When Kenny Rogers began contemplating retirement, he first consulted the collective that would be affected most by his departure from a music career of almost six decades: his family. The reviews were, shall we say, mixed.
“I have identical twin 12-year-old boys,” Rogers said in a recent telephone news conference. “So they asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you quit singing?’ I said, ‘Well, I thought I would come home and spend all my time with you guys.’ And they both put their heads down and said, ‘Oh, my God.’ Maybe it wasn’t as exciting for them as it was for me.”
If his kids’ reaction was a touch reserved, the response of Rogers’ loyal fan base has been hearty enough to sustain one final global tour before the 78-year-old singer leaves the spotlight.
I wanted to have a chance to go around and say goodbye to the people who supported me for 60 years.
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“My band and I talked it over for quite a period of time. Most of them have been with me 40 years, so this tour is as much about their lives as it is mine,” Rogers said.
“We sat down and talked about it one night, and I said, ‘Guys, I don’t know how much longer I can do this, but I do think I need to make it a farewell tour from here on out.’ They were excited, but at the same time, it does affect their lives. They’re all good players and they can work for somebody else. But I’ve seen them have children and then have them grow up and have kids. That’s how long we’ve been together. So I will miss them tremendously when this is over, but there is a time to say goodbye. Still, I didn’t want to just drop out of sight. I wanted to have a chance to go around and say goodbye to the people who supported me for 60 years.”
Six decades on stage
Rogers’ grand career dates to singles in the late 1950s, before his band First Edition — which promoted a hybrid sound of rock, pop, psychedelia and country — placed on the charts more prominently in the late 1960s with the songs “Just Dropped In,” “Reuben James” and “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” By the late ’70s, Rogers was on his own with a sound that leaned more heavily to pop-directed country via career-defining hits including “Lucille,” “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County.”
There was no stopping him after that. Collaborations with Lionel Richie and Dolly Parton blurred stylistic borders, films broadened his mainstream appeal, and incessant touring cemented his presence as one of the most bankable pop stylists on the planet. All of those career aspects play into Rogers’ farewell tour, which visits Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts on Saturday.
“Well, there’s no doubt that ‘Islands in the Stream’ (his 1983 Bee Gees-penned duet hit with Parton), ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Lucille’ are very important to the package,” Rogers says. “It’s hard to say one is better or more important than the other. But I think if I didn’t do any one of those three, it would be disappointing to the people who came to see me say goodbye. So I have to be conscious of that.
“But this is kind of a different show compared to anything else I’ve ever done. It’s kind of a linear look at my life and my career, musically and personally. I talk about when I first started out in 1957. I had a hit record (“That Crazy Feeling”) and it kind of gave me a taste of what it was like. It was a while before I had another one, but nonetheless, I was prepared for it when it came.”
So what is the secret to sustaining a career for 60 years, having it run from such unlikely tenures in groups like the New Christy Minstrels to the vanguard 1985 all-star charity single “We Are the World” and more? For Rogers, the answer is both immediate and surprisingly simple: finding the right song to sing.
“I would have to say it’s my choice of music, because I’ve really tried to find songs that say what every man would like to be able to say and what every woman would like to hear,” Rogers says. “If you look at ‘Through the Years,’ ‘She Believes in Me,’ ‘You Decorated My Life’ (hits that charted between 1979 and 1982) and all those songs, they fall into that category. The other category I looked for were story songs. When I was with the New Christy Minstrels, I learned the value of a good story song.
Playing against the grain
“The interesting thing about this business is, if you’re smart, you try not to compete. There are only two ways to succeed in this business. One, you can do what everybody else is doing and do it better, and I don’t like my chances of doing that, or you can do what nobody is doing and you don’t invite comparison. That’s kind of the way I’ve approached my career.
“When uptempo songs were popular, I’d find a great ballad. When ballads became popular, I’d find a different story song — ‘Lucille’ or ‘Coward of the County.’ If you listen to those songs, ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ was about a Vietnam War vet who came home and found out that his wife was having an affair. ‘Reuben James’ was about a black man who raised a white child. ‘Coward of the County’ was about a rape. They had something to say of importance.”
I’ve really tried to find songs that say what every man would like to be able to say and what every woman would like to hear.
But Rogers acknowledges no song lands as a hit unless there is a willing audience ready to accept it. Bidding farewell to that, he said, will ultimately be the toughest part of retirement.
“I’ve accomplished much more than I ever dreamed of and much more than I probably deserved. But it’s been a great life for me. That’s what’s going to be hard to give up. It’s the people, because they have made me feel important and treated me with such respect. And they’ve all got their favorite songs.”