Kenny Rogers is playing his cards right

While most septuagenarians settle into their comfort zones, Kenny Rogers is happy to test his music mettle, writes JADE LAZAREVIC.

At 73, Kenny Rogers is still country music’s number one man.

Seven years after his duet with Dolly Parton, Islands in the Stream, was voted by Country Music Television as the best country duet of all-time, Rogers’s ubiquitous 1978 hit The Gambler last month polled at top position on website Taste of Country’s list of the Top 100 Country Songs of all time.

They describe it as ‘‘the perfect country song’’.

It is a song that has gone the distance, with a melody that sticks in the head and a chorus so catchy that he recently found himself singing in unison with an audience of 20-somethings at Bonnaroo Music Festival, not once but twice during his own set, and later joining US band Phish on stage for a joint version of the song.

‘‘Well, you know, it’s really a great thing. I had no idea they were even doing that poll,’’ Rogers tells Weekender.

‘‘Islands In the Stream was voted the number one duet of all time with Dolly, so I think, you know, you love to have those credentials but I try not to take them too seriously because I think I lose more than I win.

‘‘But it’s very flattering and I think the song deserves it.’’

The Gambler was written by Don Schlitz and recorded first by Johnny Cash but Rogers made the song his own.

Schlitz is, Rogers says, one of ‘‘the real geniuses of songwriting’’.

‘‘He’s not even a gambler. He was a computer programmer and one day he was just walking along the streets of Nashville and starts humming this little melody and came up with The Gambler,’’ he recalls.

‘‘It really is more than just a song about gambling. It’s kind of a philosophy about a way of life. I think that’s what gives it its merit and its credit.

‘‘I’ve always felt that songs that have a good sing-along on it, people love to be a part of it. If I go ahead and I do a new song, the audience has to really work, they have to decide ‘Do I like it? Do I like the way he’s singing it?’ but when you do a hit, they’re a part of it. They can sing along and have a good time.’’

Even after all these years of singing it, Rogers still gets a buzz to hear the crowd sing:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em

know when to fold ’em

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

when the dealin’s done.

‘‘Oh, you have to love that!’’ Rogers laughs.

‘‘As a performer, that takes off all the pressure to have those kind of canons when you go on stage. With that [The Gambler], Islands in the Stream, Lucille, Lady and She Believes In Me ... you know, I have been so blessed in my career to have some really wonderful records that people seem to enjoy and, consequently, I enjoy doing them.’’

Rogers is touring Australia, with a gig at Newcastle Entertainment Centre on August 24. It is his seventh tour despite saying in previous interviews that his tour in 2008, and then again in 2011, would be his last.

Long-time friend and fellow country music legend Glen Campbell had been announced to join Rogers but was forced to pull out because of ill health (Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last year).

‘‘It’s hard, you know. It’s hard for Glen and it’s hard for all of us,’’ Rogers says.

‘‘He played guitar on The First Edition [Rogers’s former band] records and I shot a couple of his album covers as a friend and a photographer so we’re very, very close and it breaks my heart.’’

Hitting the road to tour means the singer, who turns 74 on August 21, must leave behind in Atlanta, Georgia, his wife Wanda and their eight-year-old identical twins Justin and Jordan as they prepare to start a new school.

‘‘I have twin boys who are eight years old and they couldn’t get their heads around the fact that I was going to bed when they were waking up and they were going to bed when I was waking up.’’

His marriage to Wanda, 28 years his junior, is his fifth (his divorce from wife number four – actress Marianne Gordon in 1993 – was one of showbiz’s most expensive at $60million).

The pair married in 1997 and welcomed their sons into the world in 2004, making him a father to five (four sons and one daughter) following children from previous marriages.

So is being a father later in life easier or harder?

‘‘All I can say is thank God I have a wife who is exceptional,’’ Rogers says.

‘‘For me, you know, they say having kids at my age will either make you or break you and right now I’m leaning heavily towards break.

‘‘If I had anywhere near the energy they had ... but it’s so cute. It’s such a great time. It’s a perfect age. Once they become teenagers, God only knows what’s gonna happen but right now they’re great kids, they’re very smart and they care about so many things, and I love that about them.

‘‘They come out on stage with me when I do a song called To Me and they’ll take the microphone from me and go interview the audience and ask someone down the front ‘hey, what’s your name?’ because they see me doing that. It’s really, really cute.’’

Born the fourth of eight children to parents Edward and Lucille in Texas, Rogers found his voice in high school, singing in the church choir.

‘‘I had a teacher who was the first one who said to me ‘you know what? You need to take this seriously. I think you have a really good voice’ and I’d never considered it before.

‘‘I’ve always heard that successful people are successful because someone believed in them and they didn’t want to let that person down.’’

He joined a doo-wop group known as The Scholars who recorded a song, That Crazy Feeling, before splitting.

It was in jazz, not country, that Rogers found his feet as a performer, singing with The Bobby Doyle Trio, who scored hits with songs such as Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town and Reuben James.

He says he has always been open to various styles of music, which has played a part in his desire to avoid pigeon-holing himself simply as a country artist, instead becoming a cross-over artist who has topped both country and pop charts, and collaborated with everyone from Lionel Richie to The Bee Gees and producer George Martin.

‘‘I spent the first 10 years of my musical life singing jazz, so I think I’ve always been trying to overcome that,’’ Rogers says.

‘‘I really loved country music when I was a kid because that’s what my mum listened to but I’ve basically always said I’m a country singer with a lot of other musical influences.

‘‘I’ve always tried to work with different artists.’’

He spent more than a decade working as a singer, bass player, producer and arranger with a variety of acts including the New Christy Minstrels, then went on to form The First Edition, who scored a string of hits until Rogers decided to go solo as a country artist in 1976.

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