Twenty years ago, Kenny Rogers was the Garth Brooks of his day. “I introduced mega-sales to country music,” he says. With his fatherly mien and fireplace-warm voice, he had an increasingly pop string of hits that embodied middle-American notions of classiness: “Lucille,” “Coward of the County,” “Lady” and “The Gambler,” his signature song. But lately, as country gets more gimmicky and plastic, Rogers seems relatively dignified. With his new hits “Buy Me a Rose” and “The Greatest,” Rogers, 62, became the oldest person ever to top the country charts, and the first to do it on an independent label. Even more startling, the silver-bearded King of Hallmark, condemned by purists for diluting country, is suddenly hip, appearing on new records by Wyclef Jean and Coolio.
It’s odd that you’ve had such enduring success, because you don’t fit into any one category.
I’ve always been too pop for country and too country for pop.
The first guy who was too pop for country and too country for pop was Elvis Presley. Was he a big influence?
Yeah. You know, I knew him pretty well. When I was with the First Edition, in ’74 or ’75, we used to work in the Hilton Lounge [in Las Vegas], and he’d be in the main room. I’d sit in his audience, and he’d introduce me in the middle of the show: “Hey, say hello to my friend Kenny Rogers.” I’d go every night, just to be introduced!
Are you a rap fan?
Rap is communication. It’s almost the ultimate story song. I don’t like gangster rap, but when it talks about what’s happening on the streets, that’s no different from the country artist saying, “My dad can’t get a job because he doesn’t have an education,” or whatever.
You recorded a Prince song, “You’re My Love,” in 1986.
He wrote it for me. I’m a big fan – he’s brilliant. I’ve always had a following in the black community. I mean, I’ll walk down the streets, and I guarantee more black people will recognize me than white people. If a black person asks for an autograph, I’m much quicker to sign it than I am for a white person.
What’s the source of your affinity with black culture?
I was raised in the Houston projects, and there was a cyclone fence between me and the black community. I used to listen to ’em sing songs in church every Sunday. They were the same songs we were doing – but, boy, they were different. And Ray Charles was my first influence. They are a people who have suffered more pain – and, on a daily basis, still suffer more pain than I will ever know.
Is it fair to say you grew up poor?
Yeah. Before I was born, my dad didn’t take care of the family well. My older brothers and sisters had to quit school to go to work, to help support the family. I think they had a lot of bitterness and anger. When I came along, we were a little more affluent, for lack of a better term. We were upper-lower-class [laughs].
You had a psychedelic-rock hit in 1968 with “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” – you were a hippie, weren’t you?
I had the look —– long hair, the earring, and I wore those pink glasses —– but I never lived that lifestyle. Well, I took mescaline one time. I remember sitting in front of the stereo, listening to Cat Stevens –— I could pick out every instrument. The first eight hours was wonderful. The second eight hours wasn’t bad, and the third eight hours scared me to death. I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad it’s over. And, you know, I smoked hash a couple times [laughs]. This was when television went off at midnight. They came to get us the next morning. We were sitting at the foot of the bed, watching the test pattern. I don’t know how long we’d been there. But it was one of the better test patterns.
Is there a side of you, musically, that is at odds with your renown for mainstream Top Forty songs?
I would love to do something like Babyface. But I have to be careful. The minute I start down that path, country radio will shut me off again. You know, country music has a box, and there’s four corners. You can be all the way out to any one of those corners and still get played. But the minute you step outside that box, you’re gonna get shut down. The trick is to be so successful that you can move the box.
Tell me how you met your fifth wife, Wanda.
She was a hostess at an Italian restaurant in Atlanta, and she had the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. I said to the manager, “Would you ask her to give me a call if she gets a chance?” She was twenty-six, and I was fifty, maybe. The problem was, she looked nineteen. God, we went out to dinner, and I felt like I was with my granddaughter!
Have you tried Viagra?
Oh, yeah – I love Viagra. I don’t need it, but I tried it. It’s a great legal drug [laughs]
A lot of your songs are about sex: “While the Feeling’s Good,” “Morning Desire,” “Scarlet Fever.” I get the feeling that sexuality is important to you?
Absolutely. It’s what drives me. You have to keep passion alive in a relationship. Otherwise, you become friends. Friends are wonderful, but that’s not what I’m looking for [laughs].
Now that you’re back on country radio, do you feel vindicated?
I feel pride that we played by their rules and got back in. We won. Now we’re in the box again.
Are you sleeping better these days?
I always slept pretty good. But now I sleep with a smile.