When Kenny Rogers was a young boy growing up in the slums of Houston, it wasn't the guitars, nor the early country and western singers he would eventually follow to stardom that impressed him. It was the automatic lawn sprinklers.
"I would walk to school through one of the wealthiest parts of the city and something that struck me, something that stuck with me even when I was older, is that they had automatic sprinklers on their yards," Rogers recalled during an interview Friday on CBC’s Q.
"They would go off and I would think ‘That’s so cool’ and I thought ‘Someday I’m going to have automatic sprinklers,’" he said.
"When you’re broke and you live in the projects, you don’t think you’re broke — you think everybody lives like that. It’s only when you get a little older and you’re exposed to wealth that you realize you don’t have it," he added.
The road from those early hardscrabble days to superstardom was long and tortuous, the 74-year-old Rogers recalls in his new memoir Luck or Something Like It
Though Rogers said he had not planned to pen his life story — he jokes he "didn’t bother to take notes" — the book looks back on a musical career that’s spanned everything from country to jazz to rock and roll.
Success with The First Edition
Though his first brush with success came in 1968 when he fronted the country-rock outfit The First Edition, best known for the songs Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) and Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Rogers’ fame was cemented in the 1970s with a string of solo country hits including Coward of the County and his signature tune The Gambler.
"They fall into one of two categories," he said of his music.
Firstly, "ballads that say what every man wants to say and every woman would like to hear, and the others are story songs that have social comment," he explained, noting Ruby's tale of a Vietnam vet out to kill his wife and Coward, about a rape.
"A lot of people don’t realize that," he concluded.
Nashville was not immediately impressed by Rogers, who was then in his 40s and considered too old to make it in the country music scene of the time. He credits his success to the people around him, including noted producer Larry Butler.
"People are successful because other people believed in them, and they didn’t want to let those people down," Rogers offered.
However, with his eventual success also came a series of failed marriages, for which Rogers takes much of the blame. He says growing up poor gave him a drive to succeed but added that "there’s a fine line between being driven and being selfish, and I think I became selfish.
"I regret the people I hurt on the way up, but if I’d not done it I’d be working at McDonald’s now."
Rogers talked to Q's Jian Ghomeshi about how he feels about his early hits, his recent decision to have plastic surgery and just which one of his songs was written by Lionel Richie on the toilet.