With more than half his life spent in the entertainment business, it’s safe to say country music icon Kenny Rogers has played his aces. The proof lies within his prolific recordings, film roles and countless corresponding awards and honors.
“I’m kind of a student of this business,” the 75-year-old singer recently told CMT.com in Nashville. “I think the people who survive in this business are people who are what they say they are. Look at Johnny Cash. Look at Elvis and Dolly.”
Dressed in blue jeans and a buttoned black collared shirt, Rogers’ cordial and professional demeanor was as magnetic in person as seen onstage. In fact, he’s approached his successful profession with this same savvy.
But don’t think Rogers is ready to cash in his chips now. Instead, he’s reshuffled the deck, releasing his first album in seven years, You Can’t Make Old Friends.
“You have to let the business sort itself out,” he noted of the cyclical nature of the music industry.
“There’s only two ways I can compete. I can do whatever everybody else is doing and do it better or do something nobody else is doing. You don’t invite comparison. And that’s the road I choose to go on.”
In addition to recording new music, Rogers has also released the paperback version of his best-selling autobiography Luck or Something Like It, co-written the novel What Are the Chances and will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Bobby Bare and the late Cowboy Jack Clement later this month.
“How do you say ‘thank you’ for that?!,” he said of the honor. “I’m glad it happened now rather than at the peak of my success because I had so much going on then, I don’t think I could have appreciated the gravity of it.”
Noting his wife and several children will be in attendance, Rogers is looking forward to sharing this honor with his family.
And while being recognized for his past musical contributions, his newest musical project finds the celebrated singer right in his wheelhouse. Carefully selecting each song for You Can’t Make Old Friends, the 11-track collection showcases his effortless ability to bring not only social storylines to life but also his signature sweetheart ballads.
“I’m lucky I have a good basis of hits to start with, but mostly I think my strength is picking songs,” Rogers said. “I think I find great songs, and it’s harder now because the great songwriters are giving the great songs to a different group of people. But there’s also certain songs that group of people can’t do — and I can.”
Numbers like “You Had to Be There” weave an intricate plotline of an absent father visiting his son in prison while “Dreams of the San Joaquin” paint a cinematic plotline of a migrant worker struggling to send his wife meagerly wages.
“I get a big thrill out of doing something that has some social statement,” he said of the song. “To just sing words doesn’t mean anything to me. I like for them to say something and I like to make people think.”
Fans will also be pleased to hear sprinklings of Rogers’ heartening tunes as a balance next to his weightier subject matter. Songs like “Look at You,” along with the cover of Bryan Adams’ “When You Love Someone,” set the stage for the seasoned performer’s delicate yet strikingly strong vocals.
What’s more, he’s recorded the project’s title track with Dolly Parton, rekindling the charismatic pairing that wowed country listeners over 30 years ago with their sexy, trail-blazing smash, “Islands in the Stream.”
“What we have is, we flirt — and we flirt consistently,” Rogers noted of their musical chemistry, also squelching past rumors of a possible affair.
“It’s more honest and fun than legitimate,” he said. “She flirts with me, and I flirt with her, and that’s what makes it work. We don’t just stand and sing songs together.”
Penned by renowned songwriter Don Schlitz, who also wrote Rogers’ “The Gambler,” the new duet revisits this adoring pair who have traded in their once lustful lines for a slower and gentler approach, creating an affectionate ode to everlasting friendship.
“We’re such close friends,” Rogers said. “I know that she loves me, and I love her. It’s an unusual relationship, but I think it works for both of us.”
Reflecting on his longevity in this business, Rogers said he was 19 when his musical mentor Kirby Stone, founder of the ’50s group the Kirby Stone Four, pulled him aside to let him in on a little secret.
“Believe it or not, it’s not all wet towels and naked women,” Rogers recalled of their conversation. “If you treat it like a business, it’ll treat you back like a business.’
“It’s a piece of advice that puts things in perspective. It’s not about partying. It’s about doing your job and doing it well. He influenced me, and I think that’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had career-wise.”
Beginning in jazz and later joining the New Christy Minstrels in the ’60s alongside Kim Carnes and Gene Clark, Rogers went on to enjoy chart-topping feats a few years later as part of the group the First Edition with hits like “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
But his international superstar status was solidified after he embarked on a solo career in the ’70s, producing game-changing hits like “Lucille,” “She Believes in Me” and the multiplatinum selling single “The Gambler” to name a few.
He credits fellow Country Music Hall of Fame members like Cash, Merle Haggard and George Jones with influencing his sound but admits he learned about rhythm & blues from listening to Ray Charles. After hearing his idol’s groundbreaking album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Rogers wanted to move an audience the way Charles moved him.
“I remember asking him one time, ‘How do you know when to do those little soul-things?'”
Charles replied, “‘Kenny, if you have to think about it, they’re wrong.'”
“That’s the truth,” Rogers chuckled. “B.B. King was on a TV show one time and he was lip-synching. He was playing a guitar solo that was on the record, but he wasn’t playing the same thing. And we said, ‘B.B., do you mind playing what you played on the record?’ And he said, ‘Kenny, I can’t be there but once.'”
“And that’s when you learn about soul music,” Rogers smiled. “That’s why I think country is the white man’s rhythm & blues. It’s where the heart is. It’s where the soul is.”
But if there’s one person Rogers credits for setting his personal life in the right direction, it’s not his musical influences or mentors but rather his mother. Despite only having a third grade education, her words of wisdom helped steer the course of his life, even when the cards seemed stacked against him.
“She said, ‘Son, be happy where you are. Never be content to be there. But if you’re not happy where you are, you’ll never be happy,'” he recounted.
Smiling he added, “Through the downs, I’ve always been happy. I’m just a happy guy.”