Artist-in-Residence: Kenny Rogers

May 9, 2012

Kenny Rogers set aside his usual concert agenda to reflect on a career of more than fifty years of music-making in the first of two special performances in the 213-seat Ford Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Named the museum’s 2012 artist-in-residence, Rogers responded by creating a one-of-a-kind, intimate experience for the sold-out crowd. He discussed different stages of his career with humor, insight, and poignancy, and he delved into the background of his most famous songs. His stories emphasized the coincidental nature of stardom, how some of his biggest breaks and most important moments occurred through a chance encounter, a trick of timing, or simple good fortune.

For that reason, Rogers said he’s named his upcoming autobiography Luck or Something Like It, a play on the title of one of his dozens of hit songs, “Love or Something Like It.”

The show’s wide scope underscored museum director Kyle Young’s introduction, in which he described Rogers as “a renaissance man who has made an indelible mark on popular culture, at home and abroad.” Young later added, “His familiarity with a broad spectrum of pop music would continue to inform his song selection and arrangements and make him the master of crossover hits and one of America’s most successful artists.”

The concert also featured special guests Billy Currington, an avid Rogers fan, and Billy Dean, a longtime friend. Both have recorded with Rogers, with Currington joining his hero for “Standing on the Rock of Your Love,” a song written by Vince Gill that Rogers included on his 2011 gospel album, The Love of God. Dean joined his idol on “Buy Me a Rose,” the 2000 #1 Rogers hit on which Dean and Alison Krauss shared harmony vocals. Dean returned for the final song, to play acoustic guitar on “Sweet Music Man,” a popular hit from early in Rogers’s solo career. The singer said he wrote it about Waylon Jennings after an unexpected conversation with Jessi Colter on an airplane.

Rogers spun stories about his early days in Houston in the Bobby Doyle Three, performing “Walking My Baby Back Home,” a 1930s pop standard that was a major hit for Nat King Cole in the early 1950s. He followed that with “When I Fall in Love,” another pop classic Cole (and many others) recorded.

The 73-year-old legend addressed the risks he took fifty years ago in moving to Los Angeles to start the folk-rock band First Edition, which gave him his first national hits. He pointed out that the band at first didn’t want him because, at age 30, they thought he was too old. So he grew his hair longer, added a beard, sunglasses, and an earring. The group relented.

Rogers performed several First Edition songs, including “Something’s Burning,” “Reuben James,” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” and “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” the latter augmented by a psychedelic video shot at the time of the song’s release. “I think we can all agree here tonight, they just don’t write songs like that anymore,” Rogers said.

Even though the First Edition was a rock band and recorded in Los Angeles, the songs illustrated that, even back then, Rogers liked country songwriting, as those songs came from writers associated with the country genre. The songs also illustrated how Rogers had a powerful capacity to use his husky voice to convey sensitive stories in compelling, believable fashion. Relying on tone and subtly dramatic phrasing, rather than showy vocal tricks, he indicated early on what a consummate storyteller he can be.

In one of his stories, Rogers explained how he had to persuade a producer, Jimmy Bowen-later an important country music executive-to let him record “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” a song written by country star Mel Tillis. Bowen feared the material was too dark and depressing, and radio deejays would never play it. Rogers argued that maybe they wouldn’t, but if they gave it a chance, it would be a huge hit.

From that encounter, and from his First Edition experience, Rogers learned something important about what works for him. “Ever since then, I’ve tended to choose two kinds of songs,” he said. “I choose love songs that say what every man would like to say, and what every woman would like to hear. The other songs are the ones that are socially significant and have something important to stay.”

As Rogers continued to trace his career, it became evident that another key to his success was the ability to gently coax the drama from a lyric. That trait made his transition to country music a natural one, and songs like “Lucille”-which drew the crowd to sing along on the chorus-helped him shoot to solo stardom in Nashville. “The Gambler,” another song he performed, perfectly illustrated that talent-and his country music bona fides.

On the ballad “Lady,” written for him by Lionel Richie before Richie left the Commodores for a solo career, Rogers demonstrated his talent for romantic love songs. He underscored that ability with a medley that combined “Through the Years,” “You Decorated My Life,” and “She Believes in Me”-the latter of which he described as the favorite of his 1980s ballads.

The concert also repeatedly emphasized yet another special trait, and one he didn’t mention-that is, having an ear for good material. He performed “Ol’ Red,” a hit for Blake Shelton, although Rogers recorded the song a decade earlier, obviously recognizing its hit potential.

At the start, Rogers admitted he was more nervous than he had been in many years, because of the nature of the show and the intimacy of the Ford Theater. “I’m definitely stepping outside of my comfort zone,” he said. So he decided to act as if he was performing for friends in his living room, sitting on a stool in front of his seven-piece band-and only a few feet from the front row of fans. Adding the family feel was his wife Wanda, who was sitting in the center a couple of rows from the stage.

At show’s end, the long standing ovation proved just how much the crowd appreciated the open-hearted, friendly, revealing manner in which Rogers conducted his special performance.

Rogers is the museum’s tenth artist-in-residence. He joins an esteemed list that includes Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, and Connie Smith.

Set List:

  • “Something’s Burning”
  • “Reuben James”
  • “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”
  • “Walking My Baby Back Home”
  • “When I Fall In Love”
  • “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”
  • Medley: “Through the Years,” “You Decorated My Life,” “She Believes in Me”
  • “Love Will Turn You Around”
  • “Standing on the Rock of Your Love” (with Billy Currington)
  • “Ol’ Red”
  • “Love the World Away”
  • “If You Want to Find Love”
  • “Buy Me a Rose” (with Billy Dean)
  • “To Me”
  • “Lucille”
  • “Lady”
  • “The Gambler”
  • “Islands in the Stream”
  • “Sweet Music Man” (with Billy Dean)

-Michael McCall