey of how you got here.’ That’s why we called it Luck or Something Like It,” Rogers adds. “I wrote a song called ’Love or Something Like It,’ and I realized how truly lucky I’ve been in my life. To have been in point A, to put me to point B … and B to C …it’s just been an amazing journey for me.”
CMT: Did you learn anything about yourself by reliving so much of your past in the book?
Rogers: Yeah, I really learned how lucky I am. And I learned also that it’s amazing how much people will do for someone they like and how little they would do for someone they don’t like. It really is amazing. People went out of their way to help me. I was telling the guys in the band, “Be careful who you kick on the way up because you pass the same people on the way down.” I think that if you try to be nice to people, then when hard times come, people say, “Well, let’s help him. He was nice to us.” And that’s what I found. People have helped me my whole life.
You have a wonderful line in the book where you say, “There’s a fine line between being driven and being selfish.”
And there’s no question I crossed that line many times. I don’t think I realized how driven I was or how much I wanted success or needed success — whatever the word is. I think that with my early marriages, there’s no question I crossed it. I got selfish. I stayed on the road six months at a time without going home. What do you expect with that? You end up disconnecting. I’m determined not to do that now, but it took me four marriages to learn that, and I take full responsibility for them.
There was a time when all the tabloids were going crazy because they wanted to know what your real relationship was with Dottie West and Dolly Parton. They were convinced it was something more than it was — that it was romantic.
You know, I’ve never had a sexual relationship with anyone I’ve worked with. I think you ruin the chemistry when you do that. What makes chemistry is tension, and the minute you relieve that tension, it’s no fun anymore. So we just played that one to the hilt. But Dottie and I used to do, (singing) “You got the kind of body that was made to give a man a lot of pleasure.” And she would go strutting across the stage. And when I worked with Dolly, everything we did was sexual on the stage, but that’s what made it so much fun. We both know that it’s a clean relationship, and what everyone else thinks is fine.
When you moved to Nashville, you knew they might treat you like an outsider because you came more from pop, rock and jazz. What was the music industry like in Nashville in the ’70s and what was your reception?
It was that great period where you had still Johnny Cash and Waylon and Willie and all those guys who were the heart. … I’ve always said country music is the white man’s rhythm & blues. It’s where the pain is. And I think, to some extent, I “popped” it so much that it lost some of the pain. I never meant to do that, but on some of the songs through the years like “She Believes in Me” or “You Decorated My Life,” those are not country country songs.
But what they did, interestingly enough, and I can prove this, is a lot of people up in New York and New Jersey who would have never listened to country music started listening to country music because of the songs I was doing. And the great thing about country music is once you go there, you don’t go back. It’s a very special art form, and I miss those days of the real country country. This has nothing to do with who’s out there. It just has to do with a period in time. Music is what it is, and you have to learn to accept that.
After having huge hits like, “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” “Coward of the County,” you decided to get away from story songs. So many artists would be afraid to make a shift like that, like “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Was that scary?
I’m a country singer with a lot of other influences, so I feel more comfortable doing other things than a lot of people do. It’s always risky, but I was at such a high point that I could afford to gamble a little bit, and it paid off in most cases. Really, when you think back on my hits, they basically fall into two categories. One is ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear. The other is story songs that have some social significance. If you look at “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” it’s about a Vietnam war vet who came back and he’s struggling with trying to relate to his wife. “Reuben James” is about a black man that was raising a white child. “Coward of the County” was about a rape. “Lucille” was about a man that was losing his wife. And I love those songs.
So you still love those story songs?
I do. I’ve always felt that if you really break them down, it’s kind of funny. “Coward of the County” is about a rape, and people sing along … Do them fast, do them fast. Let them learn the hook. Then they’re like, “Oh, my God. That’s about a rape.” They’re great story songs, I do like those. I will always lean toward that opposed to just doing a song with a good hook.