WELL WISHER

If you get in the car with Kenny Rogers these days, there's a good chance you'll hear his voice blasting from the CD player. But Kenny's not suffering from a supersize ego - he's just proud of his 61st album, Back to the Well.

"I listen to my stuff right after I do it, just to make sure I'm comfortable with it," explains Kenny. "I think I've listened to this album more than any other one - there are some wonderful songs on it. Personally, I think I'm singing better than I've ever sung before."

He does some of that singing, on the tune "Undercover," with longtime pal Dolly Parton. The two topped the charts 20 years ago with their smash duet "Islands in the Stream." After Dolly and Kenny recently ran into each at a fundraiser, they decided it was time to record together again.

"We started looking for songs, and I said, 'You know, Dolly, you should write this because there's no better writer in the world, quite honestly, for us,'" recalls Kenny. "The opening line is, Come on, darlin', kick your shoes off, let your hair down, jump in bed. Now if that's not Dolly, I don't know what else is!" he laughs.

"I played it for my wife and said, 'Wanda, you're going to have to sign off on this song.' She told Dolly, 'I'll sign off on the song, but I'm holding my vote on the video right now.'"

Dolly remains one of Kenny's favorite singing partners. "It was great in the studio," he says. "When Dolly's across the microphone from you, she's totally into that song and what it's all about. The minute she walks into the studio, there's a wonderful chemistry that happens. It's fun and playful, and I think it's something everyone can enjoy."

Kenny hopes his current single, "Handprints on the Wall," will find its way to the top of the charts like 2000's "Buy Me a Rose." Does the man forever known as "The Gambler" still gets a thrill seeing his name in the No. 1 spot?

"Um, I haven't seen it there in a while," he admits with a chuckle. "But I do still feel that thrill. I'll be driving down the street and hear a song on the radio, and there is a buzz that goes with that. There's no question."

Kenny's been buzzed about life after recovering from successful neck surgery earlier this year to relieve pain from spondylosis, a condition caused by a bone spur encroaching on the spinal column.

"I don't think I realized how serious it was," he says. "I was getting really weak. My fingers were tingling and my fingertips were numb. One night I was performing and I held a microphone out for a singalong and my arm just went down. I didn't have the strength to hold it up."

"I still have some weakness, but the doctor thinks eventually I will have full range of motion again."

But it's hardly slowing Kenny down. At age 65 - when many performers think about retiring their mics - the ageless legend continues to tour two weeks a month. And he still has the passion of a wide-eyed rookie.

"There's nothing sadder than an 'ex' anything," says Kenny. "If all you can say is, 'I used to be this,' it's pretty sad. For me to have to say, 'Well yes, I used to be a success,' is troublesome. That's why I can't give up.

"I can't stop trying to be good - to be the best I can be and to have that success again."

Story by: Wendy Newcomer

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