Earlier this summer Kenny Rogers, a veteran of country-pop smash hits such as “The Gambler,” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” and “Islands in the Stream,” his unsinkable duet with Dolly Parton, stood on an unlikely stage. In front of more than 100,000 people, there he was at Glastonbury, the hallowed rock festival whose headliners that week included the Rolling Stones, Mumford & Sons, and Public Enemy.
After two songs, he introduced himself by way of expressing what everyone else must have been thinking: “OK, what’s wrong with this picture? Kenny Rogers and Glastonbury?”
His appearance was just the latest triumph in a year already filled with them. Next month he’ll release “What Are the Chances,” a novel he co-wrote, a new album is expected in the fall, and in October he’ll be inducted, finally, into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He comes to the Indian Ranch in Webster on Saturday afternoon. We caught up with Rogers from his home in Atlanta on a recent morning to find out why he’s on such a roll just a week before he turns 75.
Q. Your Glastonbury performance got great reviews, but let’s be honest: That could have gone over like a lead balloon.
A. I’m firmly convinced that at this point in my career, my audience falls into one of two categories: either people born since the ’80s whose parents forced them to listen to my music as [a form of] child abuse, or people who were born before the ’60s and can no longer remember the ’60s. (Laughs.)
Q. Congratulations on your induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. But isn’t it a little overdue?
A. Well, you know, I don’t know what credentials they thought you needed to get in. I think part of it is that there’s a certain amount of resentment that I made country go pop, and yet I think it actually added a lot of viewers to it. As you can see now, it’s so much more pop than where I took it. But the fact is, I found out something: You can’t ask to be in the hall of fame. They have to ask you. Having said that, I’m actually glad it’s happening now rather than the peak of my career. I had so many things going on that I’m not sure I would have fully appreciated it. So now’s the chance to sit back and enjoy it and what it means. I’m just glad it happened during my lifetime.
Q. It’s obviously been happening for a long time, but when did you notice country really going much more in the direction of pop?
A. I never analyzed it that much, but it’s an ever-evolving music. The only music that never really evolved and is the same as it was in the ’30s is Dixieland [jazz]. I think what happened with country is when you come on to the market, there’s only two ways you can compete, and it’s the same in my case: I can only compete by doing what everybody else is doing and do it better, or I can do something nobody else is doing and then you don’t invite comparisons. That’s how I got to where I was doing more pop music because no one else was doing it. Plus, I spent my first 10 years in music in a jazz group [the Bobby Doyle Trio] and played upright bass. I had a little more of that influence in my music, but my mom was a big country music fan. That’s all I listened to growing up.
Q. You’re one of the few artists of a certain generation who still do well on the country charts. That’s unusual. I know folks like Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn feel like they’ve been abandoned by modern country radio. What has your experience been like?
A. I’ve always felt happy and so thrilled with what happened to me. And new people deserve a chance at it. I can’t complain. I’ve had everything there was to have, and probably more than I deserved, but it was a great time in my life. I’m glad that I’m not that hot right now, because the press is absolutely brutal. I’m talking about the tabloids, and I don’t want to be there. I’ve had my share.
Q. This year marks the 35th anniversary of “The Gambler.” How has that album aged for you?
A. You know, when I first recorded it, I literally thought it was about gambling. I met Don Schlitz [who wrote the title song], and Don Schlitz doesn’t gamble at all. He said it’s more about his philosophy of life, of being conscious of when to take chances and not take chances, but he put it in the [analogy] of the gambler. I just think it’s such an incredible piece of music.
Q. What’s the secret to singing “Islands in the Stream” every night and not losing your mind?
A. I’m different than most guys, because I consider those songs artillery. I’d hate to go out there without all those hits.