The Gambler rolls the dice on his dream of making chart history at 75 


“My current audience falls into two groups,” says Kenny Rogers. “Those born after 1980 whose parents made them listen to my music as child abuse, and those born before the ’60s who can no longer remember that decade.”

That’s a typical self-deprecating comment from one of this year’s Country Music Hall of Fame inductees—an honor that Rogers says “blindsided” him. His wildly successful career in the mid-’70s produced country-pop megahits like “The Gambler,” “Coward of the County,” and his classic duet with Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream.” But before that Rogers played bass in an avant-garde jazz ensemble, then performed with folk group the New Christy Minstrels and later the First Edition.

Rogers’ new album, You Can’t Make Old Friends, includes sounds both familiar and new—from a fresh country-pop duet with Parton to the Southwestern flavored “Dreams of the San Joaquin” (which includes Spanish lyrics) to the Contemporary Christian vibe of “Turn This World Around.” At 75, he’s pushing creative boundaries more than ever: He released a memoir in 2012, and a novel he wrote comes out this year. No matter what he’s doing, Rogers relies on advice that’s carried him through his half-century career. Says Rogers, “My mom told me, ‘Always 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.’ So even in hard times, I’m happy. I’m making music and surviving. What more can you ask?”


How has this record been unique?

I didn’t have any pressure. I told John Esposito, the president and CEO of Warner Bros., “I can’t guarantee I’m going to get on the radio with this album.” He said, “You go cut the 12 songs you want to cut and let me worry about getting it on the radio. Don’t think radio, think music.” There’s usually a lot of pressure to record something that sounds radio-friendly. But there are really only two ways I can compete at my age: Do what everybody else is doing, and do it better—and I don’t really like my chances at that—or do something totally different, where you don’t invite comparison. Either it works or it doesn’t work. That’s where we went with this.


Tell us about recording with Dolly.

We started the recording process with that duet, “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” and both agreed we didn’t care if it was a hit. I went into the studio first and recorded a base track, and then she came in and sang her part so much better than mine that I said, “While we’re here, let me redo my part.” Then she said, “Let me redo mine if you’re going to redo yours.” So we went over and over it, and finally finished it together that night in the studio. It was recorded almost 30 years to the day after we did “Islands in the Stream,” but neither of us realized that at the time.


You sang in Spanish.

I hope I never have to do “Dreams of the San Joaquin” live in Spanish. I’m sure it would sound more like Czech or something. We hired a guy to stand right beside me in the studio, and when I’d sing the Spanish lyrics, he’d correct my inflection and pronunciation. When you listen to that song, it’s almost cinematic. It presents a wonderful story about the migrant farmers who made this country and the struggle they went through to feed their families back in Mexico. It’s kind of a Woody Guthrie statement.


How did you choose the songs?

Cris Lacy and Rebekah Sterk at Warner Bros. had a great deal of input in finding songs for me to listen to. Once they found them, I had the right of refusal. I started with finding the songs I could do well, then finding songs that make a statement. I don’t like just singing words—I like to have a story. Songs like “You Had to Be There” put you in a spot, take you through this emotion, and drop you off at the end, just like “The Gambler” did. Those are the best songs for me.


Has your selection criteria evolved?

It’s opened up a little bit. On this album we have a Zydeco-feeling song called “Don’t Leave Me in the Night Time” that we asked Buckwheat Zydeco to play accordion on. It’s such a fun piece of music, and it makes me want to try other things that are also out of my comfort zone.


Why three different producers?

There were two different sets of producers. Dann Huff is so hot right now that he just didn’t have time to do the whole project. I told him, “Dann, I could die before we finish this album.” Kyle Lehning and my keyboard player, Warren Hartman, produced the religious album I did for Cracker Barrel a few years ago, and I went back to my comfort zone and asked them if they’d help me finish the album. I think they did a beautiful job. It was so totally different, yet equally as good as Dann’s stuff.


Has recording become easy, or are some songs still challenging? 

There are still songs I struggle with. The good news is, as you go through life, you find the technical part of recording gets better. Some songs would have a long verse that I couldn’t sing without taking a breath, so the technicians would say, “Sing what you can, and we’ll cut it together.” When you’re learning a song, you don’t think about where to breathe. I’ve done a couple of the songs since then, and once you learn where the breaths are, you can do them. One of the writers of “Turn This World Around,” Eric Paslay, is a young guy with plenty of lung left, but for me, trying to sing that song without an oxygen mask was difficult. I would do a take, we’d listen to it and say, “I like it except for these two places.” Then I’d go back in and redo those two parts.


Seems you’re writing more prose than tunes.

I think there are writers, and I think there are people who can write. I think writers have a need to write, and I don’t have that need. If I don’t have a reason to write, I can’t just say, “Hey, I’m going to write a song today.” I don’t play guitar anymore, so songwriting is that much harder for me because it requires someone else to play the music. Writing is one of those things I like to do but don’t need to do.


Anything you still want to achieve?

Right now, if anything gets me going, it’s the idea of chasing history. I’d like to be 75 years old and have a charted record. I don’t want to be thought of as that past guy who recorded “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” I need to be relevant.


No plans to retire?

I believe everyone has to have a purpose in life, a reason to get up every morning. I have twin 9-year-old boys, so that’s purpose enough, but right now my purpose is to get away from them for a while. I still enjoy touring and performing. Getting there is not as much fun as it used to be, but once I get there, there’s no place I’d rather be than walking out on that stage.

–Juli Thanki


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