You would think, at age 74, Kenny Rogers might consider calling it a day career-wise. After all, what artistic turf is left for the veteran country-pop performer to conquer?
Review his stats and you will see just how complete his accomplishments have been. He has scored 21 No.1 hits and a dozen chart-topping albums, is ranked by the Recording Industry Association of America as the eighth-highest-selling male artist of all time and has charted a single every decade since the ’50s.
And, of course, there are the hits – radio-friendly country-informed yarns like The Gambler, Coward of the County and Lucille – that have made Rogers one of the most visible and bankable artists of any era.
So why not pack it in, get off the road and enjoy the fruits of such success? Simple. Rogers, after all these years, is having too much fun to quit.
“I’ve always said that music is what I am, and everything else is what I do,” said the singer, who performed Tuesday at Richmond’s EKU Center for the Arts. “I do truly love it. Traveling and getting to the shows isn’t any more fun than it used to be. But once I get there, there is really no place I would rather be. I love walking out on the stage and I love the response. And I have a great security blanket with all the hits that I have.
“That’s something I’ve found from my own personal experience. When I go to a concert, that’s what I want to hear. I don’t want to hear someone’s political opinion. I don’t want to hear their religious beliefs. I want to hear the hits.”
Staying in the performance game offers its share of surprises, too. Take last summer, when Rogers found himself onstage at, of all places, Bonnaroo, the youth-driven, rock-dominate outdoor festival. Rogers played a well-received set of his own hits, with an unannounced Lionel Richie as a special guest, then dropped many jaws that evening by joining jam-band giant Phish onstage for a collaborative version of The Gambler.
“What is really sad and scary is that I had never heard of Bonnaroo up that point,” Rogers said. “That’s how detached I was. And when I got there, the first thing I said was, “OK. What’s wrong with this picture? Bonnaroo and Kenny Rogers?’ But I think the audience got it. They got that I was way, way out of my comfort zone. I think most of these kids’ parents were probably playing my music when they were growing up, so there was some familiarity.
“As for Phish, I had no idea they even knew who I was. See, I never take anything for granted. But we sat in a trailer and they started saying, ‘All right, what do you want to do?’ And they named off about eight or nine songs of mine. I thought, ‘Wow. How would they know this?’ And they started to play little bits of Coward of the County and singing it. I thought the real key to everyone’s familiarity is going to be The Gambler because that is a kind of a signature piece of music for me. And they loved it and played it great. So it was a great experience for me. Their crowd seemed to enjoy it, too. That’s really all you can ask for.”
Rogers said one of his prime ice-breaking devices in playing to any audience, whether veteran fans or Bonnaroo novices, is humor – the ability to tell, share and, in some cases, be the butt of a joke.
That side of his performance profile was showcased in 2004 when he played himself in the askew police comedy Reno 911. Rogers broke into laughter as he recalled the experience.
“You know, there is no script on that show. I walked in and they said, ‘OK, here’s the premise. We’re your security guards and we’re going to protect you at the mall. They didn’t tell me how they were going to go about it. They would say things and I would react. In the end, one of the guys comes up and shoots me as he was trying to protect me. I didn’t even know that was coming. That was so much fun.
“My mom told me when I was a kid, ‘Find a job that you love and you will never work a day in your life.’ My success has allowed me to extend my career at a very high level, and for that, I’m truly appreciative. I think it’s because I’ve had such a well-rounded career, doing things like Reno 911, doing some other styles of music with Lionel Richie, Barry Gibb and people like that. That’s allowed me to pick up an audience that is kind of unique.”
Kenny Rogers and Billy Dean perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 4 at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. Tickets are $60.50-$75.50. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to