In June 2012, Bonnaroo broke its attendance record, selling 100,000 tickets. The four-day, camping-only Tennessee festival featured Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phish, Childish Gambino, Ludacris, Santigold — and, maybe most surprisingly, Kenny Rogers.
The festival had a history of booking left-field country veterans at its smaller “Other Tent,” including Loretta Lynn and Kris Kristofferson. Rogers reveled in the opportunity to play for a younger audience, grinning through a 21-song set of hits that included “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and a guest appearance by Lionel Richie; the two sang “Lady” with their arms around each other. That wasn’t the end of Rogers’ epic Bonnaroo. During their festival-closing main-stage set, Phish invited Rogers onstage for a joyous run through “The Gambler.”
“It was really something special,” Rogers told Rolling Stone over the phone a few days later. Rogers, who died on Friday at his home in Georgia, was still beaming after winning over a young crowd of jam-band and hip-hop fans. “It was different in that the age [of the crowd] was about half the age of what I play to. I wasn’t sure going into it how many of the songs they would know. But that’s the risk you take: You don’t grow if you don’t step out of your comfort zone.
“In doing this, I was way outside my comfort zone,” Rogers said. “But they made me feel very comfortable very quickly. They must have parents who listen to my music. That’s the only thing I can think of here.”
The Bonnaroo set was further proof that Rogers was game for anything — just revisit his guest episode on Reno 911!, where the police force is enlisted to do security for a book signing to which no one shows up (Rogers gets shot at the end). At Bonnaroo, Rogers braved the mud (“that place can get ugly when it rains”) and took in as much music as possible. “I got the chance to hear some alternative music,” he said. “It was really fun for me to be exposed to people like Phish, to people like the Civil Wars.”
“I played to crowds that size at the peak of my career, but not recently,” Rogers said. “You could do it a thousand times, but you can’t help but be impressed.”
Rogers’ guest appearance with Phish was a blast. The stakes for Phish’s set were high, given that they had invited out Bruce Springsteen in 2009. Trey Anastasio introduced Rogers as “someone we’re absolutely thrilled to play with right now.” Rogers, casually wearing his backstage pass, embraced Anastasio as the crowd chanted, “Kenny, Kenny.” They kicked into a rambling version of “The Gambler,” with keyboardist Page McConnell complementing Rogers’ howling vocals with excellent barroom piano lines.
“We had a great time backstage rehearsing,” Rogers said. “There seemed to be mutual respect. I got to learn how they were going to sound. Sometimes, doing a song without your comfort [zone], or your environment, you can get lost completely. But they were great. They knew the sound. We were off to the races.”
Playing for a football-field-size crowd caused Rogers to reminisce about earlier days in his career: “It was great. I’ve done that before. I played to that and bigger at the peak of my career, but not recently. It was great to be asked to do it.” Asked to recall the last time he played to a crowd that big, he said, “Probably in the middle Eighties. We used to do two shows a day with that many people in stadiums. You could do it a thousand times, but you can’t help but be impressed, and feel the give and take, in what I get from there.”
Rogers left the festival with a mission: Listen to more Phish. “Boy, there was some good stuff there, I’d love to hear more from them,” he said. In 2017, he embarked on his massive The Gambler’s Last Deal Tour, which included an all-star blowout at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena with Richie, Dolly Parton, Jamey Johnson, Chris Stapleton, and another musically adventurous band, the Flaming Lips.