To say that Kenny Rogers has never made music for critics may sound like a meaningless trope, but I think it goes deeper than that. It may be that critics could learn something from Rogers, just as Rogers might benefit from critical scrutiny. One of the greatest exponents of Nashville country-pop crossover, Rogers is a much-honored performer whose induction this year into the Country Music Hall of Fame recognizes his many hits. That's pop music: You need hits in order to sustain image and bankroll a lifestyle that feeds into the hit-making process. Being the genius singer and populist that he is, Rogers has always understood his fans and their need to take a glimpse into that lifestyle.
Unlike fellow 2013 Hall of Fame inductees Bobby Bare Sr. and Cowboy Jack Clement, Rogers wasn't a Nashville rebel. Born in Houston, Texas, in 1938, Kenneth Rogers sang in glee clubs and church choirs before joining a high school group called The Scholars. The future singer of the epochal 1977 cheap-motel-sheets single "Daytime Friends" observed how the female contingent of his audience reacted when he sang, and he filed this away in the front of his mind.
Playing a Houston television dance program called The Larry Kane Show in the late '50s, Rogers received a new, improved first name that he was at first reluctant to use. "I go out, and [Kane] says, 'Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Kenny Rogers,' " says Rogers from his home in Georgia. "And I sing this song, and all these little girls start screamin', and I said, 'I can live with this.' "
Armed with his new moniker, Rogers sang with The New Christy Minstrels in the '60s, and enjoyed several hits in that decade with his group The First Edition. But it wasn't until he made his way to Nashville in the late '70s that he figured out his calling as an avatar of Nashville's greatest export, pop music disguised as country.
Rogers hooked up with producer Larry Butler, a Florida-born pianist who headed the Nashville division of United Artists Records. Butler, who had also worked with the Memphis-Nashville producer Chips Moman, heard something commercial in Rogers' approach.
"Larry Butler, first of all, had his pulse on country music," Rogers says. "And he saw, in [First Edition recordings] 'Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town' and 'Reuben James,' and those songs, the fact that I had a country feel. I guess, I had a feel for country, is a better way to put it. We set out to look for country songs that I could do."
What followed was massive success — Rogers hit with Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum's "Lucille," which topped the charts in 1977. You probably remember that one, just as you know the words to Don Schlitz's "The Gambler" by heart. In 1978, Rogers and Dottie West dueted on the best-selling single "Every Time Two Fools Collide." The Rogers-West combination paved the way for Rogers' later collaboration with Dolly Parton on 1983's "Islands in the Stream."
"She was very much like Dolly Parton to me," Rogers says of West, who died from injuries sustained in a 1991 automobile accident. "I kinda caught her at the downslope of her career and the upslope of my career, and I took her along with me and helped her regenerate her career a little bit."
Rogers' upslope lasted through the '80s, and today he is an icon of quality. He's written his autobiography and released a characteristically astute new full-length, You Can't Make Old Friends, which features the superbly atmospheric country-rock track "Neon Horses." As for that critic-artist stuff I mentioned earlier, it's obvious Rogers knows things about life that mere critics may have missed.
During our chat, I mention my love for the amazing "Daytime Friends" — a pop masterpiece — and Rogers fills me in on the real story.
"I'm convinced that more women know that than men," Rogers says of the song, which he continues to perform along with his other great hits. "I don't know what that means — women sing it, and men don't."
Proceeds from Wednesday night's show at the Ryman will support the John Hiatt Fund for Adolescent Treatment at Cumberland Heights.