THE voice down the phone from Houston, Texas, is as familiar as a favourite uncle, an easy drawl heard countless times over the airwaves singing any of his multitude of hits.
Little wonder Kenny Rogers — who stole the show at Glastonbury this weekend — sounds like someone you meet every day, having had global record sales of 120m. A measure of his unique success is his rare claim to having a hit chart record in each of the past seven decades right back to the 1950s.
“I’ve never considered myself a great singer, but I do have a certain way as a storyteller,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky in finding many great songs that have had a staying power, and have lingered longer in the heart.”
Known for his raspy vocals in a variety of genres — jazz, folk, country and pop — Rogers will be inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame at an official ceremony next October. With an ancestry that includes Irish and American Indian, the 76-year-old credits a childhood where music was always a constant. “We were pretty poor, without a doubt,” he says. “But there was always an appreciation of music, something that’s stayed with me through my entire life.”
The spotlight started focusing on Rogers with his first hit, Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In, back in 1968, followed shortly after with Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town. But it was his breakthrough performance of Lucille in 1977 that propelled him to superstardom, launching one of the most prosperous careers in the history of music.
Then came his smash hit, The Gambler, a trademark ‘story song’ that also became a TV movie, starring Rogers himself in the title role as Brady Hawkes. The film spawned four follow-ups, making it the longest running mini-series franchise on television. Another song, Coward Of The County, repeated the trick with a subsequent TV series. Global hits like Islands In The Stream have seen him listed as the fourth best-selling male artist of all time, behind Elton John, Neil Diamond and Elvis Presley. Still packing out venues, the Texan feels his latter years have reached just the right balance of adulation and privacy: “I’m still signing enough autographs to satisfy my ego, but not so many that it invades my privacy,” he says with a chuckle.
This current tour of Europe may well be his last, he admits, as the demands of his family finally take precedence over the road. “I’ve got a wife and two eight-year-old boys who need to see a lot more of their daddy, and there is a good chance that this will be my last international tour. I’ve given my whole life to music and enjoyed every moment of it, but now it’s time for me to focus on home and looking after that side of life. I’ll keep touring in the States, but quality time with the boys is important now. I need to be there for them instead of being gone all the time.”
During his brief time in Ireland, Rogers will indulge another lifelong passion — photography. “I want to get some time around Kerry and Killarney, I’ve heard so much about the beauty of those parts, I want to get it in my viewfinder.
“Photography was an obsession for me as a younger man, now it’s a happy passion I relax with.”
He has published two photographic books, and during the Clinton presidency, he was invited to the White House to shoot a portrait of Hillary Clinton.
He played the Glastonbury Festival yesterday. & “I was surprised as anybody to asked there,” he admits. One of his ambitions over the weekend was to meet Mick Jagger. “We’ve never met, and I don’t know if he’s heard about me, but I’ve sure heard about him.”
And what would he like to talk about to the Rolling Stones vocalist? “Probably fishing or shooting jackrabbits — you know, the usual sort of rock star talk.”
Regardless of the numerous musical genres he’s grappled with over his seven decades, country remains the heartbeat of Rogers’ existence — a touchstone that defines his legacy.
While the new generation are giving the genre their own twist, it remains a common ground where old and young artists continue to thrive.
“The songs today are about youth, it’s another expression of how country music continues to grow. They’re singing about the intellectual pain, and it’s not wrong, it’s just where music is.”
For the thousands who’ll pack his upcoming Irish concerts, a stroll through the enormous Rogers back catalogue is guaranteed.
“People want to hear the hits and that’s what they’ll get,” he says.
“New songs tend to make an audience work too hard deciding if they like it or not. When you do a hit, they just relax and enjoy it.”
* Kenny Rogers plays the INEC, Killarney, tomorrow and Sunday, and the O2, Dublin, on Friday.
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