The fact that the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is rolling out a new career-spanning Kenny Rogers exhibit (Kenny Rogers: Through the Years) is cause to wonder whether Rogers himself has been much of a collector of Kenny Rogers memorabilia. After all, artifacts on display have to come from somewhere, and the guy's generated ample merchandising opportunities over the years. The answer, he offers from a plush chair in one of the museum's tidy interview rooms, is, "No."
"I don't save anything," Rogers says in his famously congenial, woolen timbre. "My wife gets so mad at me. She says, 'The boys will love this.' I say, 'How much can the boys love things? How many things can they love?' "
Sensible words. There's something admirable about Rogers not wanting to burden his elementary school-age twin sons — the youngest of his children — with the trappings of his many decades of celebrity.
"Fortunately," he adds, "Debbie Cross, who works for me, we had a warehouse, and she just put things in there. And then the two girls, Susan and Sharman ... "
He's referring to a pair of super-fan sisters, Sharman Pirkle and Susan Bradley, who have, on some 1,300-odd occasions, been among the crowds of women thronging the stage, extending single roses and carnations for him to gather up at his concerts. (A side note: If you've never witnessed this phenomenon, track down Rogers' '83 HBO arena concert film. He spends the entire first two songs strolling around a circular catwalk, graciously accepting flowers from female fans and handing them off to some invisible assistant in the band pit behind him, without missing a note.) Pirkle and Bradley have amassed so much Rogers merch and catalogued it so meticulously that their collection proved essential to fleshing out the museum exhibit. Theirs is an impressive display of devotion, but hardly an isolated or empty one.
If the women in Rogers' audience have been especially eager to snatch up whatever products he's had to sell, it's in no small part because they've connected with the essence of what he was frequently selling. If it wasn't empathetic storytelling about downtrodden male characters, it was gentlemanly attentiveness to the range of women's needs and desires in adult-contemporary country-pop ballad form.
Here was a sharply dressed, softhearted singer and bearded bear of a man empathizing with a woman's desperation for both "a lover and a friend" ("Daytime Friends"), crediting her with enlivening his otherwise drab existence ("You Decorated My Life") and pledging his chivalrous fidelity ("Lady").
"What person doesn't want to have that in their life?" Rogers asks rhetorically. "Men don't like to explain it, but they like it when they hear it. It's kinda like, 'OK, listen to this, honey. This is how I feel. I can't tell ya, but I can show you how I feel with this.' I'm the same way. I mean, I hear a great song and I say [to my wife], 'Wanda, you have to listen to this song.' Because it's much easier to let someone else tell someone how much you love 'em than sometimes to do it yourself."
Though the racks of stage clothes that made the journey from his warehouse space to the museum's staging area hold a few items he never even got around to wearing during the '70s and '80s, the general style in evidence — three-piece suits in dozens of different hues — was an important part of his overall presentation.
"I mean, if I were doing beer-drinking songs," Rogers says, "that would've been too formal. But when you're doing 'Through the Years,' 'She Believes in Me,' 'You Decorated My Life' and 'Lady,' it takes on a certain air."
Besides acquiring space in the museum's East Gallery, Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year and published his memoir, Luck or Something Like It, in 2012. He's clearly in the legacy-framing late phase of his career, which is often a time when a veteran performer feels the urge to amplify his accomplishments. Instead, what you get from the Gambler is good-humored self-deprecation. He says he's been happy to rely on better musicians than himself onstage (he played bass in folk-revival pop group The New Christy Minstrels and psychedelic folk-rock outfit The First Edition, but has mostly stuck to holding a microphone since), and he's relished opportunities to duet with other singers, because introducing a different voice into the mix keeps fans from getting bored. But he's never more modest than when he's talking about his strengths.
"I've never felt I was a particularly good singer," Rogers says, "but I've always felt if you give me a song that touches me, I can make it touch somebody else. And that's kinda the way I've approached my career."
Rogers is also the consummate adaptable show-biz pro. When he played Bonnaroo a couple years ago for a crowd of festivalgoers who, as Rogers describes them, were "born since 1980, and their parents forced them to listen to my music in childhood," he made the apparent mismatch of artist and audience into an irresistibly unifying joke.
"I didn't just get up and sing for four hours," says Rogers. "I talked to the audience. And I think it was kind of refreshing [for them] to hear someone talk to 'em. Because humor covers all genres, if you do something that genuinely makes someone smile. I do it every night, because I'm convinced there are a lot of people that didn't want to come to the show. So if I can make 'em laugh or make 'em smile, it's not important that they say, 'He's a great singer.' It's important that they say, 'I enjoyed that.' "