Kenny Rogers' new Water & Bridges proves that a seminal American music icon can still surprise people--and challenge himself.
A story-song's best friend, Rogers built his monumental career on his ability to convey the emotional truth of a lyric. That trait resonates throughout Water & Bridges--an exceptionally substantial collection of 11 new songs that concentrates on contemporary material of exceptional depth.
But that doesn't mean you can't still sing along: Working with the masterful Dann Huff, country music's hottest and most progressive producer, Rogers set a goal to create a modern album of all new music that's as forward-looking as an Apple Nano yet as timeless as a well-written lyric and a strong melody.
The result is yet another landmark album that moves Rogers into the forefront of modern music while holding onto the qualities that have made him one of the most enduring and best-loved artists of all-time.
"Dann puts a little edge on everything," says Rogers, who was familiar with Huff's groundbreaking work with Keith Urban and Faith Hill. "He comes from such a rock 'n' roll place. What he does that's interesting is he uses band musicians, not studio musicians, because they play with more dynamics. You can hear that on the new album. It was such a great experience."
With Water & Bridges, Rogers returns to Capitol Records and the EMI Music family, home of his greatest triumphs and biggest hits. "They believed, like I do, that I can still cut fresh music that will move people," Rogers says. "They truly made me feel wanted for what I could do now and in the future."
Even though he's earned 20 Platinum(R) album certifications, scored 22 No. 1 hits and sold 105 million albums worldwide, Rogers will be the first to tell you that he's not the world's strongest or most gifted singer. However, he is among the most effective.
When Kenny Rogers sings a song, a listener always gets exactly what it's about, always feels every nuance and subtle emotional point. When he performs, whether on record or on stage, it's never about how special his voice is; it's always about how special the song is.
"I've always said that I'm not a particularly great singer, but I've always been great at finding songs," he says. What he's too humble to say is that he's a great communicator of great songs. That's the reason he's a legend today.
His unique talent comes through stronger than ever on Water & Bridges, a deeply thoughtful set of contemporary story songs and messages that Rogers subtly dramatizes like no one else can. "My goal was to find an entire collection of modern songs that said something other than 'I love you' or 'it'll kill me if you leave,'" says Rogers. "I wanted to do songs that moved me and spoke to on a deeper level."
He succeeded, as the first single "I Can't Unlove You" by songwriters Wade Kirby and Will Robinson clearly attests. Exploring the tumultuous inner dialogue of a man dealing with the aftermath of losing his true love, it's the kind of song that highlights Rogers' distinct talents. While some singers would use the climbing scales of the chorus to soar and show off, Rogers realizes the sensitivity of the message carries much more punch when interpreted with subtle inflections and an intimate tone.
"I have friends who are young artists and great vocal technicians, and I tell them, 'Here's the deal: If the lyric is important, then sing it simple, without a lot of bells and whistles and grandstanding,'" he says, imparting advice that acolytes no doubt soak up eagerly. "'If it's not important, then do all the vocal gymnastics you want. But if it's a good song, people don't want to chase the lyric.'"
For Rogers, though, that question never comes up. He's a master at finding powerful songs, so everything he sings deserves what he calls a "simple" treatment. Others might better characterize it as subtle and sublime.
Indeed, who else would so incisively get inside the complexities of such powerful new story songs as "Someone Somewhere Tonight," "The Last Ten Years (Superman)," "Someone Is Me" and the remarkably poignant title song. It takes a distinct talent at quietly dramatizing a lyric and the experience and authority to sound believable when reflecting on life events of this magnitude.
As Rogers points out, success means not only knowing what you're good at, but also realizing what you're not good at. "I know my audience," he says. "If you like songs that reflect on life and have a little wisdom in them, then I can reach you."
Reaching people has always been Rogers' specialty. In a pop era when superstars rarely stretch into the next decade, the Texas native is the only artist to chart a record in each of the last six decades, from the 1950s to the 2000s, including such American standards as "The Gambler," "Lucille," "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," "Coward of the County," "She Believes in Me" and "Lady." Moreover, "Islands in the Stream," his classic pairing with Dolly Parton, recently was named the No. 1 country duet of all time by CMT.
His accolades only tell part of the story, but it's a stunningly impressive list: Three Grammy Awards, five Country Music Association Awards, eight Academy of Country Music Awards, 11 People's Choice Awards and 18 American Music Awards.
Rogers even proved he could combat modern music's focus on youth by leaping back to the top when, after starting his own independent label Dreamcatcher Records, he achieved hits with "The Greatest" and "Buy Me a Rose"--which made him the oldest artist in all genres of music to reach No. 1 in the history of Billboard charts.
At this point, Rogers keeps recording and performing because he still enjoys it. "It's not important for me to be the No. 1 artist around," Rogers says. "I defy you to find anyone who's been No. 1 who will say it was the happiest time of their lives. You don't really have a life when you're there. But I love performing, and I like to have something fresh to sing. I like having contemporary music in my show. I love doing the hits, but I like working new songs in there too."
Rogers realizes fans come for the old songs. But the new songs end up being important to the audience, too. "When you do new material, or when you have a new hit, it changes the audience's perception of you, and more importantly, it changes your perception of yourself," he says. "It draws in young people, and it makes the older fans feel like they're part of something hip. It adds energy to the show."
Rogers has always had other pursuits, of course. He's a successful actor whose Gambler franchise was so popular that it spawned five movies and a five-episode mini-series, the longest-running mini-series in American TV history. He's written four books of fiction and non-fiction, published three books of photography, and he's chairman of the multi-leveled company Dreamcatcher Entertainment. He won the prestigious Horatio Alger Award, given to those who have distinguished themselves while rising from humble beginnings.
But Rogers has remained relevant because he doesn't rest on his accomplishments. The strengths of Water & Bridges have little to do with past triumphs, and everything to do with proving he's as capable as ever of creating heart-stirring music that speaks directly to audiences today.