Kenny Rogers’ life has been a literal rags-to-riches story. Born in public housing in Houston 78 years ago, Rogers began a career as a successful local jazz musician before blitzing the pop and country charts in a hit-making trajectory that has few equals.
In the course of his six-decade career, Rogers has, as a solo artist and duet partner, notched a dozen chart-topping albums (via Billboard) and 24 No. 1 hits. TV specials and movies, a Broadway show and other high-profile endeavors kept his star burnished even as the musical landscape around him evolved. Now he is in the midst of a year-long farewell and thank-you tour dubbed “The Gambler’s Last Deal,” after one of his biggest hits.
Recently in Austin to receive the Texas Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award along with Kris Kristofferson and others, Rogers returns to town to perform Sunday at Rodeo Austin. Recently, Rogers spoke with us from his home in Atlanta. An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
Austin360: Just to clarify, this is the end of your concert career. Do you have any plans to record any more music?
Kenny Rogers: If I have my way, it will be the end, but the record company is proposing a new album, and I’m tossing it back and forth. There’s no reason I can’t do that, I just haven’t given it a lot of thought.
Was there any come-to-Jesus moment that led you to decide it was time to ‘fold ‘em,’ as the song goes?
Yep, my 78th birthday. I realized that I don’t know how long I am going to live and I wanted to do it before I go. It’s a way to give back and say “thank you” to all these people for their 60 years of support, which is more than I deserve. It’s been a great ride for me.
The title of your tour references ‘The Gambler,’ which is not only one of your biggest hits, but was also spun off into TV movies and became part of the lexicon. Why does that song resonate so?
I think it’s the fact that it wasn’t really about gambling. Don Schlitz (who wrote the song) doesn’t gamble, I don’t gamble. I learned a long time ago I can’t win enough to impress me, but I can lose enough to depress me, so I stay away from it.
But if you listen to the song from the point of view of life, it’s really a great piece of business.
You are from Texas, but you’re not thought of as a ‘Texas musician.’ How do you self-identify as an artist?
I’ve been exposed to a lot of different types of music and I see the value of each one. So I try to listen to each song with different ears, depending on what I’m listening to. When I was with my jazz group in Houston, our keyboard player was from Austin, Bobby Doyle … I sang with him for 10 years, and we were very successful, but more importantly, he introduced me to the music of the 30s and 40s. Ray Charles has always been my hero. Bobby, of course, played and sang like Ray and I had to be affected by that.
Is country music still as open to outside influences as it used to be when you brought a pop sensibility to the genre?
Yeah, but it’s different influences, and you have to be ready for them. There’s only two ways you can compete in this business: You can do what everybody else is doing and do it better, and I don’t like my chances of doing that. Or you can do something completely different that no one else is doing, and then you stand alone. You don’t invite comparison. And that’s where I’ve always been more comfortable.
You haven’t lived here in a long time. Do you still feel a sense of Texan identity?
I feel it more when I’m down there. Everybody speaks like me! I get down there and get caught up in the Americana drift and it is really fun and exciting. I was in Austin the other day and I was telling some people, this was one of the first family road trips I ever took. I was with my sister and her husband and we went to San Antonio to see the Alamo and came to Austin to see the capitol.
You were in town with Kris Kristofferson to get a Texas Medal of the Arts award. Have you ever covered one of his songs?
Oh, I’m sure I did. I used to kind of know him, because he was a good friend of Mickey Newbury, who wrote “Just Dropped In,” and I had gone to high school with Mickey in Houston. I had kind of gotten away from Kris, but I must say the other night, I thoroughly enjoyed talking with him. I talked to him about my life and career and it was so much fun.
You two took very different routes to success in country music. Is there any ‘right’ way to do it?
It’s gotta come from the heart. You’ve got to do things that you like. If you don’t like them, no one else is going to like them. And you have to believe in yourself. And I think I’ve always been good at that. I’ve looked for songs with lyrics that every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear. I’ve also found story songs, that tell great stories, and I think that’s an important element of my success.
Many of your story songs deal with hard social issues. Is there ever a time when an artist is obliged to speak out about conditions?
I think you have the right to. You look at “Coward of the County,” it was about a rape. I learned all that when I was in the New Christy Minstrels — the importance of a story song. People like to sing along and know they’re going to end up somewhere. There’s an emotion at the end that they’re excited about. The thing I’ve learned is that you can’t turn your back to those songs. I’ve always enjoyed doing them.
Duets, with Dottie West and especially Dolly Parton, have been a big part of your success. Is there anyone you wished you’d recorded with but have not?
Oh, I’m sure there is. But I never chose partners first; I start with songs. I say, who could sing this song well? And I think that’s what has created the success (of those duets). Dolly and I looked for four years to find another song and it just didn’t fit one or the other of us. That’s been my secret all along.
You remind me of George Strait in that you’re more of a song interpreter than a songwriter. Why does the interpreter’s role suit you better?
I write some, but I’m a very thematic writer. I write about specific things. I wrote a bunch of Christmas songs. We did a play called “The Toy Shop” that ran on Broadway for six weeks and along with two of the guys in my band I wrote all the songs for that. But what I’ve learned is that good writers have a need to write, to say something. I don’t have that need. I have enough outlets with my records to do what I want to do without my having to write songs. There are a lot of guys who are better than me!
If a young singer came up to you said, ‘I want to have your career,’ what would you tell him or her?
Take it! (Laughs) No, I would say that good careers are based on the heart. You have to believe in what you’re saying, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have a chance. I’ve never done anything I’ve done for the money. Money comes after success, but it’s not what I was working for. It takes a lot of pressure off of you when you take that approach.
How would you like to be remembered as an artist?
That I believed in myself and my music.
Is there anything left artistically that you’d like to accomplish?
At my age, you can’t look back. I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to do and more, and I’ve been rewarded for everything and more. More than I needed, more than I deserve. It’s been a great career and that’s why I’ve decided to go out on a high and go to all these cities and say thank you to everybody for 60 years of support.
What happens on the day you wake up and there’s no more tour dates on the calendar?
I have two twin boys that are 12 years old, and they asked me the other day, “Dad, what are you going to do when you retire?” I said, I thought I’d come home and spend all my time with you guys. And they put their hands over their faces and went, “Oh, God!”
Kenny Rogers at Rodeo Austin
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Travis County Expo Center, 7311 Decker Lane.