Interview: Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers.

What more can I write? The man is towering pillar in the history of not only country music but music across the board.

'The Gambler,' 'Islands In The Stream,' 'Coward Of The County,' 'Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town' – the list of hits is seemingly endless and insurmountable. For over 50 years he's kept us singing along to the classics (who hasn't belted out the chorus of 'The Gambler' at the pub), and ignited more twinkles in more eyes than exist in the entire night sky.

Rogers is set to embark on his final Australian and New Zealand tour early in the new year for a series of shows that are surely going to be an emotional experience for Rogers fans and Rogers himself in the twilight of his career.

I spoke over the phone with the true music icon, as he reflected on his many trips to our shores; why he thinks songs like 'The Gambler' have had such an enduring popularity; why he doesn't get tired of playing 'the hits'; and the real reason he's headed to New Zealand.
 

NW: You're coming to Australia for your farewell tour early next year. You've been coming here for a long time. What are some of your favourite memories of touring Australia?

KR: First of all, I have been coming a long time. One of the first international tours I ever made was Australia and New Zealand and I've always loved it because I contend that the people in Australia have the same warm sense of humour that I do. So I can say things and they will understand the humour. We were just in Morocco and they understand English, but sometimes humour doesn't translate. But I've always felt very comfortable in Australia doing what I do and the people have always been so nice to me. And it's not like it's not beautiful countryside. I'm a photographer and I've got some absolutely breath-taking pictures that I've taken in Australia.

I saw you perform in Australia just a couple of years ago at the Gympie Muster. You're still a vibrant and passionate man on stage – what do you still love about performing live and what do you think it is continues to bring new audiences to come out and see you?

I've really been lucky by picking songs like 'The Gambler' that kind of cross over generational gaps and if they come to hear 'The Gambler' they get to hear other songs like 'Coward Of The County' and 'Daytime Friends and Nighttime Lovers'  and I think they can enjoy those much more than the younger people would enjoy 'Through The Years' and 'She Believes In Me.' But I've been blessed with a plethora of hits and someone asked me the other night if I ever get tired of doing them. I said, “No. I don't want to be the guy that has to go out there without them.” 

Talking specifically about 'The Gambler,' growing up in country Australia, that was a song that came on at parties and everyone knew the lyrics and that was just over a decade ago but still already many years after it was released. What do you think is the enduring appeal of that song?

I think it's the bridge, the hook. You know, “You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,” that's what musically gets people in. But it's really not about gambling – it's about a way of life. You've got to know when to do things and know when to not do them and when to run away from somethings and I think – I don't know if people go that deep into the thought process, so I'll have to say I think it's the sing-along part. People love doing that.

They sure do. And of course you're still releasing more great music. You recently performed another duet with Dolly Parton on your new album, 'You Can't Make Old Friends.' It's a very powerful song in terms of its lyricism and the way it reflects on life and love. Do you think it's important that when you're looking back on your life through a song like that, that you should reflect on past times with, not so much a sense of nostalgia and sadness, but instead a sense of celebration?

You know, it really is and my wife, Wanda, actually said, “The first time I heard that song I started thinking about all my friends I made in high school and college and some of them I hadn't gotten in touch with and I felt like I needed to reach out to them.” Because it's true – you can't make old friends. You can make new friends but you either have them [old friends] or you don't have. And the song with me and Dolly was written specifically for us by Don Swift, the same guy that wrote 'The Gambler.' We were in the middle of singing this, I think, very touching piece of music and Dolly puts her microphone down and comes over and puts her arm around me and says, “Kenny, I want you to know something. I could never sing at your funeral.” And I looked at her like, “So we're assuming I'm going first?!” That's what it sounded like, you know. But that's so Dolly. If she thinks something, she is going to say it – that's what makes her so special.

You were nominated for both a Grammy and a CMA Award for 'You Can't Make Old Friends.' Is it humbling to still be receiving critical acclaim and recognition for your work in the current era of music?

You know, it is. Especially with someone like Dolly. It really gives us a chance to reflect on the success we've had and the fact that this was  one of the top 50 best songs written in 2013 – I didn't write it, but I was a part of someone hearing it and that was really cool.

Do you have a particular favourite Kenny Rogers song? Is there a song that stands out in your heart as one that's continued to be important to you over the years?

Well, I think there is different songs for different purposes. For love songs, I try to find love songs that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear. And if you look at 'Lady,' 'Through The Years,' 'She Believes In Me,' 'You Decorated My Life,' they all fall into that category – 'Buy Me A Rose.' So I guess 'Lady' out of that bunch, or 'She Believes In Me,' because I think they're such wonderful statements and I like that. I can see people's reaction during the show and you can tell that somewhere along the way it has touched their life and that's really what music is about – it's finding ways for when people come to see you to forget their problems and think about their life.

Do you think you'll be making a bit more of a special effort to savour moments from this tour knowing that this will be the last time you play in Australia?

Yeah, part of the reason I'm doing this is it's a long way down there and the boys are 10 years old – I have identical twin boys, 10 years old. And Wanda always comes with me when I go down there and they do not like us both being gone for a month. I think they can stand me being gone, but they can't stand their mum being gone. It's at a point where I really want to be here at this age in their life, because it gets away from you so quickly and it scares me, 'cos I don't think I've got a lot more years left to live anyway, so I might as well spend it with them.

I've got time for one more question and it's a bit of an oddball one, but the last time you were in Australia, I found out you have a pretty big sweet tooth and I know you're a big chocolate milk fan. Will you be trying to score some cartons of the World's best chocolate milk when you head to New Zealand?

That's why I come there.

[Laughs] and I was also wondering if you're concerned about news reports that there's going to be a world chocolate shortage in the next few years?

Not really. I can make that work, believe me!

 

Kenny Rogers arrives in Australia for his Farewell Down Under tour early in 2015. For tickets and info head to kennyrogers.com

Pic: Getty Images