From the Vault: Kenny Rogers (1998)
I’ve had a great run—and I’m Not Stopping Now
Originally published in the Mar. 31, 1998, issue of Country Weekly featuring Shania Twain on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.
With a lifetime of awards and more than 80 million records to his credit, there’s no stopping Kenny Rogers.
“My mother told me, ‘Be happy where you are, but never be content.’ You can be happy where you are, but always strive to be something better, then you have growth potential.”
Kenny, who turns 60 this year, has followed her advice through a career he never imagined as a child in Texas.
“I started out when I was a kid playing country music in high school. My dad played fiddle. So I’d go visit his parents, and all of his brothers and sisters played some instrument. It was a little like Deliverance,” Kenny says, laughing. “We’d sit out on the front porch in Apple Springs, Texas, and play country music and bluegrass music.
“I think what that did for me really put a positive feeling in my mind for what music can do for people. This was a family that did not get along well, but boy, on Sundays when they’d play music they were the happiest family in the world.”
Kenny played in several groups early in his career, including the New Christy Minstrels and the First Edition. By 1969, the group was known as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, and Kenny charted his first country single, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” He and the group followed with “Reuben James.”
By 1975 Kenny Rogers was on his own. He remembers visiting Nashville to discuss a record deal. “We went down to Fan Fair. The auditorium was jam-packed. I remember there was some guy I’d never heard of. They said, ‘Hey, how about a nice welcome for Lester Taylor’ or whoever he was. ‘He had a hit in 1956.’ And the place went wild. I thought, ‘Man, this is where I need to be. If this guy hasn’t had a hit since ‘56 and they still love him, this sounds good to me.’ So that’s really what got me into country music. There’s no question about it, country music fans have always been the most supportive and the most consistent of any fan base in the world.”
Kenny’s fans showed their support in 1977 by making “Lucille” his first No. 1 as a solo act.
It was the shot of confidence Kenny needed. “I had just left the First Edition,” he says. “The First Edition had been kind of country/pop or country/rock. We had ‘Ruby,’ ‘Reuben James,’ ‘But You Know I Love You’ and ‘Something’s Burning’—all of which were country records that had done pretty well. But there had been four or five years where the First Edition didn’t have any country records.
“It was a great, great feeling to have acceptance again after having had that valley, so to speak. I learned from that. I learned that everything is cyclical. You just have to be able to stick around long enough until you get your next shot.”
Kenny enjoyed a total of 20 No. 1s, not to mention countless other hits. There’s a special place in his heart for one of these songs:
“I think ‘Through the Years’ is a wonderful song.” He quotes the lyrics: “I can’t remember when you weren’t there, when I didn’t care, for anyone but you.
“Those are wonderful statements,” he adds. “They’re not just ‘You’re really special and I love you.’ ‘Through the Years’ was one of the top all-time records played at weddings. That’s a great credential to have.
“I try to do songs that say what every man would like to say and what every woman would like to hear. If you find just ‘women songs’ then men don’t like them. If you find just ‘men songs,’ women don’t like them. Take ‘Lady,’ for instance. It’s a song that says ‘Lady I’m your knight in shining armor and I love you.’ What man wouldn’t like to say that, and what woman wouldn’t like to hear it?”
When 1978’s “The Gambler” went to the top of the charts, it propelled Kenny into his next adventure—acting. The album cover for The Gambler is responsible for Kenny’s first TV movie of the same name.
“I never had any interest in acting whatsoever,” Kenny says. “Never even considered doing it. And then when “The Gambler” came out it was such a huge success. The album cover was done by a guy named Reid Miles. He has done with photography what Norman Rockwell did with painting. He would capture a moment in time.
“Ken Kragen, my manager, took the album cover to CBS and said, ‘Doesn’t this look like a still from a movie? We should do a movie on this song.’ And the song was really big, and they said, ‘Absolutely. Let’s do it.’ So that’s when we did the first Gambler movie. I’d never acted in my life. It was kind of fun for me to get in there and mix it up with the big boys.”
Even as a rookie actor, Kenny got involved in rewriting the script, and now, several roles later, his intense involvement in projects has evolved into his latest venture, Dreamcatcher Entertainment.
“Mostly Dreamcatcher Entertainment is going to be a record company that will allow me to sign new artists every year,” he says. “It will be country based, but not exclusively country music.”
This year Kenny’s music will stretch beyond Music City to the Great White Way. “Last year I wrote a play called The Toy Shoppe. This year, we’re going to do ten weeks on Broadway during the Christmas season. So that involves acting, as well as writing nine songs.”
Kenny’s immediate future involves an Australian tour with Reba McEntire—his co-star in 1991’s The Luck of the Draw: The Gambler Returns.
“Oh, it’s going to be great. Reba and I met the other day in Nashville, and she knew all of the duets I had done before. We’re going to do two or three of those duets.
“We’re doing ‘All I Ever Need is You,’ a song I did with Dottie West. It was a Sonny and Cher song. And then we’re going to do the song I did with Kim Carnes, ‘Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer.’ Then we’re doing another one I did with Dottie West called ‘Anyone Who Isn’t Me Tonight.’ ”
Now Kenny’s looking to do another duet with Wynonna. “She agreed to do it. I hope we can find a way. It’s just a killer song and it will be an incredible country record.”
Kenny’s business ventures don’t stop with music and acting. He’s also involved in the Kenny Rogers Roasters chain, and Kenny’s American Cowboy Grill, which opens this summer in Greenville, S.C.
“I’m also involved in some casino operations. We’re starting the first online gambling—and since it’s not totally accepted in this country we’re going to start in Australia and New Zealand. I think that’s going to be a huge success because of my persona as a gambler.”
International stardom was never a goal for Kenny. “I became an international entertainer because I wanted to go to foreign countries.
“We’re going to try to do a concert in South Africa this year if we can and we’re going to Australia and New Zealand now. I just like to go places I’ve never been.” Kenny attributes his award-winning career to creativity. “The trick to creativity is first of all knowing your limitations, and then knowing where to find someone who can get you over the next hurdle to make you better at what you do.”
He also gives credit to his wife, Wanda, who he married last June after almost six years together. “In the last six or seven years I’ve been the most creative I’ve ever been,” Kenny says. “I think you have to be in a certain place in your head to be creative. If you’re always putting out fires you can never go forward.”
Kenny says he would love to return to country radio. “Somewhere down the line, whenever there’s a chance for me on country radio again, I think I can cut some great records. I think radio is opening up a little bit more now and I’m poised to do something when the opportunity presents itself.
“But if it never presents itself, I can’t be bitter because I had a great run.”