Kenny Rogers may have become an international superstar because of the 1978 hit song "The Gambler," but over many decades, his fans have developed an even closer relationship with him because of his holiday music. Rogers has been performing his "Christmas and Hits" tour for 34 years, and he's just released his sixth holiday album, Once Again It's Christmas.
Weekend Edition reached Rogers at, where else, a casino in Verona, N.Y. Hear his conversation with NPR's Rachel Martin at the audio link, and read more below.
Rachel Martin: Lots of people do Christmas albums, but you have made this a part of your career for a really long time. How did this happen? How did you become the go-to Christmas guy?
Kenny Rogers: I've never been overtly religious, but I've always been deeply spiritual and Christmas gives me a chance to feel all of the things that I really feel. When I was a kid, I grew up in the projects, and my mom always managed to make Christmas special. My boys are now 11 years old and we're not sure what they believe and what they don't believe, so we just make sure they're covered.
You mentioned your mom put extra effort into Christmas even though your family didn't have a lot of material wealth. What was Christmas like in your family?
Well, she always made sure that we had a special Christmas dinner, and that the friends and family were around, and we got some kind of gifts and the joy of opening them. My dad was a different story. He acted like he didn't care what he got for Christmas, and so it kind of took the fun out of it — until one Christmas, we came home early from church and he was laying on the floor underneath the Christmas, tree opening one end of his gifts to see what it was. And it put a whole new thing on Christmas — it made us realize he did care, and it was so much more fun after that.
You do a song on this album with Alison Krauss, called "Some Children See Him."
She has this angelic voice. She's so in tune, which is unbelievable.
You mean just literally she can hit a C-sharp like no one else.
There's no question. And she can do it every time. but the great thing about Alison is, she came in one day and she didn't feel like she was ready to record, so she said, "You know, let me come back tomorrow." And she came back the next day was absolutely perfect.
Have you ever shown up to a recording session and just said, "You know what, I don't have it today?"
[Laughs] I say that every time I record. You know, I'm so lucky. I work with engineers and producers. This particular album, my throat was so hammered, and how they managed to get decent vocals out of me is a miracle. So, I give them the credit for it.
Now I'm just diving in and getting personal, but why was your throat in such bad shape?
You know, I've been going through that lately, and I think I'm going to have to have some vocal cord work done when I get through this year. I think one of my vocal cords has atrophied a little bit and they have to go in and put a filler in it — they said it will definitely improve your voice, but it may sound totally different. I said, well, I don't know if I can do that before my Christmas tour. I mean, sound like Johnny Cash after this.
Which wouldn't be so bad.
That wouldn't be so bad. I'd like that.
There's a great gospel song on this album called "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" that you recorded with the a capella group Home Free. I know this song, but I don't think a lot of people do, and it's kind of a surprising song to include on a Christmas album. Why did you want to put it on there?
I had never heard this song before — you know, it's an old spiritual song. But it's funny how fate works out. My boys, Justin and Jordan, are in the school choir. I went to the choir director, and coincidentally we were talking about me doing my Christmas album. And I said, "Well, I've got this great song and I really would like to do it with an a capella group." And she said, "If you like a capella, you have to look up Home Free." So I went back home and Googled Home Free. Being the technical genius that I am, at first I thought I'd won a house. And then I finally found them, and they were spectacular. I mean, I was so impressed with them, and they were perfect for doing this.
You have been recording albums since the late 1950s, you have won all kinds of accolades, fans in all corners of the music industry and across genres, but I cannot talk with Kenny Rogers and not ask you about "The Gambler." Is that okay?
Yeah, of course.
I just wonder if you get tired of it. It's a song that is so much a part of you and your professional identity.
Ironically neither Don Schlitz nor myself are gamblers ; Don Schlitz wrote the song. I learned a long time ago that I can't win enough money to excite me, but I can lose enough to depress me. So I don't gamble and Don doesn't gamble either. He said he was a technical adviser for some company and he was walking to work one day and he just started singing the lyrics, that's what came to him.
Why do you think it worked for you? Clearly there was something about the song, but yours wasn't the first version. What was it about you performing it that stuck with people?
Well, you know, I do two kinds of songs. If you go back and look at all of my songs, they fall into one of two categories: There's story songs that have social significance, or they're ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear. And "The Gambler" was a story song. The great thing about country music is good story songs: They tell you where you are to start with, like a bar in Toledo or on a train bound for nowhere, and then they carry you on this emotional journey and then they leave you somewhere saying, "Oh, I get it." I think I am, if nothing else, a good storyteller. I've never felt I was a particularly good singer, but I am a good storyteller.
When you look back on your career, does it make sense to you how it all happened? Did you end up with the career that you wanted?
Well, kind of. I'm a student of the business, you know, and Kirby Stone — he was in a big pop group that used to take Broadway show songs and release them as pop records — he was kind of my mentor. He told me one time, "Don't ever forget, this is a business, and if you don't treat it like a business it'll eat you up."
So I think I started studying what happened, and I realized very quickly that there's really only two ways you can compete when you go out there to sing: You could do what everybody else is doing and do it better, or do something nobody else is doing and you don't invite comparison. And I've chosen that road because I think I'm better at being original than I am a follower. I had my acceptance speech at the CMAs, the Artist of a Lifetime Award --
Congratulations, by the way, for that.
Oh, thank you so much! And I said that when I was 10 years old I went to see Ray Charles. I didn't even know I could sing, and I told my mom, "That's what I want to do." People laughed at everything he said and they clapped for everything he sang. What more could you ask for? So I set out to do that, and I've been extremely lucky, luckier than most.
When you talk with young musicians, is there one piece of guidance or advice that you offer to people who look at your career and say, "I want that life"?
Yup: Pay your taxes on time, put 20 percent aside, stay away from drugs, and have a good time.
Did you never go down that road?
I never did. I had a brother-in-law who was a drug addict. He was the best athlete — from junior high school going into high school — that they had ever seen in the state of Texas, and he got messed up with drugs. He sat me down on the porch one day and said, "Promise me that you will never do drugs. Look at me. Look at my life." I promised him. And since then it has just never been a thing with me. I've always respected the job too much; I know you can't do both.
I've read that you're thinking about retiring next year?
Oh, I've got to. I can't walk anymore. I tell the people on stage that I had a knee replacement, and I think they replaced the wrong knee. I swore I would do this until it embarrassed me and I'm getting to that point now. I don't like being disabled, for lack of a better term, and I've kind of done it all and there aren't many more mountains to climb and I really, really want to spend this time with my boys. I have a bucket list of things I want to do with them, and I want them to be able to look back and say, "My dad took me there."