Kenny Rogers’ 2016 world tour will by no means be his swan song. The legendary entertainer announced on Friday that he’ll retire from the road after next year’s global travels, but that’s just one completed chapter of the long, unfinished book that is his multifaceted career.
“I’m an impulsive obsessive,” the 77-year-old Rogers, who has sold more than 120 million albums, tells Rolling Stone Country. “I impulsively get involved with something and then I obsess with it, just to see how good I can get at it.”
So with his tour bus parked and calendar cleared, the singer can spend 2017 obsessing about side projects he’s been doing all along — but to which he can soon devote a lot more time. Among those endeavors are two books of photography, a hotel and, of course, new music — with Pharrell Williams on his wish list of collaborators.
We sat down with the icon in Nashville to talk about all of the new ventures on his horizon, which also include his 34th Christmas tour and a new holiday album, Once Again It’s Christmas. Rogers tells us about the deep themes that run throughout the LP and about its superstar duet partners, including one whom he likens to Dolly Parton when it comes to their stage chemistry.
There are a lot of religious lessons taught via this album, such as in the title track and “Back to Bethlehem.” Was it important to you to make this more about the true meaning of Christmas and less about Santa Claus?
I’ve never been overtly religious, but I’ve always been deeply spiritual. . . I listened to the whole album the other day with my wife and kids, just to get in the spirit. And I’m very proud of it.
The record company told me something I didn’t know: If someone goes to buy a Christmas album and doesn’t see songs they know, they won’t buy it. So I did “Little Drummer Boy” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Jennifer Nettles. And I did a beautiful song with Alison Krauss called “Some Children See Him,” which is about how different races of kids see Jesus different than white people do. It was a thought-provoker, and anything Alison sings is going to be special.
Did you and Jennifer strike up a friendship after singing together at the 2013 CMA Awards?
We did. She’s one of the few people since Dolly that I really felt a connection to when she sang. I felt like she really cared about what she was singing and enjoyed it. We’ve talked 20 times about doing duets, but I’ve done this a long time and know you never start with a partner. You find a song and you say, “Who can sing this well?” Because if you force someone to do a song, you’re not going to be successful. But when I heard that song, I knew Jennifer would be perfect for it.
And now Jennifer is playing Dolly’s mom in the movie about her life. Do you know if someone will play you in that movie?
I hope not! But if so, let’s go with Brad Pitt. [Laughs]
You were really hands-on with this album, working with your producers to make its instrumentation unique. But at this point in your career, you could’ve just emailed your vocals and called it a day.
Well, I did, actually.
Then I’m giving you too much credit!
[Laughs] But I enjoy this so much. With duets, you go in and sing but then the other person comes in and does so much better. So you come in afterwards and try to catch up! Everybody sings better on duets than they do by themselves.
Will your holiday tour also show your spiritual side?
My Christmas show is my chance to pass on to the world how I feel about Christmas. But let me tell you, by Christmas day, I’m Christmas’d out! But we start it up on the East coast, where it’s starting to snow, and people want to feel Christmas. They want to understand that there’s a bigger reason in this world than just working and getting your paycheck.
We use local choirs and local kids. Linda Davis sings a couple of songs with the kids, and we do a few songs together. She has this beautiful, distinct voice. She brings a lift to our show when she comes out.
You’ve been doing this Christmas tour for 34 years. How do you keep it fresh?
They don’t want fresh! They want Christmas. Throughout the whole year, they’re bogged down with paying bills or bad marriages and stuff, and they just want to feel Christmas.
Every now and then, I’ll do “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and I tell stories about how some of these songs are written, and that was written by two ladies in California based on a letter from a soldier in World War II. If you think about this song from his perspective, he says, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” And all the veterans [in the audience] stand up. It’s about recognition of good deeds.
The cover of Once Again It’s Christmas is a gorgeous landscape photo that you took yourself. Are you still doing a lot of professional photography?
I have a new book that I’m doing. There are probably 550 pictures, so there will be at least two books. One will be called American Beauty, and it’s all waterfalls and beautiful canyon shots. It’s really spectacular. And the other will be places I’ve been and things I’ve seen, and it’ll be pictures from China, Africa, Europe, Switzerland, over the Alps in a helicopter. They gave me an honorary master’s degree from the Professional Photographers Association.
How about your interior design business? Are you still active with it?
I am. In fact, I’m about to do a project with a friend of mine, and I can’t talk a lot about it but it’ll be called Kenny World and have everything you ever dreamed of. We’re going to do a hotel, and I’m going to design it. I’m going to decorate all the rooms.
Your old friend, Lionel Richie just announced that he’s doing a Las Vegas residency. You actually started your career doing that, working for Steve Wynn in Sin City. Could you ever be coaxed into going back and doing a residency?
Lionel is doing a residency? Where? That bum! [Laughs] I started at the Golden Nugget. Steve Wynn came and asked me, “Will you come downtown? I promise you, I’ll make it worth your while.” He really jump-started my career. But I’m not much on residencies, having kids. [Rogers’ youngest children are 11-year-old twin boys.] They’d love it, though. . . They’d be gambling!
How about a duets album with old friends like Lionel and Dolly? Do you think an album of new collaborations is anywhere in the near future?
The record company is talking about it, but it’s extremely time consuming in that you have to get people to agree to do it. People have their own schedules, or sometimes the record company won’t let them. But if we do it, I’d like to do it with different people like Pharrell, he writes beautiful music. Or Tony Bennett. He used to come in when I was with a jazz group and sing with us.
When we spoke last year, you hinted at retirement, blaming a bad knee and shoulder. How are you doing now?
I’ve got a whole comedy routine [on stage]. I say, “They replaced my knee, but I think they replaced the wrong knee. If I should fall, don’t feel like you have to help me because I have Life Alert.” Look, if you wobble around the stage and don’t tell them why, they’ll wonder. So you tell them why. But I feel good.