Country Music Hall of Fame member Kenny Rogers begins his Once Again It’s Christmas tour on November 11 in Niagara Falls, ON. His 35th holiday tour – and his last (Rogers announced in September that following a world tour in 2016, he would be coming off of the road), the 35-date run coincides with the release of his new Yuletide album of the same title on Warner Brothers. His sixth such release since 1981, the singer definitely has many memories of his past successes of the season.
His first holiday album was 1981’s Christmas. After a five year working relationship with Larry Butler as producer, the singer was itching to try a little something different. While future producers included Lionel Richie, The Bee Gees, and David Foster, Rogers sat alone in the producers’ chair for his first Christmas album – something he admits was a little easier back then.
“Production for me used to be fun, but it’s so high tech now, and they can do so many things. I tend to leave it to people who know how to do it now.”
There was a little nod to his previous career on the album as well, with the story song “Kentucky Homemade Christmas” being co-written by Kin Vassy – who was also a member of the group The First Edition, where Rogers found his first nationwide success.
“I remember while recording it, thinking what a great song it was. I think it could make for one of those Hallmark type Christmas movies.”
Three years later, the singer achieved his biggest Yuletide success with Once Upon A Christmas – a duet project with Dolly Parton (that also served as a highly-rated CBS-TV special in December 1984). The disc sold over two million copies, and many fans still tell Rogers about how that album has helped to shape their celebrations of the season.
“There are certain songs or records that have that universal appeal. That album had so many great songs on it. I asked Dolly if she minded if I co-produced the record, and she said ‘Not if you don’t mind if I write some songs.’ So, she went home and wrote seven songs, and each of them were great.”
Rogers admits that what Parton did with the original material on the album is rare – to write a new holiday song that becomes a classic, but says the music on that disc fit both singers like a hand in a glove.
“I think that everybody who sings develops a style, which comes about by people saying that ‘I like it when you do this,’ and you try to come up with so many ways to do that. I have tried to keep mine at a working man’s level. I was raised in jazz, which was very Avant-garde. I did a lot of wild and spectacular vocals, but the average fan can’t relate to that. The Four Freshmen or The High-Los did some magical things, but they never had the appeal to the working man. I’ve always been more interested in the working class than the upper class. I think that people who last the longest in this business stay themselves consistently, like Waylon, Willie, or Johnny Cash. They didn’t give up being themselves because some people didn’t like it. People love them for their uniqueness. Those are the footsteps I try to follow in.”
One of the highlights from the duet disc was the uptempo “With Bells On,” of which Rogers says “It was so Dolly. She sings it with the same enthusiasm she writes with.” He admits there is a special bond between the two.
“She’s so special, and you never know where she’s going. We were in the studio cutting ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends,’ and I’m getting a little teared up because it was written about us and our relationship. I look over, and she’s not even at her mic. She came out of her room, and came over to me, and put her arms around my neck. She says ‘Kenny, I want you to know something. I could never sing at your funeral.’ I stopped and looked at her, and said ‘So, we’re assuming that I’m going first?’ That is such a Dolly Parton moment, and what makes her so special. I say that with the greatest of admiration. But, she has no filter. If she thinks it, she says it. You know where you stand with her at all times,” Rogers jokes!
Five years later, Rogers released Christmas In America, which featured the well-received title cut, also written by Parton. He said that particular song was very different.
“You try to find songs that speak to you, and that you hope will speak to the audience. To me, that is bigger than a Christmas song. It’s a political statement, as well – without politicizing Christmas. I think that’s our big danger now – we’re about to lose Christmas from our vocabulary. It’s going to be ‘Happy Holidays’ if we’re not careful. I love doing that song. I just always felt it was a cool song to do about Christmas in this country.”
It was with another female performer that Rogers would share his biggest Christmas moment of the 90s – Wynonna, on the stirring “Mary, Did You Know,” from his 1996 project The Gift.
“Wynonna is such an amazing singer. We had started to do another song, which was your basic love song. It was too high for me, and we never got around to fixing it. I don’t know how many times the song has been recorded before, but for my money – we put the stamp on that song. It really makes you stop and think about the real people that were involved in the first Christmas.”
It wouldn’t take long for Rogers to release his next seasonal offering – 1998’s Christmas From The Heart, which was as much of a soundtrack as it was a regular album, he recalled.
“We did a production called The Toy Shoppe. When I was a kid, I used to go right by Mr. Ryan’s 5 & 10 store, and he had a bunch of toys up on the shelf. He used to tell us stories about those toys, and what they meant to him. They were his grandfather’s, grandfather’s. I remember thinking that was such a cool thought. So, I wrote this story about a toy shoppe that was being taken over by Baxter Burgers. It was progress in motion. There was a song about this little dog named Hero. It turned out really well. Wanda’s mom sewed the original dog we used on stage. That whole show had some wonderful songs on it,” he said, adding that TV star Alan Thicke is taking the show on the road this year.
The new album includes guest appearances from Jennifer Nettles, Alison Krauss, and acapella favorites Home Free. The singer stretches just a little bit on “(I Love The) Winter Weather,” a cut with Nashville supergroup The Time Jumpers – which includes Vince Gill. Rogers says it’s not as much of a stretch as you might think.
“I was in jazz for 10 years, playing upright bass. And, when you go into the studio with The Time Jumpers, you realize how much jazz is a part of what they do. They are country-jazz players. They have an interesting approach to recording. They go in, and lay the chords down, and then they come up with different ideas, and essentially build the track. When they finish, it’s so good. It was a great experience for me to hear those guys together, because they are so special at what they do.”
The Time Jumpers cut is exclusively available on a limited edition version of the disc, which is available at Cracker Barrel. The singer says the brand fits his lifestyle – and that of his fans – just fine.
“You go into Cracker Barrel, and you’re going to buy something of mine. They don’t let you out. It’s that simple. My audience is the ones that go there. I eat there. I take my family in there all the time.”
Kenny Rogers “Once Again It’s Christmas” Tour Dates
11/11-14 – Niagara Falls, Ontario – Niagara Fallsview Casino Avalon
11/17 – Moncton, New Brunswick – Casino New Brunswick
11/18 – Truro, Nova Scotia – Rath Eastlink Centre
11/20 – Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador – Pepsi Centre
11/21 – Clarenville, Newfoundland and Labrador – Clarenville Events Centre
11/22 – St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador – Mile One Centre
11/27 – Northfield, OH – Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield
11/28 – Merrillville, Ind. – Star Plaza Theatre
11/30 – Terre Haute, Ind. – Hulman Center – Indiana State
12/2 – Norfolk, Neb. – Divots Conference Center
12/4 – Bowler, Wis. – North Star Mohican Casino Showroom
12/5 – Battle Creek, Mich. – Firekeepers Casino – Event Center
12/6 – Windsor, Ontario – The Colosseum at Caesars Windsor
12/8 – Ashland, Ky. – Paramount Arts Center
12/10 – New Brunswick, N.J. – State Theatre
12/11 – White Plains, N.Y. – Westchester County Center
12/12 – Uncasville, Conn. – Mohegan Sun Arena
12/13 – Bangor, Maine – Cross Insurance Center
12/15 – Hagerstown, Md. – Maryland Theater
12/16 – Roanoke, Va. – Berglund Performing Arts Theatre
12/17 – Verona, N.Y. – Turning Stone Resort & Casino – Event Center
12/18 – King of Prussia, Pa. – Valley Forge Casino Resort
12/19 – Englewood, N.J. – Bergen Performing Arts Center
12/20 – Concord, N.H. – The Capitol Center For The Arts
12/22 – Erie, Pa. – Warner Theater
12/23 – Westbury, N.Y. – NYCB Theatre at Westbury