SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. — Kenny Rogers knows he's been lucky.
At age 73, the country-pop icon with his signature raspy voice has spent more than 50 years in an impressive, musical genre-bending career.
And the man who made silver hair and facial hair a look said he's been grateful for every moment of it.
Rogers will return to the H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center at Shippensburg University on Friday, June 15, the same venue he sold out during his successful Christmas & Hits Tour in 2009. This week's show begins at 8 p.m.
"This past year we've done 26 shows in the Northeast and we didn't see one flake of snow," Rogers said during a telephone interview from his Atlanta home. "And the year before we were snowed out of two cities. I don't know which one I like best because one of the reasons we love the Christmas tour is that it gives us from Atlanta the chance to enjoy the snow a little bit. Enjoy is one thing and getting blocked in is something else."
Although Christmas is still months away, Rogers has actually been reflecting about God as he has been touring with his first gospel album, "The Love of God."
Rogers said for 20 years he's had people wanting him to do a gospel album.
"I think there's a demand for this, but I've always been very hesitant because I've never been overtly religious, but I have always been very spiritual," he said. "So I didn't want to do a religious album. I can't proselytize. I can't say 'You need to be with God.' I can't do that. But I can say if this song makes you feel better, use it."
The album features such classics as "I'll Fly Away" with The Whites, the Michael W. Smith-penned "Grace," "The Rock of Your Love" written by Vince Gill, and the Michael McDonald and Beth Nielsen Chapman-written "Peace."
Rogers said he picked songs that resonated with him personally.
"What I did was I went back to songs I was raised on as a kid, that I think kinda shaped me and my personality," said the Houston-born Rogers. "I always said I got my sense of humor from my dad, but I got my sense of values from my mom; because I went to church three times a week when I was a kid. I think when I die I would have put in the number of days necessary."
Even as a child, music was such a part of Rogers' upbringing.
"My dad played fiddle and all the brothers and sisters of his played instruments, and we'd jump in the back of an old pickup truck — this was way before seat belts — and we would ride up to East Texas. And all the kids would sit in the front yard and Dad and all his brothers and sisters would play gospel music. They'd play 'Sweet By and By,' 'May the Circle Be Unbroken,' and that's kinda where I learned all of this stuff."
Rogers said he hopes people take away from "The Love of God," "that there's music that's designed not to tell you what to do but inspire you to do it."
The music, it seems, has not only resonated with Rogers but with his fans, including those in hospice care.
"I can't tell you how many people who have been really, really ill and have heard that album and said 'You know what? I just felt better after I listened to it.'"
The album is exclusively sold at Cracker Barrel. Rogers said the restaurant's customers were exactly the market base for this specific album. Rogers, who founded his own record company, Dreamcatcher Entertainment in 1999, also released his last album, "Kenny Rogers: The First 50 Years" at Cracker Barrel.
In true Rogers style, the 12-track "The First 50 Years" included not only fan favorites but new songs as well, showing that he's constantly evolving.
His staying power was no more evident than in 2000 with the release of "Buy Me a Rose," which led the then-61-year-old Rogers to be the oldest artist in chart history to have a No. 1 hit.
"I think what it proved to me, first of all, there's two ways you get on the radio, two ways to succeed in this business: You do what everybody else is doing and do it better, or you do something else that nobody else is doing and you win by virtue of the fact that you're different," he said. "And that's always been my approach when you look at 'The Greatest' or 'Buy Me a Rose,' they were so unlike anything else on the radio."
Rogers said he specializes in two forms of music.
"I do love songs that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear 'Through the Years,' 'She Believes in Me,' 'You Decorated my Life,' 'Lady' — those fall in that category," he said. "And then you have story songs that have some social comment. 'Reuben James' was about a black man raising a white child. ‘Ruby' was about a Vietnam War vet who had came home and was struggling with his own existence. 'Coward of the County' was about a rape. 'The Gambler' was a way of life, it was a philosophy. So that's what my strength is — it's knowing what my strength is, for lack of a better term."
It's his ability to understand a song and tell its story is why Rogers is a member of the American Songwriters Hall of Fame, although he doesn't identify himself as a songwriter.
"I can write, but I don't consider myself a writer," he said. "I think writers have to write. They have this burning desire. I don't have that. I have a bunch of other outlets. And so for me, you have to lock me in a room to get me to write something. So that's no way to write."
But one song he wrote that he's proud of is 1977's "Sweet Music Man," which was inspired by a conversation he had on a plane with Jessi Colter, wife of Waylon Jennings.
"I don't normally talk personal, but somehow we got into it," Rogers said, "and Waylon was having some problems at the time, and she said, 'You know what really drives me crazy is that he's got all these guys around him (who) say they're his friends and nobody can say no to him, so they're just letting him do what ever he wants to do, and it just kills me. But I'll tell you that once he starts singing, he's my "sweet music man."' I just thought that was so cool."
It was that conversation that inspired Rogers to write "Sweet Music Man," but found that during the songwriting it delved much deeper than Jennings.
"I started writing about Waylon and the first half of it was about what she told me and when I finished, I realized the last half of it was about me," he said. "It's really every musician's dream — and fear — that you make it and success never lasts forever. It's what happens when success is gone and how do you deal with it, 'You've tried to stay young/But the songs you've sung to so many people/They've all begun to come back on you.' The lyric is very personal and I didn't realize how personal until I finished it and someone pointed it out to me."
Because Rogers doesn't enjoy the writing process, he depends on other songwriters for the material he covers, one example is "Ruby (Don't Take Your Love to Town)" which was written by Mel Tillis.
But it was a song written by three brothers who brought Rogers one of his most successful duets of all-time and forever linked him to a fellow country music legend.
The Bee Gees had written "Islands in the Stream" for an R&B artist, Rogers said, but the artist decided not to cut it. When Rogers was approached with the song, originally it was to be a solo piece for his "Eyes That See in the Dark" album, which he was working on with Barry Gibb.
It was during that studio time that Gibb threw out "Islands in the Stream."
"I said, 'I like this, it's very unusual,'" he said. "We were in a studio in LA and I sang that song for four days and I said, 'You know, Barry, I don't even like this song any more.' It was like an epiphany. He raised his finger and said 'We need Dolly Parton.' I said, 'OK, I don't know Dolly but we'll see about getting her.' But Ken Kragen, my manager at the time, had just run into her that day. He calls her and 45 minutes later she marches into the studio that day — in a way only Dolly can — and the song was never the same after that. She really put her stamp on it and took me to a different place on it musically."
The song was released in 1983 and became a No. 1 pop hit for the duo, and the second No. 1 pop hit for each. Rogers' first No. 1 pop hit was "Lady" and Parton's was "9 to 5."
"It's a great song and I love the sing-along aspect of it when you do it, ‘The Gambler''s that way," he said.
In his spare time — in between touring, making appearances at Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, getting ready to tour Australia, cutting his gospel album and cutting a new album to be released this fall with Warner Brothers — Rogers has also written an autobiography, "Lucky or Something Like That," which is also scheduled to be released this fall by HarperCollins.
"It's interesting, this autobiography. You know how they normally do it? They put you in a room with a writer and ask you questions for two hours and they go write the story," he said. "And that's what I did and I did it with Patsy Bale Cox who had written eight or 10 No. 1 autobiographies. I answered questions for two hours and I went off and she started writing it. And she covered all the things but she didn't speak in my voice. She'd say, 'Dad said,' I would never say that. I would say 'My dad.' Things like that made my story so I went through one of the stories and I personalized it. I wrote it with my sense of warped humor and with the way I speak ... I wrote it and the publishers just loved it."
Cox passed away earlier this year so Rogers was paired with a new writer and editor.
"I've kind of personalized (the book). It's one of the few (celebrity) autobiographies that are written first person. I loved Charles Barkley's line about his autobiography. He said, 'They lied.'" Rogers laughed.
Rogers said writing the autobiography enabled him to recall memories.
"I had forgotten so much of my life, I know that sounds crazy, but with this — I hate to say this — with the success I've been fortunate enough to have, you tend to live your life in a blur. You're going from interview to interview, show to show, rehearsal to rehearsal and you don't stop to think about it and say, 'Well a lot of cool things happened in my life.'"
While he wrote, Rogers said he was able to really reflect on his life.
"I realized how lucky I was to have been at point A at a point that I could go directly to point B, and from point B directly to point C, C directly to point D without two years of nothing to do," he said. "It literally was overnight from A to B, B to C, C to D, and I realized how lucky I was. That's what the book is all about — the timing, and how things happened and how great it was to have these experiences with the people I met along the way."
If you go ...
WHAT: Kenny Rogers
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, June 15
WHERE: H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center at Shippensburg University, 871 Old Main Drive, Shippensburg, Pa.
COST: $55, $64 and $69
CONTACT: Go to www.luhrscenter.com
MORE: For more information on Kenny Rogers, go to KennyRogers.musiccitynetworks.com