From the Vault: Kenny Rogers “The Gambler” Is Back! (1999)
Kenny Rogers draws another Ace with “The Greatest.”
Originally published in the June 29, 1999 issue of Country Weekly featuring Kenny Rogers on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.
“For the past seven or eight years I really didn’t have a shot at radio,” says Kenny Rogers. That’s strange talk from a man who’s had 35 Top 10 country hits, an amazing 20 No. 1s and in July celebrates the 30th anniversary of his classic “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
“It’s crazy for me to have to say I’m 60 years old!” he exclaims. “I don’t feel it, but I guess when I look back at all those years, I been here that long!” And he’s still doing it right, if his newest release, “The Greatest,” is any indication. It is on its way to becoming another big hit for The Gambler.
Only a stroke of luck brought the song to Kenny. It all started when a friend visited the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville one night when Don Schlitz performed. “They had made a tape and my friend sent it to me and said, ‘I thought this might be something you’d enjoy doing,’” Kenny tells Country Weekly.
“The Greatest” was written by Schlitz, who also penned “The Gambler,” Kenny’s signature song, which topped the charts for three weeks in 1978, spawned several TV movies and even a cologne.
“I promised Don Schlitz that every 20 years I’d do a song of his,” laughs Kenny, “and here it is 20 years later.
“When I heard ‘The Greatest,’ at the time I really wasn’t sure that it would hold up at radio, because it’s like telling a joke. Once you hear the punch line, can you hear it over and over and still enjoy it?” Kenny’s doubts were erased after he performed the song on a New York radio station. “The phones just lit up!” he recalls. “We must have gotten 30 phone calls immediately from parents and kids saying they loved that song.
“So we went to a station in Nashville and it had exactly the same response. That’s when we realized that we had stumbled into something.” The song centers on a heartwarming tale of a boy’s feeble attempt to hit a baseball and the lesson he learns from it. “What’s so wonderful about that song is that it goes back to when baseball was simple, just a ball and a bat,” he explains. “It really is about the beauty of the game. “Here’s a kid that doesn’t do well from one standpoint, but he finds something good about it. He got to play baseball, and that’s really how simple the song is.”
Kenny recites a verse:
He makes no excuses, he shows no fear
He just closes his eyes and listens to the cheers.
“I mean, what little boy hasn’t done that?” Kenny asks. “Certainly I did. I pitched semi-pro fast-pitch softball when I was out of high school. I just loved it. “I have a couple of sons that played ball when they were really young. There’s nothing more painful as a parent than watching your child do something and not do it well. “Because you can only help so much . . . you can’t hit for him or pitch for him. So to see a child not do well but find something wonderful in it, I think it’s a lesson for all of us.
“I like the fact that I’m being played on country radio, but I want to be
No. 1 again. That’s not my goal. I defy you to find someone who’s been as successful as I’ve been who says that the happiest time of their life is when they were making the most money. Because it’s not!”
Kenny believes that everyone who’s successful in the music business has an obligation to help keep country music alive and growing. “Heroes are what bring new talent in,” he points out. “I’m in the music business because I went to see Ray Charles when I was 12 years old. “Young kids go see artists and say, ‘Wow, I want to do that.’ And they’ll only do that with their heroes.
“Somebody asked me when I felt like I’d made it. I remember being onstage in New York City in the middle of singing ‘Just Dropped In’ on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968. And I remember thinking in the middle of the song, ‘This is pretty cool!’ Because when I was a kid, I used to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, and they
were the big stars. And all of a sudden here I was on there!
“I’ve never felt I was a particularly good singer, but I’ve always felt I could find great songs. And I’ve always thought I had a good instinct for when to move, when to do something different. I think those are the keys to the longevity that I’ve had.
“The Greatest” is the first single from Kenny’s new album, She Rides Wild Horses
“I’m real proud of the album,” says Kenny, “because we did some stuff that we haven’t done for a long time. We went back and recorded a couple of old songs like ‘Let It Be Me.’
“‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ is one of my favorite songs. It is such a wonderful lyric and such a sensitive concept. And I love that Michael McDonald song that Wynonna had cut, ‘The Kind of Fool Love Makes.’
Kenny rounded up material for She Rides Wild Horses by using an uncommon method . . . procrastination.
“I learned that good songwriters only give you their best songs if you’re already in the studio,” he says. “Because nobody wants me to hold their song and go, ‘Hey, I’m going in to record in December’ because then in December I might say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, here’s your song back.’ Well, then they’ve lost six months.
“But if you get in there right away, they’ll say, ‘If you’re cutting this now, it’s yours.’ So that’s what happened. We started calling around . . . and there was a bit of urgency because ‘The Greatest’ was going crazy.
“It kind of exploded and took on a life of its own. We weren’t planning on doing the album right away, so we had to hurry up to catch up to it.”
Putting out a new album was only one item on Kenny’s full plate. “I committed myself to an A&E special, Live by Request,” he says. “Then I had a 10-country foreign tour to do. So it was a pretty hectic two months while we were recording this and getting prepped for that.”
The tour took Kenny everywhere from Warsaw to Oslo to Helsinki and Amsterdam. Kenny’s companion throughout the tour was his wife, Wanda. The couple has been together eight years, the last two in marriage. “She’s really been good for me,” he explains. “I’ve been more creative since I’ve been with her than I’ve been in the past 25 years. It may be coincidence, but I think you have to have a free spirit to be creative. You can’t be encumbered with a lot of incidentals and problems.”
But Kenny has no problem diving into non-musical projects. “I’ve been invited to write a weekly column for The New York Times on country music and its impact on America,” he says. “That starts in September. I think it’s exciting. I’m a writer by nature, so I think I could do an interesting column.”
But Kenny’s most avid pursuit is photography. He has studied under John Sexton, once an assistant to the famed photographer Ansel Adams. He has published two books of photography, 1986’s Kenny Rogers’ America and 1987’s Your Friends and Mine.
“I do my own developing and printing,” he boasts. “It is one of the few things you’ll hear me say that I really think I’m good at. I tend to not take anything seriously enough to be considered good at it. But when I was studying photography I put in really hard work for about a year and a half, 12 to 14 hours every day.”
It seemed only natural for Kenny to combine his photography with his music. “I’m two-thirds through with a country music book,” he says. “I have some phenomenal pictures of people who have passed away already. Tammy Wynette, for instance. I have a great picture of Grandpa Jones and his wife, and a lot of the older people.
“When I did Your Friends and Mine, one of things I did was I wanted to go after people who are aging. First of all, they have the most character. So it’s unfair to country music not to have those people in there.”
Another project close to his heart has been starting up his own record, TV and film company, Dreamcatcher Entertainment. She Rides Wild Horses is the second album for the label.
“This was done for the right reasons,” he says proudly. “You see, I have more greatest-hits albums than I have greatest hits! I’ve signed hundreds of album covers in Europe that I’ve never seen before. It’s staggering! “So one of the things I wanted to do was to get control of all that. I own all my own masters from RCA. I wanted to do this not so much for the money as much as to be able to protect it.”
“If you look at songs like ‘Lucille,’ ‘The Gambler,’ ‘Coward of the County,’ ‘Lady’ and ‘Islands in the Stream,’ those are wonderful songs,” he says, ticking off a few of his No. 1s. “It was the songwriters. There’s no question. That’s why I quit writing. I realize that there are guys who write so much better than I do. I think in the long run you end up more successful if you don’t limit yourself to your own writing. I’d just as soon have the best record.”
It’s a philosophy that obviously has served Kenny well. “In my life I don’t think I’ve ever set out on a goal and had it really pay off,” he says. “What happens is, I’ve done something for the right reason, and life takes care of itself when you do it for the right reasons.”
He makes it sound easy, just like he has for 30 years. “You know,” he says with a chuckle, “the harder you work, the luckier you get.”