The secret to Kenny Rogers’ breathtaking success – 120 hit singles and nearly 175-million albums sold in a career spanning 50 years – might be most succinctly put by the great bearded one himself: “I sing songs with lyrics every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear.”
Clearly, Rogers – whose hit parade includes “Lady,” “The Gambler,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” and “Lucille” – knows what he’s talking about. At 77, he’s paid his proverbial dues, enjoyed the world from the top of the pop charts, seen the world several times over, collected several mantels-full of trophies and awards, published a memoir (Luck or Something Like It), and been crowned “Artist of a Lifetime” by Country Music Television (CMT).
It’s facile with living legends to narrow the focus to their most celebrated accomplishments, and Rogers has them in great abundance – Country Music Hall of Fame, one of the bestselling recording artists of all time, 60 Top 40 singles, hit films for television and theatrical release, and a tremendous, abiding love for his wife, Wanda, and their two pre-teen sons. But how did Rogers arrive at this moment? What serendipity, wisdom, or luck – as his memoir title suggests – guided his every footfall? And what will Rogers do once this year’s farewell/retirement tour concludes with a powerhouse tribute and live performance on NBC’s The Today Show? We’re glad you asked…
The vast majority of recording artists are lucky to have even a single signature song. You’ve recorded countless trademark hits, from “The Gambler” to “Lady” to “Islands in the Stream.” Which of your biggest hits is least reflective of the man that you are?
I don’t know if people really want to hear this, but I’d guess it’s “The Gambler.” That’s probably the song I’m most recognized for, but it’s also, really, a genuine character song. In “real life,” I don’t gamble much. I learned very quickly: I can’t win enough to excite me, but I can lose enough to depress me. This doesn’t only apply to gambling. They’re good words to live by.
Conversely, which of your songs is most reflective of the man that you are?
I’d have to say my love songs. Almost any of them! I’ve been married five times, so clearly I’m a romantic! (Laughs) You also have to admit, being married five times, I am not afraid of commitment. (Laughs) As I look back on my life, I really loved everyone I married. I had something special with every one of them. But there’s a fine line between being driven and being selfish. I crossed that line. I was so driven to success that I donated a lot of relationships to “making it.” Not by design, but when you’re gone a lot or working too much, you lose the connection. Be careful about that. Wanda (Rogers’ current wife) and me, we’ve been married almost 20 years, together almost 25. I finally got it all right.
Beautiful. What do you think shifted in you that’s made this relationship different?
When Wanda and I had our twin sons, I wrote a little toast for them: children give a marriage purpose, marriage gives a life purpose. You need to have a purpose. It doesn’t have to be kids or a wife, but there’s got to be something there that you’re serving, that’s bigger than you. Everyone must have a purpose. When I was younger, I focused on my career. I made selfish choices to pursue success. I chose to tour a lot. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, but I also missed out on a lot of my family life. I don’t know that I made it easy for my wives and my children to love me back then. But now, I’ve done everything there is. I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to. What’s left for me is what’s most important: being a good husband and a good father. I don’t know how many more years I have, so I’m taking them now.
You had a very tentative relationship with your own father. Perhaps that’s contributing to your retirement decisions now?
One of the things I’m saddest about is that I didn’t really get to know my dad until after he died. He was this wonderful, funny man, but he had a real problem with the drink. Most men drank a lot in that time because it was difficult to feed your family and a lot of men felt like failures. He was no exception to that. I wish I had known him more when he was alive, so call your parents while you can. And yes, I hadn’t thought about it like that, but you’re probably right.
It sometimes takes us a while for the full meaning and influence of our families become apparent to us. What did you take from your mother?
My mother was full of smart words for her kids. One thing she always said is, “Be happy where you are.” If you’re not happy where you are, you’ll never be happy, and that’s true. As I’ve gone through all the changes in my life, people don’t believe it, but I was happy even when I was down – professional slumps, divorces, the loss of close friends. My mom instilled in me, try to be happy no matter what’s going on in your life. If times are hard, being happy will make them easier to get through. That advice has given me a lot in this life.
That’s excellent advice.
Oh, my mother was full of excellent advice! When I was little, my mom would take us to church three times a week. I finally said, “Please God, let my mom quit taking me to church.” My mom must have heard me saying that prayer one time because she told me, “Son, I want you to write this down and never forget this: you can never be anything more as an adult than what was put into you as a child.” That’s why she did what she did for my siblings and me. That’s why we kept going to church. (Laughs) It’s what I try to do now as a father.
On the verge of setting down the microphone for good and devoting yourself full-time to family life, do you have any concerns about how your trademark beard will fare with two little boys running around the house?
(Laughs) My boys are 11-years old now. One of my sons was kind of messing with my face recently and he said, “What’s that?” And I told him, “That’s a mustache.” And he went down lower, “Well, what’s this?” And I told him, “It’s a goatee, a beard. Would you like me to shave it off?” He said, “No way. Then you wouldn’t be Kenny Rogers.” Kids know what they’re talking about. That beard’s been good to me, and somehow my sons must know it. The beard will be just fine!
Is there anything you remember hearing in your youth that might serve your sons as they enter adolescence?
My grandfather used to say, “Youth only happens to you one time. If you miss it in your young time, have it when you’re old.” That’s another key piece of advice for me. It’s probably useful to all of us, no matter what our age is. Too often, we’re too stupid or too driven or too busy when we’re young to really enjoy the moment. So enjoy your childhood when you can, even if you’re already old. I think I’ll tell my boys that. That’s not too bad, right?