Artist-in-Residence: Kenny Rogers

May 10, 2012

Kenny Rogers illustrated the vastness of his catalog of well-known hits by presenting a markedly different set of songs for the second of two consecutive nights of concerts at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

As the museum’s 2012 artist-in-residence, Rogers was given carte blanche to curate his own shows, both of which sold out quickly. Free to do whatever he found most pleasing, or challenging, Rogers chose to survey his fifty-year-plus career by performing two dissimilar concerts, complete with his regular seven-piece band. Even the two surprise guests were different for both nights.

Rogers noted that performing for such an intimate audience-the museum’s Ford Theater has 213 seats-had him “stepping outside his comfort zone.” Instead of following his usual concert format, Rogers featured several songs he rarely if ever performs these days, giving each two-hour show a rarefied air.

“I’m blessed to have a long list of songs I’ve recorded over the years,” Rogers said near the beginning of the evening. “This has given me a chance to do a few I don’t usually get to do.”

Performing more than forty songs over two nights, Rogers only repeated a handful of classics, making each show unique. He knew each crowd would want to hear such highlights as “The Gambler,” “Lucille,” “Lady,” and “Islands in the Stream”; past that, he treated fans by reaching back to songs from early in his career, such as the jazz standard “Walking My Baby Back Home,” and First Edition’s great “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” written by Country Music Hall of Fame member Mel Tillis, and originally released as a single in 1969.

“I’m going to give you a personal guarantee: Before the night is over, I promise you I’m going to screw up a song,” Rogers said in introducing “Morning Desire,” a 1985 #1 written by Dave Loggins that isn’t a part of his concert repertoire these days. For that song, and the 1986 hit “Twenty Years Ago,” another rarity, Rogers pulled out lyric sheets, but only occasionally glanced at them. He never miffed a line.

To get over his anxiety, the 73-year-old legend approached each show as if performing for friends in his living room. He had his crew lightly turn up the crowd lights, so he could see people’s faces, and he sat on a stool just a few feet from the first row. “I do sit down in my living room,” he joked.

He talked about his career, and the coincidental nature of fame, spinning revealing stories buoyed by humor, gratitude, and emotion. He introduced many of his hits with a story about how he found it or why he chose to record it.

The special guests were both integral to his career, but for entirely different reasons. The two-pop star Kim Carnes and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Don Schlitz-emphasized the broad parameters of Rogers’s musical journey and his willingness to take chances that often boosted the profiles of other artists.

Schlitz provided Rogers with what may be his best-known classic, “The Gambler,” which gave the singer a Grammy and served as the basis for a made-for-TV movie series that encompassed five films in all. “The Gambler” also was the first hit for Schlitz as a songwriter-a majestic introduction for an off-beat guy who evolved into one of his generation’s most successful composers. More than twenty years after Schlitz’s first hit, Rogers came back to him for another memorable song, “The Greatest,” a heart-tugging tale of a young boy and his dreams of baseball stardom, which Schlitz performed with Rogers for the Ford Theater crowd.

“This guy has written so many hits,” Rogers said of Schlitz. “I’m just sick I didn’t get them all.” Schlitz, for his part, added, “This person kicked the door in for me, and everything I got to do after that was because of what he did. You gave me the chance to write whatever the heck I liked for the rest of my life, and I’m incredibly grateful.”

Carnes, a one-time Los Angeles resident who now resides in Nashville, shared Rogers’s background as a raspy-voiced pop singer with a knack for story songs. The two first became musical partners as members of the New Christy Minstrels, a well-known folk group that Rogers joined in 1966 after moving to L.A. from his hometown of Houston.

In 1980, Rogers reunited with Carnes. He had just conquered country music with an astounding streak; in the previous three years, he had released nine #1 hits, among them “Coward of the County,” with which he opened Thursday night’s concert. That year, Rogers presented Carnes and her husband, Dave Ellingson (another member of the New Christy Minstrels), with a proposition: He asked them to write a complete album about a modern-day cowboy. That album, Gideon, included “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” a duet with Carnes that reached #3 on the country charts and #4 on the pop charts. The two got a standing ovation for their rousing performance of it Thursday night.

“Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” was Carnes’s biggest hit up until then. It set her up for the success of her best-known song, the Grammy-winning “Bette Davis Eyes,” which shot to #1 on the pop charts the year after her Rogers duet. In 1984, Rogers and Carnes, along with R&B singer James Ingram, scored another pop hit together with “What About Me.”

That dichotomy of recognizing talent in an unknown songwriter and in a veteran pop singer underscores Rogers’s ability to relate to songs that work in multiple formats, which helped make him an international star of rare magnitude. Museum director Kyle Young, in introducing Rogers, addressed this aspect of the singer’s success, describing Rogers as “a renaissance man who has made an indelible mark on popular culture, at home and abroad. . . . 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.”

As with any Rogers show, the set leaned heavily on romantic songs. Of the many he performed, three are newly included in his shows, and he did them as a medley: “Share Your Love with Me,” “Crazy,” and “I Don’t Need You.” Two were #1 hits, the other a Top Five-indicating that his catalog is so deep and rich that he has top hits he can’t fit into a two-hour concert. Indeed, even across four hours and two nights, there remained famous Rogers songs he didn’t have time to perform.

At the conclusion of his last artist-in-residence concert, Rogers said, “What a special two nights this has been for me, to be here and to be a part of all this. I don’t get this chance very often, to play for you guys like this. It has truly been a thrill.”

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:

  • “Coward of the County”
  • “Daytime Friends”
  • “Walking My Baby Back Home”
  • “When I Fall in Love”
  • “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”
  • “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”
  • “We’ve Got Tonight”
  • “Love or Something Like It”
  • Medley: “Share Your Love,” “Crazy,” and “I Don’t Need You”
  • “Morning Desire”
  • “Twenty Years Ago”
  • “If You Want to Find Love”
  • “The Greatest” (with Don Schlitz)
  • “Have a Little Faith”
  • “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” (with Kim Carnes)
  • “Lucille”
  • “Lady”
  • “The Gambler”
  • “Islands in the Stream”
  • “Sweet Music Man”

-Michael McCall