It’s been 30 years since Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton found huge chart success with their duet “Islands in the Stream,” sourced from the Barry Gibb-produced album Eyes That See In The Dark. Nearly all the songs were penned by Gibb and his brothers, collectively known as the Bee Gees, who also sang background vocals throughout the entire album. (If you want to go deeper — the original Gibb demos for the entire album can be obtained from iTunes.)
As Rogers shares with us in conversation, he wasn’t initially sold on “Islands” until Dolly came into the picture. The rest of course, is history — the song went to number one on both the Billboard pop and country charts and the album itself would also hit the top spot of the Billboard Country Album Charts and would go Top Ten on the Billboard Top 200 Albums, eventually selling more than 15 million copies.
The whole thing was another notch in Rogers’ belt of many successes — just look at everything that spawned from the popularity of “The Gambler,” for instance — a total of FIVE Gambler-themed movies and as he tells us, there was almost a sixth (don’t you feel better knowing that all of these years later, there’s still always a chance of another Gambler movie around the corner?).
In 2000, Rogers scored his first number one country hit since 1987 with “Buy Me a Rose.” At 61 years of age at the time, Rogers became the oldest country singer to have a number one hit.
Now 75 years of age, The Gambler is looking to make chart history again and he’s lined up with a good hand of cards that might allow him to score big — including a reunion with his “Islands” duet partner Dolly for the wistful title track of his latest album You Can’t Make Old Friends, which hits stores on October 8th.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Rogers about the new album and quite a few other topics as he was preparing for the album’s release.
The big news of course has been that the title track of your new album reunites you with Dolly Parton, someone you’ve called your soul partner, musically. It’s a pairing that’s so natural that it’s a little bit surprising that the two of you haven’t done more together over the years.
You know, there’s a point when you do that to where people don’t see you alone. They only see you with that person. I think Dolly had a bad experience with Porter Wagoner when she was so closely linked to him that she didn’t feel comfortable without him and people didn’t let her feel comfortable without him. I think that we both understand that we are great together — we’re better together — at least I’ll say this, I’m better with her than I am alone.
But I think that there’s a time where you have to do what you do and you can’t always hitch your star to somebody else’s wagon. I would like to do some more concerts with her before I die and I hopefully will do that, but she and I agree that sometimes less is better. It’s more spectacular right now because we haven’t done it in seven or eight years.
As you mention, the results prove that sometimes going back to the well less delivers more in the long run.
Absolutely. You know, I was decorating my house one day and my wife said that she wanted this and that and she said “that’ll be so special and that will be special and this will be special” and I said “Wanda, if everything’s special, then nothing is special anymore!” So you have to pick and choose where you put the special moments and I think that’s what’s makes decorating [special] as it does everything else, it’s [the] balance. Something is really spectacular when it stands out, but if it doesn’t stand out, then it’s no longer spectacular.
“You Can’t Make Old Friends” was one of the first things that you recorded for this new album. Where did things go from that point? Did you have specific thoughts as far as the type of album that you wanted to make?
You know, I was so lucky, because Warner Brothers called me and they said “we want to do an album with you.” That’s kind of where I started. They wanted to do an album with me and I said “great.” I went over and sat down with John Esposito and Cris Lacy and Rebekah Sterk [from Warner Brothers] and we talked about it and I said “I’m sure you guys are aware that I haven’t been on the radio in about six years,” so I said “I can’t guarantee you that I’m going to get anything played” and they all three said “that’s not what this about. We want you to do the albums you want to do and do not worry about airplay. That’s our problem — we either get it or we don’t. We want you to be able to say ‘this is an album that I did for the love of the songs on it’” and so that’s what I did. It’s amazing what pressure that takes off of an artist. It allows you to be a little more free-form in what your thinking is. I did songs on here that I would never have even listened to before with the pressure of having to get on the radio.
Well, one of the reviews that I read of the album that I thought was interesting says “It’s a different sound, not acoustic at all, but reminds me of Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash.” How do you take stock of feedback like that?
I love that. First of all, it’s a great comparison, I think. Because I think Rick Rubin found something in Johnny that was so special that had not been touched before. Rick is a great producer and I think it exposed a side of Johnny that nobody knew before, you know, [with] the rawness. I watched that video over and over and I just thought “man, I’m seeing Johnny on a whole different level than I did before this.” That’s what music is supposed to do, I think.
You spoke about listening to songs when you were getting ready to do this album — a big part of your career success has been your ability to successfully interpret songs that were written by other songwriters. Early on, were there key elements that were important to you when going through the process of choosing songs? And how easy is it to see those things in a song at the demo stage?
First of all, the whole trick of this business is to beat the demo. Because these damn demos are so good now a days. You hear songs and you go “well, why doesn’t he release it? I don’t understand it!” So that’s the problem is that you have to beat the demos because they’re so good. Listening to songs this time, I listened with a different ear — an ear for what I wanted to sound like and what I wanted to do. Could I do that song? Could I do it well? Does it represent where I am in my life? I think it does. I think every song fits in that criteria. You know, when you’re at different points of your career, you pick [different songs] for different reasons.
I’ve always basically had two categories — the love songs that say what every man would like to say and what every woman would like to hear and songs that have some social significance. You know, like ‘Reuben James’ or ‘Ruby’ or ‘Coward Of The County’ — things like that. So that’s what I looked for and when I heard ‘You Had To Be There’ — you know, it’s about a man going to prison to visit his son. The son says “wait a minute, you can’t criticize me — you should have been there when I was nine.” I have identical twins that are nine years old and I think about that every day.
I think when I was coming up, I was so unfair to my families because success was so important to me that I got selfish and I’ve said there’s a fine line between being driven and being selfish. I think I was selfish when I was younger. I wanted to be successful. So do I wish I had done it differently? Do I wish I hadn’t done it? I don’t know. I don’t know where I’d be now. I know where I am now, but I don’t know where I’d be — but I wish I’d handled it better and handled it differently. But you can’t [go back]. I’ve got these boys now and I’m determined to do it right.
Is Kenny Rogers drinking Monster Energy Drink or something to keep up with those boys?
I tell you what. Believe me, I get a full night’s sleep every night. Because they wear me out! They’re nine years old and they’re like little linebackers anyway. It’s so cool to have twins, because you see right now that they have a best friend for life. It’s wonderful to watch them. Because they’ll go into a place that they’ve never been before, like a new school on the first day and they still hold hands. I know that’s not going to happen much longer, but it’s so sweet to see. I was behind them the other day and I thought “boy, I wish I’d had my camera when I saw that.”
No doubt. To talk about the songwriting thing a little bit more, how much interaction do you typically have with the songwriter at that stage of things as you’re beginning to work it out what you’re going to do with the songs?
I usually don’t pay attention to the songwriters and I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way. I think it’s my job to interpret the song and my job to find a way to present it in such a fashion that it represents me and the songwriter well. I would never bastardize a song. I would never do that to any songwriter. So once I get clearance to do it, I feel it’s in my protection and the producer’s protection and there’s no way that I would ever not do the best I can to do it justice.
Let’s talk a bit about your new book, What Are The Chances. The storyline seems to mirror bits and pieces of your own story. How did this book come about and how long have you been working on it? With the schedule that you keep, I’m always surprised at the volume of material that you’re able to produce, books, albums and otherwise.
It’s an interesting thing, because the concept was going to be for a [sixth] Gambler movie for CBS. The whole idea was that my character, Brady Hawkes, would come up with this gambling game that would revolutionize gambling. In my mind, I was basing it on Texas Hold ‘Em, but I didn’t want to call it that, I wanted to call it something else. So when I started doing it, we realized that Texas Hold ‘Em came about in like 1970 or something and The Gambler would have been 140, so we decided that wasn’t going to work.
So when I presented the idea to my book agent, he said “you know, I have a guy that used to play Texas Hold ‘Em, that was raised in Texas and he writes wonderful stuff and he’s from your part of the country,” Mike Blakely. We started talking about it and he got real excited and he said “well how about if we turn this corner” and he would say “where do you want to go now” and “well, let’s do this.” There are some interesting twists in there. It’s really about a guy named Ronnie Breed, who was with a rock and roll band and the band broke up and he wanted to go country, so he wanted to move to Nashville. It’s an interesting strange storyline that’s somewhat mine, but not mine.
I want to go back to something you said about demos and if they’re so good, why do they give the song away. This is the 30th anniversary of the Eyes That See In The Dark album. Were you surprised at all, that Barry Gibb and the BeeGees were willing to essentially give away an entire album’s worth of songs like that for your album?
Well, you know I think that Barry had written that song for somebody else. I know ‘Islands In The Stream’ I heard was written for Smokey Robinson or somebody. They didn’t do it and it wasn’t in their key, so believe me, they’re not stupid. So I asked him if he’d produce a song for me and he said “I won’t do that, but I’ll do an album.” I said “well, okay, c’mon.” It was really a fun time and we became really good friends and that’s the Bee Gees singing in the background behind us and you can hear it.
Barry Gibb writes everything on the up beat and it’s so hard to sing but that’s what makes it feel so light and bouncy. That’s their trick and God bless ‘em for that. I was surprised that he gave up some songs, especially that one. Because once Dolly got involved in it, I really thought it was special. That’s what I’m best at is picking songs and I didn’t care for it until she got involved. But once she got involved, it really was something.
You’ve made a lot of albums. Working with the Gibb brothers on that album, that seems like that would be a particularly interesting experience for you. Is there one that tops that experience of making that record with them?
Well, I mean I worked with George Martin, who produced the Beatles — he did ‘Morning Desire’ [and the entire The Heart of the Matter album] for me. That’s pretty big right there, isn’t it?
Oh yeah, I’d say so…
And then when Lionel [Richie] and I started working together. I worked with David Foster some as well. What happened is I was working with Larry Butler and we were doing great music, but it started all sounding alike. So I said “well, let me just kind of step out of the box and see what happens.” I think I went to Barry Gibb first and we did that and then I got in touch with Lionel and we did ‘Lady,’ which was totally different from anything else. David Foster came in and produced some stuff for me as well — he did the Sheena Easton song ‘We’ve Got Tonight.” So I’ve really been blessed with some great people around me to do great music and that’s really been the key I think to my success.
It seems like you’re having a lot of fun looking at all of that with this current tour and pulling out some rarities, like ‘She’s A Mystery.’
Yeah, right. Also, I’m doing ‘Just Dropped In(To See What Condition My Condition Was In)! I’m doing that tonight with Zac Brown.
I was going to ask about that — you’ve done a bit of work in the past few years with the Zac Brown Band. Those guys seem to really embody the true spirit of country. What do you like about them?
First of all, they’re great musicians, great singers and great people. Zac lives outside of Atlanta and he has a restaurant. I’m going to take the boys down there and eat there — he said they’ve got all kinds of kids things, so we’ll have a good time with that. But they have been so nice to me and again it goes back to Glastonbury and those other festivals [that I’ve played]. I’ve learned that their audience knows my music and that’s a very exciting thing for me.
After more than 65 albums, is there a project out there that you haven’t gotten a chance to do that is still on your wish list or somebody that you’d like to collaborate with?
There’s a couple of people that I’d like to sing with. But the thing I’ve learned about duets is that you don’t start with the artist — you start with the song and you say “who could do it well?” Because it’s important that both of us sound good or it won’t work. Dolly and I tried for years to find songs to do but we were so pre-set in what we sounded like and what we were supposed to sound like that this is a real departure. We’ve always done real happy up songs and this is a real departure for us, but it’s so personal that we couldn’t not do it.
When I saw you a few years ago, you were doing a bit where you would identify a male concert attendee in the audience that was there under involuntary circumstances and toss him a $10 bill for every hit song that he could identify. I understand that you’re still doing that bit. It’s a fun, yet seemingly expensive visual representation of your success over the years.
[Laughs] I would like to go back and see how much money I’ve given away. Tambourines — I [also] give away eight tambourines every night. But you know, that bit is so good for me. I’m more of an entertainer than a singer and I think that the trick is to break that audience/artist barrier. Because if I’m up on the stage and untouchable and you have no personal contact with me, [it doesn’t work]. Everybody lives through that poor guy in the front row that while he’s getting 10s thrown at him and we’re having fun with him all night long. You can’t personalize it to everybody — all you can do is make the people you pick on personable to the other people.
You spoke last year about working on a duet with George Jones. Is that something you were able to finish before he passed?
No and it breaks my heart. Because you know, he is truly one of the great singers of country music. They wanted me to be on this tribute to him and they wanted me to sing ‘Choices.’ I said “I wouldn’t touch a George Jones song if it killed me!” Because he owns everything he did.
As the story goes, Don Henley came to Los Angeles with his first band Shiloh, on your invitation and he was living in your house. What do you recall about those days?
Well, I ran across Don Henley and one of the guys from their band at a clothing store in Dallas and they said “hey Kenny, we have a little band and we’re working this club — would you come see us?” and I said “well guys, I don’t drink and I don’t really go to clubs.” They said “oh, but we’re really good,” which I thought was an interesting thing to say! So I said “well, okay” and I went and they were really good. Their name was Felicity at the time and I changed it to Shiloh and they came to California and stayed at my house.
They gave me all of their publishing hoping I would do something with it, but I had my own career to worry about. Don came to me and he said “hey, I’ve got a chance to go with this group, but I need my publishing” and I said “well, take it — I was just trying to help you with it.” So I’m thrilled at his success and I think he thinks I’m living off of him now, because everybody asks me about Don Henley. [Laughs] But he’s a good guy and he came in and did a duet with me [for the ‘Water & Bridges’ album in 2006] that I thought was really wonderful. I love his voice and I always have.
Don Schlitz co-wrote that song for you and there’s another relationship that goes way back to “The Gambler,” a song which is indisputably a classic…..
He wrote “The Greatest” also, about the kid who plays baseball…
In regards to “The Gambler,” how naturally did that one come together for you in the studio?
That was at a time when I was cranking ‘em out, for lack of a better term, with Larry Butler. We were doing so much music that we had two studios going at the same time. It just felt right for me. I’ve always felt great story songs tell you where they are when you star. [Like] ‘on a train bound for nowhere” [from "The Gambler"] or “in a bar in Toledo” [from "Lucille"] and then they give you this message and leave you with a feeling at the end of them. So that was just a great example of a great story song.