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Country Music Hall opens Kenny Rogers exhibit

Kenny Rogers was celebrated by a stellar turnout of the country music community in Nashville at a VIP reception Wednesday night at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where Kenny Rogers: Through the Years, a biographical exhibit in the museum’s East Gallery, opened yesterday (Aug. 15).

Kenny Rogers at his Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit
Jim Bessman

The exhibit contains awards, costumes, sheet music and memorabilia from Rogers’s personal vault as well as from the collections of frequent collaborators, encompassing all of his acclaimed musical phases and other artistic outlets.

Artifacts include costume pieces worn and used by Rogers in the Gambler TV movie series; a denim outfit that he wore as frontman for psychedelic-folk band Kenny Rogers and The First Edition in the 1970s; the rhinestone-embellished velvet jacket and dress that Dolly Parton wore during a performance of “Islands in the Stream” with Rogers on her Dolly TV show; sheet music for the classic First Edition hits “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town)”; assorted cameras used by Rogers for his photography books; numerous awards like the CMA Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, Grammy statuettes and the Honorary Master of Photography award presented by the Professional Photographers of America; original LP, 45-RPM picture sleeve and tape boxes of Rogers recordings; and various memorabilia like a die-cast metal replica of the Camaro race car that Rogers drove in the film Six Pack and a collectible pack of cigarettes featuring his name and likeness.

Launch events for the exhibit, which runs through June 14, 2015, start with a special interview with Rogers at the Hall of Fame tomorrow (Aug. 16), which will be streamed for those unable to attend in person, and a Songwriter Session with Don Schlitz, who wrote Rogers’ signature song “The Gambler.”

A screening of the 2001 Kenny Rogers: Live by Request will be held Aug 17, to be followed by an ongoing series of programs throughout the exhibit’s duration. A companion book, Kenny Rogers: Through the Years and published by the museum’s Country Music Foundation Press, also accompanies the exhibit and features a foreward by Parton along with photos—many previously unpublished--spanning Rogers’ career.

“Kenny Rogers redefined and elevated country music superstardom in every sense,” said museum director Kyle Young. “He blurred traditional genre lines and substantially expanded the core demographics of country music’s audience, all by being true to his unique artistic vision. His versatility is astounding. We could not be more thrilled to share this detailed presentation of his story.”

At the VIP reception, young country singer-songwriter Charlie Worsham sang Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man,” and addressing Rogers, noted that “people relate to you through your voice.”

"It doesn’t take more than a second to be your friend,” added Worsham, who was followed by Schlitz, whose “The Gambler” was recently cited as No. 20 in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time” listing.

“So you’re in Rolling Stone,” Schlitz said to Rogers prior to singing their hit. “Life is weird, isn’t it?”

Schlitz noted that when he arrived in Nashville in 1973, “Kenny Rogers was the record to get.”

“That’s the voice we wanted singing our songs,” he said. “My ‘a-ha moment’ came the night he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was so kind and gracious to everyone, and when his sister said, ‘Kenneth!, [he] whipped around with such love and respect. It’s stuck in my mind ever since: I realized you don’t sing through your heart, but all of our hearts.”

Rogers acknowledged the help of his former longtime manager Ken Kragen and current manager Ken Levitan, and joked that he was once “a young happening guy” who “woke up Thursday and I was really old!” He pointed to the table where his long-ago First Edition bandmates were sitting and kidded them for being old, too.

“I get asked why it took so long to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame,” said Rogers, who was finally inducted last year. “I always say, ‘It’s not when, it’s that!’’

At a press conference just before the reception, Rogers tried to head ‘em off at the pass by saying that the answers to most questions directed at him is, “Only when I was 15.”

But he did reveal that “I didn’t realize I’d look that dorky” when he signed up for Geico’s current “Gambler” commercial. At least, he said, they weren’t running it incessantly.

Asked if he had a favorite contemporary country artist, he at first lauded today’s country singers.

“What they’re doing is so exciting for country music,” he said, “but you have to understand: When I was successful, I came from a whole different place.”

He suggested that a decision must be made between being “an art form or a business.”

“If you’re an art form, kick everyone out who’s not Hank Williams. If you’re a business, take the money and go! For me, I’m a story guy, and this [country music now] is all about parties.”

“I’m convinced right now [that] my audience is either born since 1980, whose parents forced them to listen to me or mine was the only music they would allow, or before the ‘60s--and can’t remember the ‘60s,” Rogers continued, noting that when he was having his big hits, “country music was really country--Willie, Waylon, Johnny Cash. A lot of people in New Jersey didn’t get it, but I did a story song like ‘Coward of the County’ and they got it.”

His “gift,” he said, was “not so much singing as finding great songs.”

“If a song touches me, I can make it touch someone else,” he said. “If not, I can’t bring anything to the table.”

Such story-song Rogers hits as “Coward of the County,” “Lucille,” “The Gambler” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” “take you from where you are, take you on a journey, and leave you with an emotion at the end. At my age, you can only compete two ways: You can do what everybody else is doing, but better—which I don’t like my chances--or do what nobody else is doing--and don’t invite comparisons.”

“I learned with the Christies [the New Christy Minstrels folk group, with whom he performed prior to the First Edition] to find story songs with social significance, like ‘Ruby,’” Rogers concluded. And as he would soon repeat at the reception, he evoked his late duet partner: “We need to get Dottie West in here!”

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