Entertainment Legend Kenny Rogers Coming To Modesto July 30th, Talks Exclusively With The Hub

Entertainment Legend Kenny Rogers Coming To Modesto July 30th, Talks Exclusively With The Hub

by Michael P. Coleman

I'll never forget the day my mother told me country superstar Kenny Rogers was African-American.

Kenny RogersWell, it was 1978 and she called Rogers "black" back then, but you get the picture.  She'd heard his smash "The Gambler" on the radio on the way home from work the day before, and she realized his was the same soulful voice she'd heard on another hit, "Lucille".  My mom was certain only of his name, Kenny Something, the name of the song ("Know When To Hold 'Em"), that the singer was black, and that she needed to own his album. 

At Mom's request, I dutifully marched down to that suburban Detroit corner record store, and I was stunned to learn that Kenny Rogers was in fact a middle-aged white guy with a spare tire and a salt-and-pepper beard.  That wasn't enough to deter us, and after I brought the album home I began a lifelong love affair with the voice and music of Kenny Rogers.   I and a couple of thousand others will get to experience him live at the Gallo Center in Modesto on July 30th. 

"Boy, was your mom disappointed!",  Rogers laughed when I told him of my mom having mistaken his ethnicity all those years ago.  It was the warm welcoming laugh you'd expect from the artist behind almost two dozen number one records.  I couldn't wait to ask him how many of our favorites we'd get to hear in Modesto.   

"I'm doing about 20 or 25 hit records," Rogers told me.  "That's what people come to hear.  I learned a long time ago that people have choices about where they're going to go on any given night, and that night when people come to see me, I should give them what they want to hear.  Someone recently asked me if I got tired of doing the hits, and I said 'No, and I'd hate to be the guy who had to go out there without them." 

Asking about whether my mother would be joining me, Rogers shared his theory on the fans that comprise his loyal — almost rabid — fan base.  "My audience falls into one or two groups:  either born since 1980 whose parents forced you to listen to my music, as child abuse, or born before the 60s but can no longer remember the 60s," Rogers joked. 

I fall somewhere between those two extremes, having watched closely during the 70s as Rogers emerged as a force to be reckoned with first on the country charts, and soon on pop, adult contemporary and even R & B radio.  He's one of very few artists to chart hits in every decade since the 1950s.  I asked Rogers about the secret to his success and his longevity. 

"I take pride in singing songs that every man would like to say, and every woman would like to hear," he told me.  "If you look at "Lady", "Through The Years", "She Believes In Me", they all fall into that category."

Kenny RogersSuccess in the country music industry didn't come easily or particularly quickly for Rogers, who decided to give country a go in his late 30s, after successful stints in rock and jazz.  He shared that having someone in his corner made the difference. 

"Larry Butler produced most of the big hits that I had," Rogers remembered, "and he believed in me.  The record company said I was too old, and Larry reminded them that they'd told him he could sign anyone he wanted.  He decided to sign me, and decided that we were going to have hit records.  People are successful when they have someone who believes in them, and they don't want to let that person down." 

Rogers emerged on the R & B charts first with the Lionel Richie-penned and produced "Lady" in 1980, and with the Richie-produced album Share Your Love the following year.  It was a continuation of Rogers' taking country music far beyond Nashville's borders. 

"Some of those songs are great songs that required me to step out of my box a little bit, and I loved doing that," Rogers remembered.  "I kind of redirected country music to be a little more 'pop' than country had been at the time, and country fans in [places like] New Jersey liked it." 

"Country music has become rock & roll music, but it's still attracting young people," Rogers candidly continued.  "I had a conversation with the Country Music Association board one time, and they were complaining about country music changing.  I told them it HAS to change, and I told them to make a decision:  is country music an art form, or is country music a business?  If it's an art form, get rid of everybody who doesn't sound like Hank Williams.  If it's a business, take your money and be quiet." 

I couldn't help but ask Rogers about his participation in one of the biggest projects in music history, the recording of "We Are The World" with dozens of other music industry legends, in support of famine relief in Africa. 

"Nothing in my life has ever come close to that," Rogers shared with me.  "It was after the American Music Awards that year, and I walked in that door and the best singers in the United States — and potentially the world — were there.  The song was so well-written by Lionel [Richie] and Michael [Jackson], and it touched so many buttons with everybody there.  We all knew then and there that it was a very good thing that we were doing.  I was the first one to start taking sheet music around and getting everybody to sign it.  I think Diana Ross and I are the only two who have complete sheets with everybody's signatures on it." 

During my conversation with Rogers, I was thrilled to learn that his next project will be a Christmas album, his first in decades.  The legend insists we're in for a treat this holiday season. 

"This new Christmas album is really spectacular," Rogers enthuses.  "I have three artists helping me on this one.  Jennifer Nettles sings 'Baby, It's Cold Outside" with me.  Alison Krauss sings "Some Children See Him" with me — it's a song about how children of different races see Jesus.  And Allison SINGS it — I'm almost embarrassed to be on the record with her, she's so good.  When you hear that duet, it will absolutely move you to tears.  I also have a duet with an a cappella group called Home Free, a version of an old gospel song called 'Children Go Where I Send Thee'.  It's a beautifully produced album, and I'm very proud of it."   

I reminded Rogers that "White Christmas", perhaps this country's most-loved holiday carol, was written in Los Angeles in the middle of a very hot summer, and I humbly suggested that his fans in Modesto would be moved by a sample of his upcoming holiday album.  Rogers didn't buy it and said we'll have to wait for his holiday tour this fall for that.  However, he shared his secret to moving audiences over the decades with his time-worn hits:  he simply sings songs that he loves.

"If you find a song you love," Rogers shares, "you're gonna do a better job on it.  If a song moves me, I think I stand a chance of moving someone else with it."

Prepare to be moved this Thursday in Modesto. 

Tickets to see Kenny Rogers live at the Gallo Center in Modesto are available at galloarts.org.

Kenny Rogers' autobiography, Love Or Something Like It, is available at iBooks.com or amazon.com.  His new Christmas album, Once Again It's Christmas, will be available this fall.  Information is available at kennyrogers.com.

Michael P Coleman is a Sacramento-based freelance writer who still dreams of singing background for Kenny Rogers.  Look for more of his conversation with Kenny Rogers and connect with him at michaelpcoleman.com or on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP