Kenny Rogers boomerangs 'Back to the Well'

By CRYSTALL CAVINESS  |  Oct. 6, 2003 at 12:16 PM
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NASHVILLE, Oct. 6 (UPI) -- Kenny Rogers is one of the few entertainers in the music industry who requires no introduction.

Most everyone knows of Rogers' years of popularity singing classics such as "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" and "Ruben James" with the First Edition, which were overshadowed by his leap into superstardom during the Seventies and Eighties singing scores of hits, including "Lucille," "The Gambler," "You Decorated My Life" and "She Believes In Me." His duet partners have ranged from pop's Sheena Easton ("We've Got Tonight") and Kim Carnes ("Don't Fall In Love With A Dreamer") to country's Dottie West ("Everytime Two Fools Collide") and Dolly Parton ("Islands In The Stream"). The duet with Parton established a business partnership that resulted in a number of albums and television specials throughout the Eighties.

Rogers, 65, is among the few artists who have successfully parlayed their success into a film and television career, first with a made-for-TV-movie based on his hit single, "The Gambler" and followed by sequels, other films and holiday specials. As his music career waned a bit in the Nineties, Rogers turned his longtime photography hobby into a new career, publishing commercially and critically popular coffee table books.

The entertainer who was once voted in a national poll by USA Today as "the favorite singer of all time," seemingly has seen, done or had it all.

On Sept. 12 -- on the eve of being inducted into the Georgia Hall of Fame, a couple of days before leaving for China, days away from the release of his 61st album, "Back to the Well," and on the day that fellow musical icon Johnny Cash died -- Rogers talked to United Press International. He discussed the difference between success and significance, why he enjoys performing more today than ever before, and why he asked his wife's permission before recording his new duet with Dolly Parton.

UPI: Congratulations on your impending induction into the Georgia Hall of Fame.

KR: One of the most exciting things is that they did it before I died. ... It's really something very special, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. ... I have a friend who is a psychologist. We were having dinner one night talking, and I said it really bothered me that success wasn't important to me anymore. He said that older men who have been successful find that later on in life, success is not important, because they realize it didn't bring them the joy and pleasure they thought it would. And you quit striving for success and you start striving for significance. You want your life to have mattered for something. That's where these things become important. To be acknowledged and recognized, I think, solidifies that concept of significance.

UPI: Because of your tremendous success and, as your psychologist friend might say, you've moved on to a higher plane, why are you motivated to make new music?

KR: I have a theory that has become a patented term: Success is no reason to quit. Quite honestly, I genuinely and truly love what I do. Two or three weeks ago, I was telling my wife, Wanda, that I went on stage one night and it dawned on me that the day was going to come when I would never be able to do this again. So I vowed to personally enjoy each show more than I ever have. It takes on a much looser, less structured, more spontaneous thing, which is so much more fun for me. And I think it does put me in a different place in my career and my life. It has really become important to me to truly enjoy something that I know I have a limited amount of time left to do.

Success is a strange animal. It really give you a false impression of what the real world is like. I remember thinking with the First Edition, when we'd had two or three Top 10 records, "We have figured out something that no one else has ever figured out. We are going to be around forever." Then after the ninth record, we started missing and missing and missing. I thought, there must have been some parts of this that we didn't get! You do get that feeling in your head ... when you think this will never end. It's not so much a false (feeling), as fleeting. but I've always said, I'm like a boomerang: you can throw me away, but you can rest assured, I'm coming back.

UPI: Let's talk about the new album. The songs are really diverse. Tell me about the song selection.

KR: What we always do is go in and record something that we really truly love and believe in. We go in and record it and anchor the album around it. The song in this case, ironically, is the song "Harder Cards" (about an abused woman killing her husband). I really thought that was going to be a major record. But I realized at the end why it wasn't. I've had several songs that have made social statements. "Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town," "Coward of the County" was about a rape, "Ruben James" was about a black man who raised a white child. I've done a lot of what I think is socially-important music. Finally, after "Harder Cards" came out and it didn't work, I figured out why. The other songs were light, happy music with a sad message. You find yourself loving the song, but the message is the afterthought.

But with "Harder Cards" it was shoved down your throat. We couldn't find anybody to rally behind it. The police force couldn't rally behind it, because the police let the girl off (in the song). The women's movement couldn't get behind it, because she did, in fact, kill a guy. You couldn't get anyone to sanction it, and we couldn't use it any deeper than a message at radio. Anyway, that's how we started the album.

So, that was the first song we found that we said: "Wow, we love this, this is something special." Once we did that, we put out the word to songwriters that we were recording.

Songs came along like "Prairie Wedding" (about a mail order bride). A couple of guys had heard that before. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) wrote the song. I've always loved him, but I had never heard him do the song. Someone got me his record, and since he puts such a stamp on everything he does, I was concerned about it sounding like him. But when I did it, it was totally different. It sounds like a movie to me.

There's two ways I've been successful, that's with love songs and story songs. Anytime you find a song, you try to give it a different value than just music. If you can layer the public's opinion of that song with a social statement or an image, or if you can do a movie, then people can be impacted with it. With "Buy Me A Rose," for instance, we did a show with "Touched By an Angel" and they took that song and wrote a whole script around it.

Each one of these songs has a unique story to it.

"Handprints On The Wall" is the new single. That song came from an ad from St. Jude's Children's Hospital. So it really gives the song more impact than just a song about parents and kids. If you listen to it in that context, it's much bigger than that.

The Tim McGraw" duet, "Owe Them More Than That" (about country music's founding fathers) is wonderful. Especially, today with Johnny Cash passing away. We realize there are people who are cornerstones in this business. Generations of country singers will come and go, but there are a handful of people who really did set the pace for the rest of us and open the door. Johnny was the first guy to have his own television show. Then Glen Campbell comes along and has a television show. And that opens it up for me to do movies and things that I've done. We all step on the backs of those who have come before us.

UPI: Let's talk about your duets on the album. In addition to the Tim McGraw duet, you have one with Alison Krauss on "Love Like This."

KR: She's been on my last four albums, because I do love her voice. She's the sweetest girl. We pass in the night, if you will. We don't hang out together. There's a nice chemistry when we do see each other. I consider her my friend. There's nothing she could ask me that I wouldn't do for her. Every song I've asked her to do, she's been right there for me. There's no one like her, and she actually plays fiddle on that song.

UPI: And, of course, your other duet is with Dolly, the racy song "Undercover." Your fans are going to love hearing you two singing together again.

KR: It's such a cute song. We had another song. ... It was a wonderful song, but when Dolly and I listened to it, we said it doesn't sound like "us." That's the problem with the way we did it. Normally when you do a duet, you start with a great song and say who could do this well. It's much easier to do that. When you start with two people with a history like ours, some of the baggage that comes with that is that you can't just do any song. ... I said "Dolly you should write this. Nobody writes better than you do, and nobody knows us better than you do." And she went back and wrote this song. The first time I heard it, I went to my wife and said, "Wanda, I'm afraid you're going to have to sign off on this one." She met Dolly a few days later and said "Dolly, I sign off on the record, but the video, I'm going to hold off on."

UPI: The chemistry between the two of you through the years has been talked about a lot. On this new record, it seems to be back in the same way.

KR: It was there the minute we walked in the studio together. The thing I've always said about Dolly is if you like her on radio or TV, you will love her in person because she's that and more. When she lights up a room, she could light up a football stadium. She is always consistently who she is, and I think that allows everyone else to be comfortable with who they are. In our case, what happened originally, we became so closely-related, I think that kind of thing can be destructive to an individual career. So, I think we both needed to take a breath and step back. It just happened to be a 20-year breath. We both took different paths, but she's always been my friend. I always assumed we would work together in the future. And where this goes, nobody knows. I've got my career, and she's got hers. Sometimes the stars line up, and sometimes they don't. There's nobody in this world I enjoy working with more than her.

UPI: In addition to having Dolly write for this album, your other songs come from some of Nashville's veteran songwriters, including Phil Vassar.

KR: "It's A Beautiful Life," co-written by Phil Vassar, is one of my favorite songs on the album. What I do every night after that song is over, I say: "That song was written by Phil Vassar, I'm sure you guys know him. That guy is the greatest writer of happy, family feel-good songs. His childhood must have been so screwed up!" When I start that song, I say: "Just listen close to see if you find any members of your family with this family reunion."

UPI: Steve Wariner was a co-writer of "I'm Missing You." That song really took on a life of its own when it was released last March during the war, didn't it?

KR: You know, that song came at a good time, professionally, and then, for success' sake, it came a bad time. It came out at the peak of the war in Iraq. And then, though no one would trade this, obviously, when the war was over, the emotion died down, and the song lost the momentum. But it's really not a pro-war or anti-war song. It's really about guys who are in the wrong place for the right reasons.

UPI: I really like the bluegrass title track, "Back To The Well," but it's different from anything else on the CD.

KR: Yeah, it's one of those things that I'd never done. At the beginning of my career, I played jazz for 10 years, then went with a group called New Christy Minstrels. Talk about polarizing. Jazz is an avant-garde music where you play free expression, and the New Christy Minstrels and folk music are the ultimate in simplicity in music. Once I got in there, I really developed a true appreciation for what the art form is. So from there, I went with the First Edition and started doing the country thing. And I had never done any bluegrass music.

When I heard this song, I wasn't sure I could do it well. I'm sure by the standards of Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill and Alison Krauss, it's not done traditionally well. But I think it's a fun song and has a good feel to it, and that's all I can ask.

UPI: You've had success, also, photographing celebrities and beautiful places. And in a couple of days, you're headed to China to finish another photography book.

KR: Yes, I'm adding to it. I have a book called "Faces and Places." I have pictures from Saudi Arabia, Africa, Alaska and wonderful pictures from here in the States. So, I'm going to China to get shots for the book from there. I've been there before and have some shots, but I'm a much better photographer now.

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