Age hasn’t slowed down Kenny Rogers. At 75, he’s enjoying a Top 10 album, You Can’t Make Old Friends. The title track, penned by Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”), is a duet with longtime singing partner and “soul mate” Dolly Parton. In recent weeks, Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and received a CMA Lifetime Achievement Award. On Dec. 1, his annual Christmas show stops in Concord. Rogers spoke with the Hippo from his home in Georgia.
When Darius Rucker sang during the CMA Awards tribute, did you think of the similarities between the two of you? You both moved from pop careers to country.
You know, he was so nice to me. … He was saying when he was 5 years old, he used to sit and sing ‘The Gambler’ to his mom and he just loved it, and he decided that was what he wanted to do, and he kind of used me as a model for what he was doing. He’s become such a dependable friend, and that’s what you hope for.
What was your Plan B if country hadn’t worked out as well as it did?
I didn’t have a plan! I studied commercial art in college [so maybe] something in the arts where creativity was part of the process. But in my heart, I’ve always said that music is what I am and everything else takes a back seat, so there was no room for failure. I just didn’t necessarily need as much success to keep going. I think this is what I chose to do. I read an article that said the average man knows between the ages of 12 and 15 what he wants to do with his life. … When I was 12, I saw Ray Charles and everybody laughed at everything he said and clapped at everything he sang. That really impressed me, and I didn’t even know at the time that I could sing.
You said in your book that the business often makes it hard to set up a duet. What is one you’d like to do?
At the awards show, Jennifer Nettles and I sang ‘Islands in the Stream’ and we both made a simple promise that we were going to look for a song for the two of us. I think she’s awesome, and what I love about her is that she never quits smiling. Every time I looked at her she had this big smile on her face, and I just love that. But the hardest thing about doing duets is that normally you don’t start with a partner; you start with a song. You say, ‘Who can sing this song well?’ The idea is to find a song that you like but make your partner look good as well.
That’s the famous story of “Islands in the Stream,” where Barry Gibb brought Dolly Parton in.
Right, and I found out later that Barry didn’t write it for me. He wrote it for an R&B singer [said to be Marvin Gaye].
It’s your 32nd Christmas tour — what stands out over the years as particularly satisfying?
I get to sing songs that I don’t get to sing the rest of the year [and] I always liked the fact that we had local children and local choirs on the show, because every night we have new kids. When we first started this, we brought kids with us, and it wasn’t the same. There’s something nice about meeting these people every night, and they really get excited about being part of this.
What are you looking forward to the most this year in the show?
Surviving! [Laughs] I mean, it’s gotten to that now. It’s really a great time and it’s very rewarding and I’m looking forward to working with Linda Davis again. And we’re trying to do a couple of new songs, Christmas songs. Christmas is like a greatest hits album; there are certain songs that represent Christmas, and we have to do those. … During the first part, we’re doing 30 to 40 minutes of hits and Christmas. And I have a new album out, and there are some really cool songs that I want to do, just to change up that part of it — mostly for me more than anything else
Your new duet with Dolly Parton is such a moving song. What was going through your mind singing a song that deals with mortality?
It was poignantly sad, you know. Dolly told me at the time, ‘You know, Kenny, I don’t think I could ever sing at your funeral.’ And I said, ‘Oh, so you assume I’m going first? Is that what this is?’ [Laughs] But we both talked about it — we didn’t care whether it was a hit. We just loved having our friendship documented like that.
You recently appeared at both Bonnaroo and Glastonbury; did you ever think you’d play festivals like that?
I learned you don’t change managers when you’re 70 years old … my manager, Ken Levitan, [told me] ‘If you don’t get out of your comfort zone, you can’t grow.’ I said, ‘Ken, I’m 75 years old, I don’t need to grow anymore.’ … It’s been fun for me because when I did it, I had no idea what the success factor was going to be. It really is not who I normally play to — England, 20 and 30 year old kids — but I was amazed how well they knew my music. That’s always very flattering and a compliment.
Speaking of that, there’s a funny story in your book about Rastafarians serenading you in a Jamaican bar.
It scared us to death, because, you know, they can be pretty menacing-looking. My ex-manager and I were sitting in there and these guys were really staring us down. It was a private, local bar, they don’t invite people … We get up to leave and we hear, ‘You got to know when to hold ‘em, mon,’ and it was just so cool. So we sat down and had lunch with them and it was great and fun.
Was that the craziest thing that happened to you as a result of your music?
No, I think the craziest one was when I was with the New Christy Minstrels at a celebration in Toronto … they had a big parade and asked us to be a part of it. We somehow fell in the midst of a group of veterans and they thought we were just hippies jumping in line. They almost beat us to death, because they were, ‘What are you doing here? Get out of our parade!’ So yeah, those are the things that I think stand out. I tell my boys — they are 9 years old — the worst jobs you have will be the best stories, as you get older.
Appeared in the Nov. 28, 2013 issue of the Hippo