For many, the name Kim Carnes calls to mind one particular song title: “Bette Davis Eyes.” That’s what spending nine weeks at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981 will do. Two years before that song hit the charts, though, Carnes was approached by country-pop superstar Kenny Rogers to work on a different sort of project. The singer wanted to create a concept album telling the tale of a modern-day cowboy, and he wanted Carnes — a prolific songwriter who’d spent the first part of her career penning tunes for the likes of David Cassidy — to write it. Teaming up with her husband and bandmate, Dave Ellingson, Carnes co-wrote all 10 tracks for 1980’s Gideon, which became Rogers’ fifth Number One album on the country chart.
“We gave him a name, Gideon Tanner, and we had to make up an entire life story for him,” Carnes tells Rolling Stone Country. “The album starts with his funeral. He also gets put in jail for cattle rustling. He’s a rogue, a bad boy. His girl at home loves him dearly, but there’s a song where he says, ‘You need a man whose heart is only one place in the night and I’m not it.'”
The lone single released from Gideon, in March 1980, was a romantic, cautionary duet titled “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer.” A Number One country track in Canada, “Dreamer” was a crossover hit in America, cracking the Top 5 on the country, pop and adult contemporary charts. But in order to come up with the song, Carnes had to completely step into the character of Gideon, since she didn’t really see eye-to-eye with her creation on a particular subject.
“I’ll do the song in every show, but I always say that I don’t really think that way personally,” she says with a laugh. “Because I’m a dreamer, [and] all my friends are dreamers. I think it’s a wonderful thing to dream big. The song was just written in the context of who Gideon Tanner is in this life story.”
Rogers’ fifth Top Ten pop hit would also be Carnes’ first. During the decades that followed, she continued writing songs for country artists, scoring a Number One hit in 1993 with Vince Gill and Reba McEntire’s “The Heart Won’t Lie” and, several years earlier, notching another chart-topper with “Make No Mistake (She’s Mine),” recorded by Rogers and Ronnie Milsap. The song had previously been recorded by Carnes and Barbra Streisand in 1984. Other country stars who either recorded Carnes’ compositions or employed her as a background singer include Tim McGraw, Carolyn Dawn Johsnon, Tanya Tucker, Suzy Bogguss and Conway Twitty. Still, it’s her role as co-creator of the landmark Gideon album that packs the biggest surprise.
“To this day, people will come up to me. . . Deana Carter and I were doing a show together in Cleveland, Mississippi, recently, and she said, ‘I had no idea you wrote that entire album for Kenny,'” Carnes explains. “‘As long as I’ve known you, I never knew that.'”