Kenny Rogers: 'I figured, someone asked for me, so here I come'

Ahead of his Glastonbury appearance, the country legend talks about telling jokes onstage, being huge in Jamaica, and having a higher tennis ranking than Björn Borg

So, Kenny: you're playing Glastonbury!
[Chuckles] Yes I am. What's wrong with that picture? They showed me a photo of 250,000 people. Now, I've played to that number of people before, but it was a long time ago. They all knew my music and they were all my age, too. When they started talking about Glastonbury, I said, now wait a minute: I know the acts that play Glastonbury and that just does not sound like me. But I figured, somebody asked for me, so here I come. The rain? Nothing stops me.

What happened at Bonnaroo last year? The reviews of your set were incredible. (1)
They were! I was as shocked as you are. It was a weird thing. I think it was because I admitted right off the box, which I'll do at Glastonbury too, that I was way out of my comfort zone. You just have to do what you do and hope somebody knows what you're doing. I'm convinced that all these kids' parents played my music for them when they were young. I think that counts as child abuse, heh heh heh. So they kind of know it vicariously.

You've been inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame this year. I don't mean to be rude, but they took their time about that, didn't they? 
Well, I'm glad it came now, rather than at the peak of my career. I think that, when you're in the fast lane, you don't take notes. I had so much going on in my life at that time. I almost would have expected it. They gave it to me now at a time when I can fully enjoy it. I have twin boys that are nine years old. I have a 46-year-old son and a 30-year-old son. So it'll be fun for me to share it with them and my wife, and really make it a family thing when we go. It's a huge honour and I don't want to belittle that, but I'm glad it happened now rather than then.

You're nearly 75 and you have nine-year-old twins. You must be knackered!
Someone needs to say a prayer for me! If I take them out individually, they're wonderful children. Polite, sweet, they do everything right. You take them out together, you have to rope 'em to keep 'em together. I've never seen anything like it. The difference in their personalities when they have each other to support them… it's wonderful but in a dangerous way.

Between songs, you're very funny onstage, almost like a comedian.
I went to see Ray Charles when I was about 12 years old and I think that's what made me want to get into the business. Everybody laughed at everything he said. They clapped for every song. It's never been important to me for people to leave my shows and say, "He's the best singer I've ever heard". But it's important that everyone leaves saying "I enjoyed that". I think that's probably one of the things that happened at Bonnaroo. The fact that I talked to people, having a mini-conversation. In amidst all these great bands, who got up there and played for four hours straight and never said anything. Incredible musicians, but I'm an entertainer.

You're huge in Jamaica. Why do you think that is?
I didn't know anything about it until I went there. We just assumed it was a show, until we got on the road and it took us four hours to get from our hotel to the concert venue because so many people were walking to the venue. I think they were all stoned, because they were walking real slow. Anyway, it was quite an experience out there. I got up there – and I never assume people know my music, the minute you assume that you're in trouble – and they knew every word. One of the most fun performances I've ever done. Jamaicans live music, they don't just listen to it. It was wonderful.

You've played jazz, psychedelic rock, pop, folk, and yet you always come back to country. What keeps drawing you back?
My mom used to listen to Hank Williams while she was ironing. A big pitcher of iced tea on the ironing board, Hank Williams on the radio, or Little Jimmy Dickins (2). That's what I was raised on. But I met a guy who invited me to play bass in his jazz group. I said: "I don't play bass". He said: "I'll teach you – there's more demand for bad bass players than bad guitarists." I spent 10 years in a very avant-garde jazz group. And then I joined the New Christy Minstrels (3), which was the ultimate in simplicity in music. It was through them I learned the power of a story-song about the problems of the people. From there, I went to the First Edition, who, with the exception of I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), a psychedelic song, were country rock with a little pop flavour. And from there I made my way to Nashville.

Nashville is seen as a very conservative place, but you've never shied away from controversial subjects: Reuben James is about race, Coward Of The County is about rape.
That's what I think my strength in music is. I looked for two kinds of song when I started. Ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear: She Believes In Me, You Decorated My Life. And then I looked for socially significant, important songs. Reuben James was about a black man who raised a white child. Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town is about a disabled Vietnam veteran, Coward Of The County as you said is about a rape. I love those types of songs.

I found an old newspaper story online about you beginning a parallel career in professional tennis in the late 70s.  What was that all about?
I'm kind of an impulsive obsessive, I don't know if there's a category like that. I get impulsively involved in something and I get obsessed with it. I did that with tennis. I didn't start playing until I was 35 years old, and then I got obsessed with it and I played eight hours a day. I played in professional matches. I had a national ranking. I was one spot above Björn Borg in doubles.

You're joking! (4)
No! That's just my nature. Then I couldn't physically play tennis any more, so I took up photography. I studied for four years under a guy who'd been Ansel Adams' (5) assistant … [describes photographer Adams' "zone system" codification of the principles of sensitomery in mind-boggling depth].

When was the last time you didn't sing The Gambler at a live show?
Heh heh heh, probably back in high school. It's one of those songs, like Islands In the Stream or Lady, that I'm contractually obliged to do.

Are you not bored with singing it by now?

No, I love that. To come out onstage and know that at the end of the show, I've got The Gambler? That's a weapon to me.



(1) Rogers played the US festival last year. His set was so well received, it became national news in the US.

(2) 4ft 11in Grand Ole Opry star. Biggest hit: May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.

(3) Legendary folk combo that also variously featured the Byrds' Gene Clark and Barry "Eve Of Destruction" McGuire.

(4) He's not.

(5) Late US photographer famed for landscape photos of the American west.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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