On Friday (March 27), Capitol Nashville sent “Goodbye” by Kenny Rogers to country radio with the note, “those closest to Kenny wanted to make this track available to all of this fans.” The move came one week after the superstar died on March 20 at the age of 81.
The Lionel Richie-penned tune had been released once — on Kenny Rogers: The First 50 Years, a 45-track compilation released by Time Life in 2009, as one of three previously unreleased tunes –but otherwise the story behind the song was a bit of a mystery.
Universal Music Group Nashville CEO Mike Dungan, however, shed light on the song’s origins with Billboard and the backstory leading up to its recording.
As then-head of Capitol Nashville, Dungan signed Rogers in 2006. During Dungan’s tenure at RCA, he had worked the 1983 Rogers/Dolly Parton smash “Islands in the Stream.” The first thought was to release another hits package since Capitol controlled much of Rogers’ catalog. “I got on a few puddle jumpers and went to a state fair and watched Kenny sing,” he recalls. “I was the youngest person by a million miles in the audience and it struck me that Kenny’s voice, in the middle range, was just perfect.”
“I went back to him and said, ‘How would you like to make a new record? We’ll cut your vocal really dry. I don’t want any of the reverb [from the earlier records]. I think that was awful. But we’ll make the production fat and perfect.’”
With Dann Huff as producer, Rogers cut the album as Dungan suggested. One problem: Rogers hated it. “He wasn’t used to hearing his voice that way,” Dungan says. “Then, two weeks later, he called me and said it was his favorite record he’d ever made.”
Capitol Nashville released the album, Water & Bridges, in March 2006; it would go on to hit No. 5 on the Top Country Albums chart. The first single, “I Can’t Unlove You,” soared to No. 17 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, making it Rogers’ highest charting song in years. Two subsequent singles, “The Last Ten Years (Superman)” and Don Henley collaboration “Calling Me,” stalled in the 50s.
Next, the label wanted Rogers to consider recording some concept albums, such as tributes to other eras, but he wanted to continue to record new material that could potentially garner radio play.
“He goes on the sly and cut some songs with Tony Brown,” Dungan says. “I didn’t think they were strong enough to get [on] the radio.” Those differences led to an amicable parting of the ways. One of the songs from the sessions with Brown was “Goodbye.” Shortly thereafter, Rogers’ then-manager Jim Mazza licensed the previously unreleased track from Capitol for the Time-Life collection.
“Lionel originally wrote the song for someone in his family but wasn’t recording at the time,” Brown recalls. “He thought it would be a good song for Kenny and gave it to Jim Mazza. Jim brought it to us and we thought ‘why not? Lionel writes perfect melodies for Kenny’s voice.'”
Brown remembers the recording sessions fondly. “Working with him was easy,” he says. “I put a lot of work into making sure we got the best vocals. Kenny’s voice is stellar and he is just so iconic. I wanted to make sure he sounded the best he could.”
Following Rogers’ death, Dungan reached out to Rogers’ current manager, Ken Levitan, expressing condolences to him and to Rogers’ family. Levitan brought up “Goodbye,” which deals with losing a loved one. “He really says goodbye in that song,” Dungan says. “I don’t know what was going on in his head when he cut it.” Discussions about releasing the song followed, and after finding in it the vault — which took about three days — the label sent it to radio.
While Capitol Nashville’s radio promotion team is working the song to radio, the idea is for fans to enjoy the music more than anything else. “I don’t want it to look like we’re trying to take advantage of Kenny’s passing,” he said. “I don’t want radio to feel like we’re jamming on them.”
He believes that Rogers and Brown cut around five tracks, which the label is gathering together to review. As far as releasing all the songs, Dungan says it is too soon to make any decision. “I don’t know if we’re going to put them out,” he says. “We don’t want to look like we’re opportunistic, but if they’re good songs, then the fans should hear them.”
Brown confirms he and Rogers also cut “Tell Me That You Love Me,” a duet with Dolly Parton that was unreleased until it also appeared on the Time-Life set. “It was the first song Kenny and Dolly Parton had done together since ‘Islands in the Stream.’ We recorded at Ocean Way studios in Nashville,” Brown says. “Kenny came to the studio very casual in a track suit and when Dolly came in she was all done up and glamorous. I asked Dolly why she was so dressed up and she replied ‘You never know when someone is going to want to take your picture.’ It was a lot of fun working with them.”
In the meantime, Dungan, like so many, is mourning the superstar as an artist and a friend.
“He was just a blast to hang around,” he says, recalling a special evening in 2005 the night before Rogers and Richie cut an episode of CMT’s Crossroads. “My wife and I had a dinner with him and his wife and Lionel and I laughed so hard my stomach hurt for two days. If I could recreate a couple of moments in my life, that would be one of them.”