Kenny Rogers on Eclectic New Album and (Finally) Entering Hall of Fame

Kenny Rogers
Piper Ferguson

When the San Francisco 49ers were down by six in the fourth quarter in 1984, Coach Bill Walsh had to feel assured to have the services of Joe Montana on his side. Ditto that for Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan on the basketball side of things. One could describe the competitive spirit of Kenny Rogers the same way. 

Though he has sold over one hundred million records worldwide -- and recorded thirty records that have topped either the country, pop, or AC charts, Rogers approaches his craft with much the same energy as an artist just starting out. With the release this week of his latest, "You Can't Make Old Friends," the singer finds himself back in the game of music making – and still trying to find that winning ace that might touch a chord with the audience. He admits the process has changed a bit for him over the years. 

"The hardest part about doing an album is finding the songs, and when you're at the peak of your career, the great writers send you all the great songs. But, when you're not, you have to go find them," he said.

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When it comes to his song-selecting process for the new record, he said "I've always looked for one of two different types of songs. I look for songs that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear, and I also have looked for songs that have some social significance. On this album, I wanted to stretch out a little bit and do something that might not fall in those two categories."

So, stretch he does – and often -- on the new album. The title cut pairs himself once again with a good luck charm, Dolly Parton. However, rather than a love song a la "Real Love" or "Islands In The Stream," the song is a tender bit of interaction between two longtime friends who have shared the stage together. If the lyrics sound tailor made for the Hall of Fame duo, Rogers says they were.

"That song was specifically written for us by Don Schlitz," Rogers says of the writer who also penned his hits "The Gambler" and "The Greatest." He said the track is the one of the most emotional the two have cut together. "It's very poignantly sad, I think. I love the song, but it deals very close to reality. Dolly told me 'I want you to know I can't sing at your funeral.' I told her 'So, you're assuming that I'm going to go first.' The more we did that song together, it just said some wonderful things like 'Who's gonna finish the stories I start the way you used to do?' With old friends, you know each other well enough to do that – to finish a story." The song was co-written with Ryan Hanna King and Caitlyn Smith.

Rogers has had success telling stories with his music for years, and he does so once again with several cuts on "You Can't Make Old Friends," including the enchanting "Dreams Of The San Joaquin." While a story song, it's vastly different than anything he's ever recorded.

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"That is an unintentionally romantic song," he confirms. "It's the story of a worker in the fields of the San Joaquin valley in the 30s and 40s, during the height of the depression and the Dust Bowl. If you studied history, you know that farmers quit working the soil in Oklahoma and went west. So, all that soil died and created the dust bowl. Eventually, everyone ended up west of the San Joaquin up on the mountaintops. The song is a letter that this worker is writing home to his wife. He says ‘I'm sending you this money. I wish it could be more, but it's harder than I thought to find the work I came here for. It's very poignant to me, and almost cinematic."

October looks to be a big month for Rogers. In addition to the album release, he will be formally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on October 27. He says it's an honor he's waited for, but he also feels it came along at the right time.

"It does have a good ring to it," he says with a smile. "I thought for a while that I wasn't going to make it, but I learned that you can't invite yourself in -- you have to wait for them to call you. But, also timing is everything. I'm much happier that it happened now than if I had gotten it at the height of my career. I think there was so much going on then that I don't think I would have appreciated it as much as I do now."