Originally published in the June 27, 2000 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Kenny Rogers is leaning back on a plush, animal-print couch in the living room of his palatial home in Alpharetta, Ga., just outside Atlanta. He’s tanned, fit and smiling.
Small wonder. The biggest gamble of his life just paid off with a No. 1 record and a stunning career comeback.
They call him ‘The Gambler.’ But all bets were off when Kenny announced two years ago he was starting his own label, Dreamcatcher. How could a man who hadn’t seen the Top 10 in an entire decade hope to compete with major labels who ruled the airwaves? What’s more, how could he take wing in a market obsessed with youth and new talent?
“When we announced the new label we didn’t say, ‘We’re going to have a No. 1 record in the next two years,’ ” he recalls. “Because, no question – everyone would have laughed at us. But our goal was simply to have new music on the radio.”
A modest goal, considering he beat overwhelming odds to burn up the charts with two back-to-back hits, “The Greatest” and, more recently, the chart-topping “Buy Me A Rose.”
Kenny’s dramatic comeback, coupled with the his professional strides across four decades, will be honored on June 15 at the Country Weekly Presents: The TNN Music Awards in Nashville, when he steps onstage to receive one of the highest honors of his career, the Country Weekly Career Achievement Award.
Kenny sips bottled water as he candidly talks about success the second time around.
“It is so much sweeter than before,” he says. “When you’re in the throes of a successful career, you tend to worry about the next single while the current one is going up the charts.
“This time, we didn’t worry about the future. We had a target and we reached it. It was especially wonderful, because it really is rare for an independent label to land a No. 1 record — under any conditions.”
Kenny’s first No. 1 in more than a decade, the tender ballad “Buy Me A Rose” from his She Rides Wild Horses CD, captured the nation’s attention. But Kenny’s incredible comeback couldn’t have happened without last year’s “The Greatest.”
“I was just shocked at the response to ‘The Greatest,’ ” he says. “I remember going to a local station in Nashville and played it live with just a guitar. It became their most-requested song, and I hadn’t even recorded it yet. That’s when we knew we’d stumbled onto the song we’d been looking for — a song that radio couldn’t say ‘no’ to.”
Since the release of “Lucille,” Kenny’s first No. 1 in 1977, this consummate entertainer has rarely heard no from any radio station. Nearly 20 other chart-toppers followed, including mega-hits like “Coward Of The County,” “She Believes In Me,” and the song that would become his signature piece, “The Gambler.”
For years, Kenny’s career seemed unstoppable. There were awards by the score, sold-out concerts and a burgeoning TV and movie career. He seemingly could do no wrong.
But then came the ’90s — and Kenny hit the wall.
“The hardest time for me was about 10 years ago,” he admits. “I’d worked very hard to establish myself so I wouldn’t ever have to fear rejection again in the music business.
“But the time came when I realized I was not a factor — and no matter what I did, I couldn’t be a factor. That was very disheartening to me. It certainly wasn’t about money. I could have made enough for the rest of my life off my hit songs.
“And I didn’t care that I wasn’t No. 1. I’d been there, I didn’t need that again. But I surely wanted to hang around that Top 10 for a while. I wanted to be in the game. That’s what I valued, emotionally and psychologically.”
Kenny pauses. “I was the first major artist on VH1,” he continues. “They’d asked me to help get them off the ground. Then seven years later, some guy from VH1 said, ‘We will never play Kenny Rogers or Barry Manilow again.’
“Now, I’m smart enough to know why they say these things. They’re trying to define what they are. But it’s too bad if you’re in that ‘what-they’re-not‘ category.”
Sunlight streams through a large living room window, highlighting Kenny’s bronze skin and his striking white beard. His thoughts return to the present. “We moved into this house about two years ago,” he says, surveying the expansive Crooked Creek Golf Club that runs into his back yard.
“We were just going to live here long enough to build another house. But then we decided to stay. And we totally remodeled it — every floor, every wall, every piece of furniture. We love it.”
Kenny walks to the living room’s big-screen TV and home theater system. “This is my ‘cave,’ as they call it in the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” he says proudly. “Normally, I take one of those little TV tables and set it up in front of me. I have my phone here and all my stuff. I can watch TV and do 10 things at one time.”
Not surprising, really, for a star who enjoys juggling many balls at once. Kenny’s recently guest-starred in the hit series “Touched By An Angel.” A noted photographer, he’s working on a book that will showcase pictures of country stars. And later this month he’ll release a children’s book based on “The Greatest.”
Whether struggling or reveling in success, one thing is certain: Kenny’s a survivor.
“I think you set yourself up either as a survivor or a failure, depending on the goals you set for yourself,” he says. “Any failures that I’ve had are learning processes.
“Not everything you do is going to be successful. I was really disappointed that the Roaster restaurants weren’t a huge success, because it was a great idea. It’s still a very valid company, but I don’t think it will ever attain the success we thought it would. We had some management flaws. But the food was wonderful — that was the least of our problems.”
Kenny smiles as he recalls words of wisdom his father passed down to him. “When I was a kid he said to me, ‘Son, set reasonable but difficult goals. Once you achieve those, then you can set harder goals because now you know how to achieve.’
“If I say, ‘I want to sell 10 million albums in the next year,’ I’m setting myself up for failure. But if I say, ‘I want the next album to sell more than this album,’ then it’s just a little more work on my part, making sure I’ve got the right music.”
Kenny’s counting on having the right music for his new album, to be released in the fall. “The new album has to be even better than She Rides Wild Horses,” he says. “And I truly believe it is.”
Kenny also believes in keeping it country. “I want to stay true to the country market,” he says, “as opposed to doing pop-slanted country stuff. Though in my case, there’s a direction that is too country. I’m just not comfortable being there, and I think it’s fake for me to try to get there.
“I can’t compete with Brad Paisley or Kenny Chesney at what they do. I’m country with a lot of other influences, and I think my music shows that.”
Kenny’s thrilled that his newfound success has recharged his career. “It’s funny how a record changes the audience’s perception of an artist,” he says with a grin. “I was out there doing extremely well without a hit record. But the minute ‘The Greatest’ came out and people heard it on the radio, they no longer thought of me as an artist who had hits in the ’80s. I’m a guy who’s on radio now. So yeah, I do consider myself a survivor.”
Kenny’s even survived the slings and arrows of the tabloids into his personal life. “I’ve always tried to deal with that pretty straight on,” says Kenny of stories that have trumpeted everything from his marital woes to a bout with Hepatitis C.
“If they ask me a question, I give them an answer,” he says. “I learned a long time ago that if you hide things, they’ll dig and make more out of it than it really is. If you tell them, nobody really cares. I’ve had Hepatitis C for 30 years. But I have such a low viral count that it’s actually a non-factor. It’s something that I keep track of, but they made it out like I was dying!
“So I called them and said, ‘I know this is disappointing, but I actually feel pretty healthy! I think I’m going to be okay!’
“I went through some things in my life that, looking back on it, were really stupid. But I’ve learned from the past. I don’t dwell on it. I regret that my dirty laundry was hung out, but it’s going to happen.
“The trick is to keep your laundry clean. So I’ve just cleaned up my act. My goal is to not give the tabloids anything salacious to write about.
“If nothing else,” he says with a hearty laugh, “they’ve straightened up my life for me!”
Kenny is quick to point to his wife, Wanda, as his greatest inspiration. “Wanda came at an interesting time in my life,” says Kenny, who took the Georgia native as his wife No. 5 in 1997. “She came at a time when I really needed a support system — at a time when I wasn’t being played on the radio.
“She’s a great girl with an incredible sense of values. And she’s been extremely good for me. So it’s really important to me that people know who she is. That’s why I wanted to use her in the ‘Buy Me A Rose’ video.
“There’s a huge difference in our ages,” candidly admits Kenny, who’s 28 years her senior. “Wanda makes me feel younger and good about myself. And I think I give her stability. That’s a great combination — when you both feel like you have something of value to offer to the other person.”
Wanda travels with Kenny to most all of his 150 shows a year. It’s a pace he’s not likely to change. “What am I going to do — sit here and watch Court TV all my life?” he asks with a laugh. “I enjoy working.”
“Success,” he says, his eyes twinkling, “is no reason to quit.”
Kenny’s Love Line
In “Buy Me A Rose,” Kenny sings of the little things that put magic in a marriage. How can other guys be as sensitive as Kenny? We asked him, and here’s what he told us:
Communicate – “I always call Wanda when I’m away. She’s with me 24 hours a day, but when she’s not, we keep in touch three or four times a day.”
Clean up – occasionally – “I’m a very casual guy. I’d stay in t-shirts, sweatpants and tennis shoes all my life, given the choice. But women like to get dressed up. They like to look pretty and go out. So occasionally, I try to come home, get all dressed up and take Wanda out to a really nice restaurant.”
Take pen in hand – “I write her little notes from time to time. I’ll write something for her about how important she is to me. I think she really loves that.”
Stay close – “We’ve been together nearly nine years and I’ll bet we haven’t been apart 10 days. This thing of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ just doesn’t work. Maybe it does for a day or two, but if you separate from somebody for a month or more, you’re really pushing your luck.”
Kenny Through the Years
August 21, 1938 — Born Kenneth Donald Rogers in Houston, Texas. Started singing in church; in 1956, as a high school senior, formed his first band, The Scholars.
1958 — Signed to Carlton Records as “Kenneth Rogers,” released two singles. Earned a spot on American Bandstand for the success of one of them, “That Crazy Feeling.”
1967 — Formed The First Edition and charted a year later with the Top Five pop hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”
1975 — Leaves The First Edition.
1977 — Has first solo country hit on the United Artists label with the Top 20 “Love Lifted Me.”
1978 –Teams with Dottie West to hit No. 1 with “Every Time Two Fools Collide.” Also tops the chart with “The Gambler.”
1980 — Scores a No. 1 pop and country hit with “Lady,” a song written by pop star Lionel Richie. Makes his TV acting debut as Brady Hawkes in the mini-series Kenny Rogers As The Gambler.
1985 — Participates in USA For Africa, an all-star group that records the single “We Are The World.”
1987 — Wins a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance Duet with Ronnie Milsap for “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine.”
1990 — Receives the Horatio Alger Award, given to individuals who’ve pulled themselves up humble beginnings.
1991 — Stars in the fourth installment of his Gambler mini-series, in which Reba McEntire makes her acting debut. Also sings the Top 20 hit “If You Want To Find Love” with Linda Davis.
1996 — Records the Christmas album The Gift, which features a duet with Wynonna, “Mary, Did You Know.”
1998 — Travels to the Great White Way for his Broadway Christmas musical, The Toy Shoppe.
1999 — Records his comeback album, She Rides Wild Horses, which is certified gold four months after its release.
2000 — Tops the chart with his first No. 1 in 13 years with the ballad “Buy Me A Rose.” Begins recording his follow-up album.