Why Kenny Rogers de­cided it was time to fold ’em

Austin American-Statesman - - MUSIC - By John T. Davis Spe­cial to the Amer­i­can-States­man

Kenny Rogers’ life has been a lit­eral rags-to-riches story. Born in pub­lic hous­ing in Hous­ton 78 years ago, Rogers be­gan a ca­reer as a suc­cess­ful lo­cal jazz mu­si­cian be­fore blitz­ing the pop and coun­try charts in a hit-mak­ing tra­jec­tory that has few equals.

In the course of his sixdecade ca­reer, Rogers has, as a solo artist and duet part­ner, notched a dozen chart­top­ping al­bums (via Bill­board) and 24 No. 1 hits. TV spe­cials and movies, a Broad­way show and other high-pro­file en­deav­ors kept his star bur­nished even as the mu­si­cal land­scape around him evolved. Now he is in the midst of a year-long farewell and thank-you tour dubbed “The Gam­bler’s Last Deal,” after one of his big­gest hits.

Re­cently in Austin to re­ceive the Texas Medal of Arts Life­time Achieve­ment Award along with Kris Kristof­fer­son and oth­ers, Rogers re­turns to town to per­form Sun­day at Rodeo Austin. Re­cently, Rogers spoke with us from his home in At­lanta. An edited tran­script of the con­ver­sa­tion fol­lows: Austin360: Just to clar­ify, this is the end of your con­cert ca­reer. Do you have any plans to record any more mu­sic?

Kenny Rogers: If I have my way, it will be the end, but the record com­pany is propos­ing a new al­bum, and I’m toss­ing it back and forth. There’s no rea­son I can’t do that, I just haven’t given it a lot of thought. Was there any come-toJe­sus mo­ment that led you to de­cide it was time to

‘fold ‘em,’ as the song goes?

Yep, my 78th birth­day. I re­al­ized that I don’t know how long I am go­ing to live and I wanted to do it be­fore I go. It’s a way to give back and say “thank you” to all these peo­ple for their 60 years of sup­port, which is more than I de­serve. It’s been a great ride for me. The ti­tle of your tour ref­er­ences ‘The Gam­bler,’ which is not only one of your big­gest hits, but was also spun off into TV movies and be­came part of the lex­i­con. Why does that song res­onate so?

I think it’s the fact that it wasn’t re­ally about gambling. Don Sch­litz (who wrote the song) doesn’t gam­ble, I don’t gam­ble. I learned a long time ago I can’t win enough to im­press me, but I can lose enough to de­press me, so I stay away from it.

But if you lis­ten to the song from the point of view of life, it’s re­ally a great piece of busi­ness. You are from Texas, but you’re not thought of as a ‘Texas mu­si­cian.’ How do you self-iden­tify as an artist? I’ve been ex­posed to a lot of dif­fer­ent types of mu­sic and I see the value of each one. So I try to lis­ten to each song with dif­fer­ent ears, de­pend­ing on what I’m lis­ten­ing to. When I was with my jazz group in Hous­ton, our keyboard player was from Austin, Bobby Doyle … I sang with him for 10 years, and we were very suc­cess­ful, but more im­por­tantly, he in­tro­duced me to the mu­sic of the 30s and 40s. Ray Charles has al­ways been my hero. Bobby, of course, played and sang like Ray and I had to be af­fected by that. Is coun­try mu­sic still as open to out­side in­flu­ences

as it used to be when you brought a pop sen­si­bil­ity to the genre?

Yeah, but it’s dif­fer­ent in­flu­ences, and you have to be ready for them. There’s only two ways you can com­pete in this busi­ness: 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 some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent that no one else is do­ing, and then you stand alone. You don’t in­vite com­par­i­son. And that’s where I’ve al­ways been more com­fort­able. You haven’t lived here in a long time. Do you still feel a sense of Texan iden­tity?

I feel it more when I’m down there. Every­body speaks like me! I get down there and get caught up in the Amer­i­cana drift and it is re­ally fun and ex­cit­ing. I was in Austin the other day and I was telling some peo­ple, this was one of the first fam­ily road trips I ever took. I was with my sis­ter and her hus­band and we went to San An­to­nio to see the Alamo and came to Austin to see the capi­tol. You were in town with Kris Kristof­fer­son to get a Texas Medal of the Arts award. Have you ever cov­ered one of his songs?

Oh, I’m sure I did. I used to kind of know him, be­cause he was a good friend of Mickey New­bury, who wrote “Just Dropped In,” and I had gone to high school with Mickey in

Hous­ton. I had kind of got­ten away from Kris, but I must say the other night, I thor­oughly en­joyed talk­ing with him. I talked to him about my life and ca­reer and it was so much fun. You two took very dif­fer­ent routes to suc­cess in coun­try mu­sic. Is there any ‘right’ way to do it?

It’s gotta come from the heart. You’ve got to do things that you like. If you don’t like them, no one else is go­ing to like them. And you have to be­lieve in your­self. And I think I’ve al­ways been good at that. I’ve looked for songs with lyrics that ev­ery man would like to say and ev­ery wo­man would like to hear. I’ve also found story songs, that tell great sto­ries, and I think that’s an im­por­tant el­e­ment of my suc­cess. Many of your story songs deal with hard so­cial is­sues. Is there ever a time when an artist is obliged to speak out about con­di­tions?

I think you have the right to. You look at “Coward of the County,” it was about a rape. I learned all that when I was in the New Christy Min­strels — the im­por­tance of a story song. Peo­ple like to sing along and know they’re go­ing to end up some­where. There’s an emo­tion at the end that they’re ex­cited about. The thing I’ve learned is that you can’t turn your back to those songs. I’ve al­ways en­joyed do­ing them. Duets, with Dot­tie West and es­pe­cially Dolly Par­ton, have been a big part of your suc­cess. Is there any­one you wished you’d recorded with but have not?

CON­TRIB­UTED BY PIPER FER­GU­SON

Kenny Rogers says his cur­rent tour is de­signed to thank his 60 years’ worth of fans.

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