Roots Watch: Meeting Kenny Rogers
Back when I was researching and writing my book Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, at least one friend misheard what I was doing and thought I was dedicating years of work to Kenny Rogers. There were a lot of polite, puzzled “Is that so’s” and ‘How ’bout that’s.” These two artists strike so many people as so very different that they recoil from speaking the names in the same breath—favoring the monumentalized Jimmie as “traditional” or “more authentic” country or, alternatively, Kenny as “modern” country and a broadly appealing, up-to-date pop star with over 190 million records sold to show for it who, you can rest assured, won’t be regaling you with yodels.
Events of the last few weeks put this pair of alleged opposites practically in my lap. Kenny Rogers performed about a yard away as I attended one of his two Country Music Hall of Fame Artist-in-Residence shows here in Nashville, and just a few days later I traveled to Meridian, Mississippi to contribute to the 59thJimmie Rodgers Festival, which celebrates the life and legacy of the Hall’s iconic first inductee.
On the Hall’s intimate stage, Kenny was utterly professional, assured, and comfortable, whether he was singing a pop-jazz standard like “Walking My Baby Back Home,” his version of “We’ve Got Tonight” (recorded with Sheena Easton, you may recall), originally by that frequent but unforeseen contemporary country role model Bob Seger. And take note, those of you who find Rogers too “mainstream,” he also offered a touching, no histrionics take on John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith.” Rogers was, quite likeable doing them all, sharing his show biz reminiscences, and occasionally leading the select audience in singing the likes of “(You Took a Fine Time to Leave Me) Lucille,” which for my money, was a pretty great hard country record from the get-go.
At 74, Kenny’s less the looming physical presence than he was as the big–bear, bearded leading man in films like The Gambler and Six Pack a generation ago, but the minor diminishments of age seem an oddly good working fit for a singer who always was more of a gentle tenor than the big baritone you’d have expected. Rogers’ essentially modest, simple vocal approach is both the key to his effectiveness—and a key part of his claim to be, for all of the versatility, a country singer. (If his voice was beginning to show some inevitable signs of age, the polished professional found means to sing every line anew without ill effect; he’s gone from the fast ball to several sorts of careful placement pitches, and they work.)
Yet there are certainly those who see Rogers as not particularly country at all, for the very breadth of the music he’s made, and the Hollywood-Las Vegas sort of style with which he’s often associated. But is he really all that far disconnected from the neighborhood of that other, historic Mr. Rodgers? Jimmie recorded “Those Gambler’s Blues” and pop ballads such as “The One Rose,” in Hollywood, no less, appeared in a movie, sang with stars of other genres, and was, in his own day, marketed more as a pop star than a hillbilly specialist. There are parallels, and there have been harder and more pop variations on what country music is and might be from its beginnings, both more often than not accepted—both Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold. And a very high percentage of country fans, in the world people actually live in, listen to more than one sort of music anyway.
The legitimate question that nags at defenders of “Set ’em up, Joe, and play ‘Walkin’ the Floor’,” versus the just say yes “country should be country wide” side of the issue was spelled out well by Mr. Ernest D. Tubb, as he explained why he believed Jimmie Rodgers should be accepted for the “Father of Country Music.” It wasn’t, he’d note, that Jimmie unfailingly performed what everybody might call country (or hillbilly) music, but that he so clearly and flavorfully maintained his connection to the country audience. He showed his ongoing commitment to them, and showed that he was still one of them, wherever he happened to go.
Country audiences very much take note of that, and allow leeway if you do successfully venture far afield as, say, Kenny’s occasional duet partner Dolly Parton has, as long as they see that connection to where they came from and the people who put them there is never really lost. Kenny Rogers started out in pop and rock, of course, and a case could be made (and by those who are less enthralled, often is) that he stopped by country as a sort of versatile tourist. (As opposed to, say a Don Williams, with similar beginnings but clearer endings.) In the Hall’s Ford Theater, Kenny gently mocked Mel Tillis’s “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” as more dated, goofball psychedelic sixties like “Just Walked in to See What Condition My Condition Is In,” but I ‘d venture that a lot of people in that room didn’t see that terrific country song quite that way.
What I never have had much tolerance for myself is dismissing an artist because they’ve not mustered enormous sales—or because they have. In Meridian, a few days later, as we celebrated Jimmie Rodgers, such close to the ground, committed acts as Daryl Singletary, with his exquisite honky tonk soul, Blue Mountain, with their very Mississippi, very bluesy, potent mix of instrumental and vocal prowess and alt.country punk aggression, and the rising Cedric Burnside, who can turn a familiar Muddy Waters chestnut inside out into a hill country dance slammer in the tradition of the whole Burnside family. None of these artists—who all have sustaining, working careers to go with their notable talents—are very likely to wind up selling 190 million records, but estimating their potency only by the numbers is for bean counters, not for people who respond to music. Sales figures as large as Kenny’s suggest that he was on to something, though—and that the ear reveals, not every common denominator is low.
So let’s not dismiss Kenny Rogers either–as an artist, or as a part of country. Mr. Vernon Dalhart, who some called “the daddy of hillbilly” before the Jimmie Rodgers consensus grew, was a light opera singer at heart, no more, if no less, tied to country than to the many other genres he worked, and there’s rightly been room for him as a Country Hall of Fame inductee, if not as an icon of the music, which is something else again. There’s room to celebrate—and should be– both the harder and softer shell country performers, the narrower and broader ones. I was happy to have the chance to enjoy Kenny Rogers before I headed deeper South to celebrate Jimmie.
[Photos by Barry Mazor.]
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