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Kenny Rogers shows another winning hand with his latest album

Story by Wendy Newcomer

There he goes again! Kenny Rogers, who made a major comeback in 2000 with his No. 1 "Buy Me A Rose," is back with a new album, There You Go Again, and another hit, "He Will, She Knows." And while that song didn't quite reach the top spot like its predecessor, Kenny doesn't mind.

"Being No. 1 is not that important to me," declares Kenny. "Having success is important."

Last year Kenny proved he still knows how to achieve success. His She Rides Wild Horses album on his own Dreamcatcher Records label, with its hit singles "The Greatest" and "Buy Me A Rose," gave him renewed clout with radio.

"Success breeds confidence," adds the veteran singer with a smile. "And confidence breeds more success. I actually feel less pressure with There You Go Again than with the previous album. Before you get the first record on the radio, you can't figure out what you're doing wrong. You just don't know. You think, 'Well, what I'm doing sounds like what's on the radio.'

"But when I did 'Buy Me A Rose,' radio was more open to anything I did after that," he continues. "My strength has always been finding hit songs. There's nothing more stifling to creativity than the lack of an outlet for it. If I cut albums and nobody plays them or buys them, then finally I just say, 'Why am I doing this? This is nuts.'

"I feel strongly now that if I do good songs, they will get played on the radio. It doesn't mean they're all going to be No. 1s. But I think I can hold my own now because I don't have to fight that uphill battle of 'Will [radio] play it?' "

Radio did play Kenny's "He Will, She Knows," and made it a Top 40 hit. Kenny's distinctive vocals on the single were further adorned by special guests Diamond Rio and Collin Raye.

"I was listening to the song's demo," Kenny recalls, "and I just loved it. Then I went in to cut it and it just didn't sound the same with me doing it. Everybody kept saying, 'That's one of our favorite songs.' I thought, 'Well, I'm obviously missing something here.'

"So one day I called my office. While I was on hold, the music that was playing was a Diamond Rio song with this moving, bluegrass harmony. I thought, 'That's who I need on this song.' They took the song to a whole different level. But it still wasn't working for me.

"Then I ran into Collin Raye. Collin has this wonderful high voice. I said, 'Collin, go in the studio for me and see what you can do.' He did all the answer parts, which is what loosens it up and gives it its passion."

Kenny's upcoming single is the album's title cut. It also features special guest vocals. "Suzy Bogguss and Billy Dean sing background on 'There You Go Again,' " says Kenny. "The trick is, even if they're just singing background, you need to be able to pick out their voices. And I promise you, you will.

"Collaborations are always exciting for me," he reveals. "I think I sing better when there's someone else in the room. It's like running the 100-yard dash. If you put someone running along side me who runs faster, I'll run faster than I would running alone. People inspire me and open up new approaches to music."

But music isn't the only thing inspiring Kenny these days. He's gearing up for the spring release of his second celebrity photography book, This Is My Country, which displays his impressive shutterbug talents. He shot many of the country stars showcased in the book backstage at last year's CMA Awards.

"It was hectic," he remembers. "Two hours before the show started, it was like LaGuardia. They were standing there, one after the other. I set up the shots ahead of time, so I knew if Faith Hill walked in, I'd know what I wanted to do. All I had to do was say, 'Go to the Faith set,' and boom, we'd do it."

Among Kenny's subjects in the book are Faith, Shania Twain, Lee Ann Womack, Alan Jackson and Vince Gill. "I have a shot of Faith I think is gorgeous," he says excitedly. "I put up a piece of plexiglass and she put her hands behind it. Her face is between her hands.

Then we spritzed the outside of the glass, so water is running down in front.

"I shot Martina McBride through a lace scarf. It's all black, and then I highlighted her eyes with a special light - so her eyes just jump out from it. I hope she'll love it.

"I think I got wonderful shots of everybody," adds Kenny, "but the most interesting picture is the one of Linda Davis on a Nashville soundstage. We found this zebra- skin rug. I painted the floor black and put the rug on it. Then I had three artists paint zebra stripes on Linda's white bodysuit - which took two and a half hours. She literally disappears into the carpet."

With a trio of current hits and a new book now under his belt, Kenny doesn't seem to be considering any disappearing act of his own, however. Not only is his own new album in the stores but also, a new compilation package, Kenny Rogers Greatest Country Hits, Vol. 2, has just been released by his former label, Curb. And his 1982 hit "Through The Years" has made it into the just released Jack Nicholson flick, The Pledge. Finally, it seems, the man who helped pave the way for country's massive crossover success just might know the reason for his staying power.

"I think I'm much more country now than some of the other artists, which is an advantage," he says. "Before, I was always on the edge, leaning the other way [toward pop]. And now some of the artists like Faith Hill and Shania Twain are doing songs that really are pop records.

"You know, usually what happens in your career is, you start off doing country music that will sell pop because everybody wants those crossover sales. But as you get more successful, you tend to want to do pop music that will sell country. That's where a lot of these artists are now, which really makes what I'm doing sound more country, and I want to stay true to the country market."

With an already legendary musical career and mushrooming triumphs as a master photographer, this "Gambler" isn't about to fold 'em any time soon.

"There are a lot of things I'd still like to do," he says. "I'd love to do something important enough - short of dying - that would get me on the cover of Time magazine. That may be one of those unattainable goals."

He laughs. "I'm not even sure," he says, "that I have enough energy to do something that important!"