Late 1970’s, Kenny Rogers made history in country music by becoming the first artist in the genre to consistently play — and sell out — arenas in the United States. Now he’s saying goodbye to the fans in one final series of very special concerts.
What made those tours different was the fact that, unlike anyone else at the time, Rogers performed in the round. It was an experience that the Country Music Hall of Fame member will forever treasure, though he tells Taste of Country that there were a few scary moments along the way.
“I don’t think I realized how big that was at the time, but it was such a great experience. We had a six-foot wide stage, which was a circle, with the band in the middle. Ronnie Milsap would get on the stage, and run all the way around it. It used to scare me to death. I think he had put some sandpaper on the edges so he knew where the edges were. I didn’t know that, but it would scare me to death. It was a fun time.”
Those memories are front and center for Rogers as he embarks on the Gambler’s Last Deal, a two-year farewell tour that will give the singer a chance to make one final victory lap, akin to that of Brewster Baker, the character that he played in the 1982 motion picture Six Pack. When asked what his reasons are for hanging it up, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Physically, I’m not getting around as well, so that’s why I decided to go with a farewell tour,” he admits. “I’m 77 years old, and I’m not sure how many more years I’ve got, so I wanted to make sure I got this done.” He also stresses there are other reasons tugging at his heartstrings. “I have two boys, and they are 11 years old. I have missed so much of their lives. I have two older boys, and I missed so much of their lives. I was determined not to do that at this time.”
The Gambler’s Last Deal Tour hit the scenic destination of Portland, Maine on May 26, and fans who catch Rogers one last time will be in for some surprises.
“It’s a totally different show than I’ve done before,” Rogers says. “It’s a linear look at my career. I start in 1954 when I was with a group called the Scholars back when I was in high school. We then go to the Bobby Doyle Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, the First Edition and then my solo career. It’s been really good for me.”
Film clips from each of those eras are included as part of the show, including a performance of “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” where the vocals of Dottie West are separated from the original track. It gives the singer one last chance to harmonize with West, with whom he shared the 1978 and 1979 awards for Vocal Duo of the Year from the CMA. West’s impact on Rogers’ career also is saluted with a performance of the 1978 hit “Anyone Who Isn’t Me Tonight” with tour partner Linda Davis. He says that she captures the energetic spirit of West very well. “She plays the part perfectly — especially on the ‘You’ve got the kind of body’ line,” the singer says with a laugh.
Rogers also shook up his set list a little bit for the Gambler’s Last Deal. There are several songs that he hasn’t performed in years, such as “Tell It All Brother,” a 1970 hit for Kenny Rogers & the First Edition that the group actually performed on the steps of Kent State University following the shootings there in on May 4, 1970. The singer says the fans had some input on the set list.
“I sent out a questionnaire to my fan club, and asked them what song they most wanted to hear that they were afraid they wouldn’t hear. I was amazed at how many came back with a song I had written called ‘Love Lifted Me.’ I was shocked. When we do it, it sounds like a huge choir behind me, with everyone singing along.” The song was Rogers’ first major country hit, hitting No. 19 on the charts in 1975.
Another deep catalog nugget from Rogers’ past that is included in the show is “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like You Anymore,” a track from his 1991 album Back Home Again. During the song, several pictures of late musical legends — including West, John Denver and Merle Haggard — appear on the screen.
One entertainment icon from the past that Rogers has a special memory of is Michael Jackson. The two worked together on the USA for Africa project “We Are the World,” and Jackson provided an uncredited harmony on “Goin’ Back to Alabama,” a 1981 recording from Share Your Love. He says that those experiences made him “decent friends” with the singer, but another project gave them an even better chance to know each other.
“I took a photograph of him for my book Your Friends and Mine. I told everybody he’ll be in and out in fifteen minutes. I took two black and white pictures, and two that were in color. He comes over, and brings Bubbles. He was in there for eight hours. He didn’t have anyone to talk to. I remember that Christopher, my son, was about five at the time, and he played with Bubbles, and Michael and I became good friends that day.”
When the second leg of the tour ends next year, don’t look for Rogers on stage or in the studio. To quote the song from which his tour is titled, you’ve got to “know when to fold ‘em.”
“I feel that I owe an honest response to people and right now, I have no intention of coming back and doing anything else. Once I leave, I plan on leaving it to the new guys.” So, what will he miss the most? Rogers stresses the relationship with the fans — and his band and crew, many of whom have been with him for decades.
“We’ve become really good friends. They’ve been with me almost 40 years. I learned how to hire, but I’ve never fired anybody. It’s really been easy for me, especially going back and doing some of the older material, they know it because they were there when I did them originally. You miss the things that are closest to you. I think the band is closest to me through all of that. They were there through the hard times. To have those kind of relationships to look back on makes it really important.”