Kenny Rogers concluded his two-night artist-in-residence run at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Thursday (May 10) with a show that was substantially different from his opening performance, at which he announced he has signed a new contract with Warner Bros. Records.
His Wednesday show featured guest appearances by Billy Currington and Billy Dean, while the Thursday edition spotlighted singer-songwriters Don Schlitz and Kim Carnes.
The Hall of Fame's 213-seat Ford Theater was packed to capacity for both shows, and for a man who's accustomed to playing arenas, Rogers seemed to blossom in this infinitely more intimate setting. Besides being the supreme song stylist, he also proved himself a master storyteller with a comedian's instinct for timing.
The 73-year-old superstar ambled on stage at 7:11, and the crowd rose up cheering to welcome him. Nodding to his seven-piece band, he opened with "Coward of the County," his getting-even hit from 1979.
Wearing a black, open-collar shirt and narrow-legged jeans and standing arrow straight, Rogers was the picture of a man completely at ease with his art.
"It's such a compliment and such a thrill for me [to be here]," he said, after breezing through "Daytime Friends" (1977).
He told the audience he's completed his autobiography, which will be called Luck or Something Like It. (Amazon lists the book's release date as Oct. 16.)
Doling out bits of his colorful history as the evening unfolded, he recalled that at the age of 19, he met a "blind piano player" (Bobby Doyle) who asked him to join his jazz band as a bass player.
"I told him I played guitar," Rogers said, "and he said there's more demand for bad bass players than bad guitar players."
It was with Doyle's band, Rogers continued, that he learned to play classic pop songs from the 1940s and '50s.
Seating himself on a stool, Rogers sang two of those standards -- "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" and "When I Fall in Love."
Rogers spoke of his tenure with the New Christy Minstrels in the late 1960s, noting the folk group initially didn't want him because they thought at the age of 30 he was "too old."
Next came his membership in the First Edition, with which he recorded the hits "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) (1968) and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" (1969).
Rogers said producer Jimmy Bowen, who signed the First Edition to Reprise Records, didn't think radio would play "Ruby" but that he -- Rogers -- insisted on recording the Mel Tillis song about a wounded war veteran and his straying young wife. This was at the height of the Vietnam War, a fact that made the song painfully relevant.
With that bit of history out of the way, Rogers began singing "Ruby" and the crowd clapped along. When he got to the refrain -- "Ruby, don't take your love to town" -- he held out his microphone to the audience, which gleefully, if not all that tunefully, joined in.
"That's so bad," Rogers groaned. "Never mind, I'll do it myself."
He gave the crowd one more chance at the "for-God's-sake-turn-around" point in the lyrics -- and once again the crowd failed to measure up.
"To put this in perspective," Rogers scolded, "they even sang that better in Quebec -- and they speak French."
Rogers said songwriter Mickey Newbury played him "Just Dropped In" backstage at a concert at Vanderbilt University.
When Rogers said he'd like to record the song, Newbury told him Sammy Davis Jr. had it on hold.
Ultimately, though, the song became available again, and the First Edition recording of it yielded a Top 5 pop hit.
"This is as close to a 1967 acid flashback as you'll get," Rogers told the audience as a screen lowered above the band and a video of the First Edition, fronted by a black-bearded, shades-wearing Rogers, began playing "Just Dropped In."
Rogers sang along with the action onscreen.
Once the song and the extended applause was over, Rogers asked for the audience's attention while so he could read aloud the second verse of Newbury's psychedelic wanderings. It went:
I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in
I watched myself crawlin' out as I was a-crawlin' in
I got up so tight I couldn't unwind
I saw so much I broke my mind
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.
After a suitably dramatic pause, Rogers intoned, "If nothing else, I think we can agree tonight that they just don't write songs like that anymore."
Rogers moved on to speak about his many duet hits with such stars as Dottie West and Carnes.
"This is my favorite duet I've ever done," he said just before he launched into a solo version of "We've Got Tonight," his 1983 chart-topper recorded with Sheena Easton.
Up next was "Love or Something Like It" (1978) which Rogers said he co-wrote in Las Vegas with his keyboard player, Steve Glassmeyer.
"Reno," Glassmeyer corrected.
"You could have just said yes," Rogers responded. "Did you get your money [for the song]?"
"I got most of it," Glassmeyer replied.
"I got all of mine," Rogers asserted smugly.
Foregoing additional commentary, Rogers sang his way through "Share Your Love With Me" (1981), "Crazy" (1984) and "I Don't Need You" (1981).
"I want to give you a personal guarantee," Rogers told the crowd. "Before the show is over, I'm going to screw up a song."
With a pro like this, though, a mistake becomes the raw material for an inspired riff. So if he did make a mistake, no one was ever the wiser.
Returning to his memory bank, Rogers said he had once owned "a place in Athens, Ga.," where he had built a golf course and that songwriter Dave Loggins had begged to come down from Nashville and play the course.
Rogers said he told Loggins he wouldn't let him play until he had written him a great song, "something between 'Please Come to Boston' [Loggins 1974 pop hit] and 'Something's Burning' [the 1970 Mac Davis-penned hit for the First Edition]."
By Rogers' account, he kept Loggins penned up but well fed until he finally emerged with the ever-so-sultry "Morning Desire," which became a No. 1 for Rogers in 1985. How Loggins finally fared on the golf course, Rogers never mentioned.
Returning to his set list, Rogers breezed through the nostalgic "Twenty Years Ago" (1986) and the high-spirited "If You Want to Find Love" before inviting Schlitz to leave his front-row seat and join him on stage.
"He records one of my songs every 20 years whether he needs to or not," Schlitz told the crowd, referring no doubt to the long stretch between when Rogers cut Schlitz's career-propelling "The Gambler" (1978) and his comically plucky "The Greatest" (1999).
Together, the two old friends joined voices on "The Greatest."
Rogers took a breather with "Have a Little Faith in Me" and then called to the stage Kim Carnes, with whom he had worked in the New Christy Minstrels.
He explained that in the late 1970s, he had asked Carnes and her husband, Dave Ellingson, to write him a concept album.
"He wanted it to be a concept album about a cowboy but a modern cowboy," Carnes said. The upshot was the 1980 album, Gideon.
The prime song from that album was Rogers' duet with Carnes on "Don't Fall in Love With a Dreamer" (1980). The two then reprised it for the crowd and earned a standing ovation.
Undeterred by its subpar performance on "Ruby," the crowd was in full voice when it chimed in with Rogers on his next song, the durable "Lucille" (1977).
Before rendering a romantic favorite, "Lady" (1980), Rogers told how he had he been impressed by Lionel Richie and the Commodores' music and had asked Richie to write a song for him.
At first, he said, Richie begged off, saying he was busy with other things.
"I told him the song would be on a greatest hits album," Rogers continued, "and that it would probably sell four or four and a-half million copies. He said, 'How does 7:30 work for you?'"
Reflecting on Richie's recent success with his country duets album, Tuskegee, Rogers observed, "Nobody deserves it more than Lionel, and nobody needs it more than Lionel because he has only two or three hundred million left of that first billion he made. He never could handle money."
Looking as benign as a Buddhist on Valium, Rogers streamed through "The Gambler," while scenes from his various Gambler movies played out on the screen above him.
"Where's Dolly when you need her?" he asked rhetorically as he plunged alone into "Islands in the Stream," their 1983 hit. The crowd rewarded him with another standing ovation.
With the evening drawing to a close, Rogers paused to introduce his gorgeous wife of 15 years, Wanda, who sat unobtrusively in the second row.
"It's hard to have to come home to that every night," he said in mock despair.
For his closing number, Rogers chose "Sweet Music Man" (1977). He explained he'd been inspired to write the song following a conversation he had with Jessi Colter in which she discussed the travails of being married to Waylon Jennings.
"No matter what he does," Colter told him, "he's still my sweet music man."
On this night, which came to a close at 8:45, Rogers was everyone's sweet music man.
Photo: Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes and Don Schlitz backstage at the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum's in the Ford Theater as part of his Artist-in-Residence on May 10, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)