What Makes A Kenny Rogers Song?

Rogers has two dozen No. 1 songs to his name, but rarely writes for himself. In the new memoir Luck or Something Like It, he explains how careful curation has helped his career last. (This piece initially aired on October, 8, 2012 on Morning Edition).

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This Christmas we're revisiting some of our favorite interviews from 2012, and that list has to include when Steve Inskeep chatted with Kenny Rogers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COWARD OF THE COUNTY")

KENNY ROGERS: (Singing) Everyone considered him the coward of the county...

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a question for Kenny Rogers. What makes a song last? His tunes are the kind you recognize even if you haven't heard them in years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCILLE")

ROGERS: (Singing) You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille...

INSKEEP: At age 74, Kenny Rogers has written a memoir, called "Luck or Something Like It." He traces his life from his youth in public housing in Houston, in the 1940s, through times as a jazz musician and folk singer, before he became a solo star. And he talked with us about trying to make a song endure.

ROGERS: All the songs I do record, they fall into one of two categories, as a rule. And one is ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear, and the other thing are story-songs that have social significance. If you look at - "Reuben James" was about a black man who raised a white child.

INSKEEP: Wow.

ROGERS: Yeah. "The Coward of the County" was about a rape. "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" was about a guy who came home from war. And that's really what I love to do, songs that you love them before you realize what they're about, but you get the message vicariously, once you learn to like the song.

INSKEEP: Now, you have not written most of your own songs.

ROGERS: No. I take great pride in not writing hits. I write from time to time, but you know, I think great writers have a need to write, and I don't really have that need. I can write. If someone sits me down and says, hey, let's write a song about this, I can contribute and I can carry my weight.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about "The Gambler."

ROGERS: OK.

INSKEEP: How did that song come to your attention?

ROGERS: I don't remember how I found it. I think Larry Butler, who was producing me at the time, found the song. And coincidentally, I think it was produced on Johnny Cash, the same day, by Larry Butler. He produced both of us.

INSKEEP: In preparing for this conversation, I was just listening, for the first time, to the Johnny Cash version of this song and realized that he sings it differently, and even some of the words are a little different. Do you mind if we listen together to the beginning?

ROGERS: No, I'd love that. I've only heard it once or twice.

INSKEEP: Let's take a listen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GAMBLER")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) About 20 years ago, on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with a gambler. We were both too tired to sleep. So we took turns staring through the window at the darkness, till boredom overtook us and he commenced to speak.

INSKEEP: So just listening to those lines, Kenny Rogers, he doesn't say on a warm summer's evening. He says about 20 years ago. He doesn't say he began to speak. He says he commenced to speak.

ROGERS: Commenced to speak, yeah.

INSKEEP: In Johnny Cash's telling, it's like this archaic tune by an old, old man.

ROGERS: Well, you know, for me, I've always felt great songs put you in a spot, put you in a place - on a warm summer's evening, on a train bound for nowhere. You know where you are. And from there, the rest of the song plays out. And I don't think it does that on his record. It doesn't locate you, you know.

INSKEEP: So that was your innovation, you think, the...

ROGERS: I'm going to take credit for it, whether it was or not. You know me. I can steal credit from anybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GAMBLER")

ROGERS: (Singing) On a warm summer's evening, on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with a gambler. We were both too tired to sleep. So we took turns a-staring out the window at the darkness, till boredom overtook us and he began to speak.

INSKEEP: Do you ever get tired of that song?

ROGERS: No. How do you get - that's the greatest ammunition you can have when you go out on stage, to have songs like "The Gambler," "Lucille," you know, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY, DON'T TAKE YOUR LOVE TO TOWN")

ROGERS: (Singing) You've painted up your lips, and rolled and curled your tinted hair...

INSKEEP: This familiar song suggests just how long some Kenny Rogers music has remained popular, heard on the radio for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY, DON'T TAKE YOUR LOVE TO TOWN")

ROGERS: (Singing) Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere?

INSKEEP: He released it in 1969, with the rock band The First Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY, DON'T TAKE YOUR LOVE TO TOWN")

ROGERS: (Singing) The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is going down. Oh, Ruby, don't take your love to town...

INSKEEP: Another hit of that era, "Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In," was memorable enough that decades later it resurfaced, in the 1998 Coen Brothers movie "The Big Lebowski."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST DROPPED IN")

ROGERS: (Singing) I tripped on a cloud and fell eight miles high, I tore my mind on a jagged sky. I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in...

Here's the story of that song. Mickey Newbury, who wrote that, I went to high school with him. You know, I kept asking him for that song after he wrote it. I was with the New Christy Minstrels. And he said, I can't give it to you because Sammy Davis, Jr. has it on hold. Boy, I'd have almost loved to have heard that song. But you know, finally...

INSKEEP: In the end, Sammy Davis, Jr. didn't go for it...

ROGERS: He didn't do it.

INSKEEP: Would you just talk me through what going on stage is like for you these days? Do you still, for example, get nervous before you go out there?

ROGERS: If I were going out doing all new music and like some of these young guys do, where they go out and they have one hit, that would scare me. But I've been lucky since The First Edition. I've had a minimum or four or five major hits to do. And now I've got, like, 25 number one records. And I try to do them all.

When you do a new song, the audience has to work very hard. They have to decide subconsciously, do I like the song? Do I agree with what it says? Do I like the way he sings it? But when you do a hit, they're a part of the show. They just relax and enjoy it.

INSKEEP: Should we expect you to record more new tunes?

ROGERS: I'm in the middle of an album now, and I've done five songs. And I have, you know, I love these songs that have social statements, as I mentioned. I have a song I'm working on called "You Had to Be There." And it's about a father who goes to visit his son in prison, and he starts complaining to his son about all the bad things his son's done.

And he reminds him, well, wait a minute, you had to be there back when I was nine, 'cause my mama couldn't throw a ball even if she tried. You know...

INSKEEP: Oh...

ROGERS: ...it's a wonderful piece of music about the responsibilities of parenthood.

INSKEEP: So when you get to perform these new songs, are you going to have that feeling of nervousness that you had when you were very young?

ROGERS: I think what happens is - the trick is, how you set up a song will determine how important it is. And I'm really good at setting up new music and saying here's a song I just recorded and blah, blah, blah. And I can make it in such a way that people know, OK, put down everything you know about me, listen to this.

I've always said I don't care whether one person walks away saying he's the best singer I've ever heard. But I want everyone to walk away saying I enjoyed that.

INSKEEP: Kenny Rogers, his memoir is called "Luck or Something Like It." Thanks very much.

ROGERS: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on. I hope we'll get a chance to sit down and talk some time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GAMBLER")

ROGERS: (Singing) You've got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run. You never count your money when you're sitting at the table. There'll be time enough for counting...

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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