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Maestro: With the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano redefines 21st century classical music

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Robert Spano Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

This article originally appeared in our September 2008 issue.

Arpeggios of warm, dark notes from a clarinet chase the distant thunder of a double bass, and lively violin bows flirt across their strings while the oboes sigh. Robert Spano speedwalks to the podium, a coiled spring of a man. He listens with his whole body, leaning forward with the taut focus of a thin cat watching a fat bird.

Players settle into their seats on the Atlanta Symphony Hall stage, ready to rehearse Rachmaninov, wearing everything from ripped-knee jeans and cowboy boots to blue dress pants and brown shoes. They could be hanging out at a MARTA stop, or waiting for the Thrashers to score. There’s coughing, a scraping of chairs across the floor, the flutter of scores slapped open. Positioned between the French horns and the harp, a visitor hears fragments of scales in a babel of musical voices, sophisticated variations on toot, whistle, plunk, and boom. Light glints off the gold and silver flash of the horns, the strings’ antique forest of rich wood grain, the sophisticated black and silver of the woodwinds.

Peering through his round Harry Potter glasses, Spano raises his baton, fourteen inches of whip-thin, supple walnut. With his gaze he summons the attention, skill, and collective breath of ninety-five fractious and gifted musicians and funnels it into a pinprick of concentrated power. There’s an interval of silence, then Spano gestures violently with both arms, and the opening chord bursts into the air.

Spano dances. His hands trace tight parentheses as he bounces on the balls of his feet. During a legato passage, he sways like a seaweed in a tide pool, and the sound smooths and lengthens. When he lifts a finger to his lips, shhhh, the violins soften. Spano switches from a scowl that summons a crescendo, to a beatific smile as a passage of particular clarity lifts from the cellos. He flings an arm straight at the brass with a snap that vibrates down to the tip of his finger. The baton is a blur.

The way Spano does it, conducting music looks like a full-on sport.

When the first movement ends, he shifts and rolls his shoulders like a boxer between rounds, and flashes a smile. “Let’s go on,” Spano says to the players, adding, “Tiring, isn’t it?” with a wheezy laugh, thinned by his Benson & Hedges habit.

After an hour and a half, the musicians take their break; it’s a union shop and there are strict rules. A violinist marks her score. A horn player rolls and stretches his lips against his teeth. Spano sprints outside for a smoke. It’s a mild winter day with cloudless blue skies, and he doesn’t need the shelter of the Woodruff Arts Center’s monumental Midtown facade. He isn’t tired; he’s wired. Like a battery plugged in to recharge, he’s sucking up the juice. “Rachmaninov sounds so modern,” Spano says happily.

He should know. A composer before he became a conductor, and a former director of Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music (2003-2004), Spano’s at the center of a whirlwind in classical music that’s blowing the dusty doors off the symphonic world. Classical music no longer means musty masterworks by dead white guys or dissonant twentieth-century pieces by acerbic technicians. Contemporary composers are creating works of spellbinding ingenuity that are completely modern, and Spano is commissioning, performing, and recording the picks of the litter.

Although he tries to be a composer’s advocate, not an interpreter, Spano says that there is no literal musical truth. It doesn’t exist. “Sight is not sound,” Spano explains, his hands in constant motion, a private semaphore. “Scores are more like maps. They’re not the terrain. Once you are in the actual sonic territory, you have a lot of decision to make.” Spano’s got to have a clear idea of how the music should sounds and be able to communicate exactly what he’s listening for with series of gestures. He needs an intimate knowledge of classical and modern repertoire and familiarity with an intimidating range of musical styles. Did we mention tricky nuances of phrasing and tempo?

Spano’s definition of his job is simpler. “Get up there and figure out what that particular orchestra needs on that particular day at that particular moment, and make something great happen.” So he studies, he crams, he researches. He listens to the competition, he sprinkles the score with notations and comments in the margins. But a time comes when the preparation and study and practice have to stop. How does Spano know when he’s done enough?

“Because it’s time to go to rehearsal,” Spano says with a laugh, his expression ricocheting from quizzically benign to sardonically amused.

Inside Bean Addiction, a coffee shop on the ground floor of Chicago’s Presidential Towers, Spano queues up behind hockey-jersey-clad customers and orders the fist of the day’s three twenty-ounce Styrofoam tumblers of coffee. Outside, the sleeting, biting weather is in the low teens, but inside the plush complex, it’s an eternally temperate zone. Spano, in a short-sleeve black T-shrit and black jogging pants with white stripes down the side, settles in at a table. He has the hair of a tonsured monk, the pallor of the cloister, and his fingers tremble, either from barely repressed emotion or whopping amounts of caffeine.

The week before, he’d stood teary-eyed in the spotlight at Lincoln Center and accepted the 2008 Conductor of the Year award from Musical America for “artistic excellence and achievement for the arts,” but not with tears of joy. Spano had badly scratched his cornea while in rehearsals at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“I was on painkillers for a couple of weeks. I was asleep all the time, except to get up to do the opera,” Spano says. “I thought, how am I going to do this, and for the first time in my life I started drinking Red Bull. Isn’t that what the kids do? They do drugs and drink Red Bull to go dancing. And I thought, well, I’m drugged and I gotta go dance.”

His journey to Conductor of the Year started in Elkhart, Indiana, self-proclaimed “band instrument capital of the world.” Raised by a musical family in a musical town, Spano was the middle child of three musical sons. His father made flutes for Gemeinhardt and played clarinet; his mother played piano. His older brother played piano and oboe, and his younger brother apprenticed to his father, becoming a second-generation flute maker.

“It’s like I was born into a medieval guild,” says Spano. He started piano lessons at six and added his dad’s flute two years later. “I was a marketing tool,” says Spano, laughing. “I was a nerd. I played music all the time. I loved it.” His first piano teacher, Ray Barbour, told him something that became the leitmotif of Spano’s life. “He said, ‘A talent is not a gift; it’s a responsibility,'” Spano recalls.

Undaunted by the implication of hard work and responsibility, and inspired by musical heroes like Franz Liszt who practiced ten and twelve hours at a stretch, eight-year-old Spano put in six hours practicing the flute one day. He bragged to his dad, who said, “What are you, an idiot? If you can’t get it done in a couple of hours, it’s never gonna work.” To this day, Spano relies on his down-to-earth father for advice on decisions that are difficult to live with and hard to execute. “HE asks me, ‘Well, are you right?’ and I realize that settles it. Just do the right thing.”

In fifth grade, Spano added violin to his repertoire and composer to his resume. He wrote his first work, a fantaisie for solo violin inspired by the Paganini caprices, infamous pieces of extraordinary difficulty intended to show off the technical prowess of the composer. Along with the obsessive practicing, the future maestro grooved to King Crimson and Chopin, the Talking Heads and Tchaikovsky. He was converted to contemporary composers by the American iconoclast George Crumb, who was writing music that used a toy piano, a musical saw, and an electronically amplified string quartet.

At age fifteen, Spano entered a competition honoring America’s bicentennial, and his piano composition, “Suite of Songs form the American Revolution,” won. The Michiana Summer Symphonette asked young Spano to orchestrate and conduct his winning piece. “I thought, well, why not?” Spano recalls. He took a few down-and-dirty baton-waving lessons, and off he went for his first podium.

“It was an extraordinary experience” Spano says. “A miracle.” Not just the emotional thrill of hearing music he’d conceived in his mind. And not only the electrifying sensation of summoning the talent of eighty musicians with a gesture. At a stroke, it solved the question he’d been wrestling with: what to do when he grew up.

Relieved of the pressure to pick one instrument in order to excel, Spano kept playing the flute, violin, and piano, and added the French horn, viola, and organ, figuring the more instruments he was intimate with, the better his skills as a conductor would be.

While Spano talks, he’s been tapping his fingers soundlessly on the chair arm. When asked what he’s playing, he looks puzzled before he looks down, surprised, at his hands. He’s in automatic multitask mode, practicing for his Brahms piano trio performance scheduled in a few weeks.

The coffee shop’s overhead speaker bleats a syrupy choral version of Rod Stewart’s “If you want my body aaaand you think I’m sexy . . . ”

“That’s gotta be turned down,” Spano says, and springs to his feet. He stalks over to the clerk at the cash register, orders his second carafe of coffee, and as he returns, the volume lowers by a hair.

“We have a serious noise pollution problem,” Spano says unhappily. “I don’t care if it’s the greatest sound ever made, when it’s being blasted at you, it’s inappropriate. It’s criminal what we are doing. We are training ourselves not to listen.” Asked for his solution, Spano is uncharacteristically curt. “It’s really simple. Turn. This. Shit. Off.”

After studying conducting at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Spano taught at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “When I was teaching, I was applying for assistant conductor positions and nothing worked out—all I got was a tremendous pile of rejection letters.” The disappointment of knocking on doors that didn’t open forced Spano to reexamine his life and redefine success. “Failure on that level makes you realize what’s important,” he says. “While I was licking my wounded ego, I was forced to realize that I was still conducting great music with talented young people all the time.”

Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa opened the door for Spano in 1990. Ozawa, who paired white turtlenecks with the traditional tux, was one of the first jet-set conductors, taking his skills worldwide. Spano learned how to be a conductor, a music director, and a performer with the charismatic Ozawa as his mentor. “The most important thing I learned from Seiji is the sheer amount of energy that’s required to do something really powerful,” says Spano. “I hope I stole a lot from him. I certainly meant to.”

Spano’s three-year stint with the BSO launched the next phase of his career: three years as an itinerant guest conductor. It’s conductor career building 101. You form relationships with soloists and make connections with composers. You’re seen and heard in new markets. Guest conducting is like speed dating for a conductor and an orchestra—both hoping for that chemistry and looking to ignite a spark that leads to a mutually satisfying liaison.

Some blind dates are disastrous.

According to Spano, the ahrdest thing for ayoung, aspiring conductor is to be met with hostility and uncooperative behaivor. Spano declines to name the parties involved, but there are orchestras on his naughty list that he won’t ever work with again. On his nice list: the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New World Symphony in Miami, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In 1996, Spano was tapped to be the music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Along with the experienced hammered out of his three years of touring, Spano brought his commitment to contemporary composers to the table. It was a good match. During his eight-year tenure, the feisty Brooklyn Philharmonic stole the spotlight from the senior New York Philharmonic and was lauded by critics form the New York Times and the New Yorker to the Financial Times. Spano’s innovative programming and laser-like intensity delivered more than forty New York premieres, including world premieres by Philip Glass and Christopher Theofanidis. Spano’s adventurous choices caught the ear of trendspotters, and he made the media rounds: CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman and CBS Sunday Morning, as well as A&E’s Breakfast with the Arts and PBS’s City Arts.

Spano was sitting in the catbird seat when the ASO came calling.

Acclaimed choral conductor Robert Shaw’s baby for twenty-one years, the ASO had undergone a turbulent period under the baton of his successor, Israeli maestro Yoel Levi. Levi excelled in imparting precision during his twelve-year tenure, but lacked crucial people skills. Ignominiously ousted with a “thanks, but no thanks,” response after he tried to retract his resignation, Levi bequeathed a disciplined but emotionally bruised ensemble to his successor.

The board, staff, and musicians of the ASO, still reeling from the rancorous on-again, off-again split, had ground rules ready for their next conductor. They opted for a collaborative leadership, a radical approach for a traditionally autocratic culture. Spano was hired along with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles in 2000. The duo agreed to share responsibilities in an unprecedented creative triune partnership that included ASO President Allison Vulgamore as the “facilitator.”

“It’s closer to the democratic ideal, much messier and more gratifying,” says Spano about welcoming input from everyone involved, from the players to the ASO triumvirate. He believes the ASO has become a national model for another way to run an orchestra. “A true leader is able to galvanize a collective will, not just impose his own will.” Spano is enchanted by the alternate English meaning for conductor as a channel for heat, electricity, sound. It’s lost in translation. The French chef d’orchestre and the Italian direttore d’orchestra both refer to the traditional boss-man meaning. Though tyrannical was the industry standard, Spano sees himself as a conduit for consensus. “Look, as a conductor, I’m not making any sound. My role is to coalesce the talent of people int he room to make beautiful sounds together. If that’s not happening, I don’t get the musical satisfaction.”

“He doesn’t have a dictatorship management style,” agrees cellist Joel Dallow, now in his ninth season with the ASO. “He knows who everybody is, he knows their first names.” Dallow says Spano spent his first season having lunch with every person in the orchestra, six or seven at a time, asking for their thoughts, feelings, and concerns.

According to Norman Lebrecht, author of The Maestro Myth, until late in the twentieth century, orchestras were white male enclaves of prejudice and chauvinism, commanded by arrogant tyrants. Women, minorities, and gays were firmly shut out by pervasive discrimination. While a few hardy pioneer souls like Sarah Caldwell, Dean Dixon, and Jeffrey Tate breached the barricades, orchestras have lagged behind in representing the diversity of society, and conductors bring up the rear.

But it’s not over until the fat lady . . . well, you know.

The gender balance has changed dramatically in recent years, and women now make up nearly half of the players in the ASO. Females broke into arts administrator positions in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, and women like the ASO’s Cecylia Arzewski become concertmasters. Yet there has been only one woman music director in the history of the twenty-four elite U.S. orchestras (those with budgets over $10 million): Marin Alsop, who took the top spot in Baltimore in 2007.

The opening of the door has been horribly slow, Spano agrees, and although two of his assistant conductors have been women, he denies any suggestion that he has favored female applicants. The process of selecting an assistant conductor is exacting. Several hundred applicants are sorted through a complicated system that involves the American Symphony Orchestra League, then winnowed further until six remain. Each prospect conducts the symphony in an audition, doing the same piece of music. His current assistant conductor, Mei-Ann Chen, was the last person to audition. “When she stepped on the podium, we were done,” Spano declares with a snap of his fingers. “We knew. And that has nothing to do with whether she’s a woman. It’s how it sounds. I hire women because they are good. In terms of musical evaluation, I am gender blind and race blind, and I expect that from the world.

At the start of the twentieth century, composers like Arnold Schoenberg abandoned listeners in the wilderness of dissonance. Milton Babbit shrugged off alienated audiences in his notorious 1958 High Fidelity article, “Who Cares if You Listen?” Contemporary music was branded with the stigma of their fearsome reputations. Patrons ran shrieking from concert halls with their hands over their ears.

“It was a radical break,” says Paul Schleuse, assistant professor of musicology at Binghamton University in New York. “The whole story of twentieth-century music, the reason orchestras today play mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music [like Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven], is because the poster boys for modernism were more interested in working out their own musical ideas than communicating with an audience.”

But avant-garde attitudes inevitably shifted again. By the end of the twentieth century, composers were making use of tonal, tuneful musical forms and turning back toward the audience. Some of these modern composers, like David Del Tredici, Michael Gandolfi, Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, and Christopher Theofanidis, though distinctive in style, have in common a tendancy to blur the distinction between the popular and classical culture; are influential by multi-culti forms of music; and count Björk, bluegrass, and Brahms among their influences. Spano is a kindred spirit, and he’s commissioned new works, conducted premieres, and recorded lucrative, Grammy-winning performances with them. The ASO higher-ups have christened them the Atlanta School.

Jennifer Higdon, whose orchestral piece “Blue Cathedral” is one of the most frequently performed new works in the United States, points out that because Spano is also a composer, he understands how a piece is created and how to take it apart in an constructive way. “Sometimes I feel like he reads my mind,” Higdon says. “He’ll have the composer sit on the stage and during rehearsal will lean over and ask, ‘Is that what you wanted?’ It’s always a collaborative spirit.”

Christopher Theofanidis, whose exotic and lyrical Rainbow Body and The Here and Now were both recorded by the ASO, cites the power of Spano’s influence. “Robert mentioned Rainbow Body at Tanglewood, and I got a dozen calls from conductors wanting to program my work, sight unseen, on the strength of his recommendation. That’s what Robert’s word is worth,” says Theofanidis, 2003 winner of Masterprize, a prestigious international competition for composers. At Spano’s suggestion, Theofanidis is writing his first symphony.

Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentinean-born, Israeli- and U.S.-educated composer who’s a smoking-hot contemporary composer celeb worldwide, has been friends with Spano since their days at Tanglewood, when they caroused “over a lot of beers” and contemplated the possibilities of music together. Spano, who conducted the Ainadamar premiere at Tanglewood and conducted the American premiere of La Pasión según San Marcos with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, also recorded Goljov’s irresistible synthesis of chamber music, wailing klezmers, tango, and Gregorian chants with the ASO. Audiences adore the polyglot piece, and critics claim it is changing the way classical music is performed and heard. The Spano-Golijov connection is the kind of prestigious coup that’s proof of Spano’s power as an artistic rainmaker.

“I think he’s doing something we haven’t seen since [Leonard] Bernstein. They both believed in brains and a big heart, and both are able to deliver,” says Golijov in his charming but unsteady English. “Because of the strength of his personality, he can do even music that is not in his aesthetic. Contemporary music is infinitely varied, but you can ask composers anywhere, in Finland, China, or Argentina, and they would all be glad to work with Robert.”

The composers that Spano cultivates have successfully countered the dismal reputation of twentieth-century contemporary music among skeptical and conservative Atlanta audiences. Proof? The ASO has seen an increase in attendance during Spano’s tenure and won ASCAP’s 2006 Orchestra Award for “Adventurous Programming.” The 2007 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s $1 million dollar grant to the ASO should help keep the momentum going.

“The constant buzz around Spano attracts top soloists and composers, recording contracts, and excitement on a national level,” says ASO cellist Dallow. “I like being nominated for Grammys.” So far the ASO under Spano’s baton has brought home six Grammys for the mantle.

The ASO’s 12,000-seat Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta opened this summer, and booking acts like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as well as ASO shows, seems on track to generate a new income stream while offering an outdoor venue to lure patrons in the burbs. The ASO operates the Alpharetta concert pavilion (that’s owned by the Woodruff Arts Center) unlike Chastain Park Amphitheatre, where it only appears as an act.

There have been a few sour notes along the way. They lost veteran concertmaster Cecylia Arzewski, who retired at the end of the 2007-08 season. It was reported in the fall of 2007 that ASO’s debt has risen to $1.3 million, with an additional $800,000 shortfall expected, partly because Chastain didn’t’ ring the cash register as often last summer.

But the biggest stumble has been the failure to attract funds to build the ambitious Santiago Calatrava-designed music facility that was revealed to great fanfare in 2002. The campaign, headed by heavy hitters such as Arthur Blank (who upped his initial $15 million donation to $35 million in 2005) called for $30 million to construct the postcard concert hall in Midtown on Fourteenth Street. When the campaign was $190 million shy of the total, fundraising stalled out in 2007, while the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, new home of the Atlanta Opera, was funded, built, and opened to acclaim.

“It’s because a lot of private funders want to see a diversity of supporters. Notably absent from the ASO fundraising contributors to date is the public support from the state and the city,” points out Lisa Cremin, director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. “[Cobb County Commission Chairman] Sam Olens is a visionary elected official who chose to get the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre started with the issuance of a bond. Government leadership primed the pump, and private dollars followed.” Which begs the question: What is up with the city of Atlanta’s willingness to plunk down $32 million in a failed attempt to woo the proposed NASCAR Hall of Fame, but zip for the ASO?

There’s talk of repositioning a tweeked version of the Calatrava design over the MARTA station behind the arts center, which would drop the cost by an estimated $100 million while simultaneously shaking loose federal transportation funds, but nothing is firm.

In July 2007, there was press speculation in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Spano had been passed over for top positions in more prestigious orchestras elsewhere. Spano vehemently refutes any suggestion that Atlanta could be a pit stop on his route to bigger and better things. “That’s baloney. Atlanta is not a stepping-stone for me. Atlanta is where I stepped to. It’s an arrival point, not a departure point,” he insists. “I worked my whole life to get this job.” Spano points out that several other orchestras were hiring at the time, and he had quite the dance card. “I didn’t want the other orchestras,” he pounds out each word on the table, a drumroll of insistence. “I wanted Atlanta,” he says, and breaks into a grin. “The orchestra is HOT.”

Inside the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Art Deco hall, the stage curtain glows in shades of vermillion, apricot, and persimmon. The patrons in the lobby are packed shoulder to shoulder, silk charmeuse by crepe de Chine, tuxedo by dinner jacket. At Lyric’s Civic Opera House, the common denominator isn’t age; it’s wealth and a willingness to pay for the privilege of world-class opera. Tonight the hottest ticket in town is Sopano conducting John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic, a musical landscape of fatal hubris and hallucinatory visions, three grueling hours that explore the psychic fallout of constructing the atom bomb at Los Alamos.

It’s a harrowing evening, not least because the most pleasurable moment is listening to the sopranos of the chorus sing an ode to the plutonium core. The house is packed, but not everyone comes back after intermission. Spano hears patrons sobbing in the rows behind him as he lowers his baton in the pit. The bleak finale, including a Japanese voice repeating, “Water, please, the children,” is met with a moment of stunned silence before the clapping and bravos from the audience began. There’s an audible surge of applause when Spano takes his bow.

The next afternoon, Spano leads the way up steep escalators and through labyrinthine corridors to the corporate studio apartment he’s rented for his Chicago sojourn. For a man who just drove an orchestra and singers toward inexorable doom, he seems pretty chipper.

“I don’t stay in the emotion of the piece. I can go in an deal with the work, and I leave it there,” Spano says as he brews coffee. The anonymous room echoes the lobby’s tame beige and taupe décor, but the view, twenty-seven floors above the wintry Chicago landscape, gives it the feel of an aerie.

Along with performing Doctor Atomic, Spano is preparing for the next ASO concert. There’s a well-thumbed Rachmaninov score on a low black coffee table in front of the television, along with a small silver ruler for annotating the score, three single-space pages of errata notes from the ASO librarian, two gold packs of Benson & Hedges, and a scatter of pens.

Spano unexpectedly works by the flickering pixels of cable TV. “The TV is never off. It’s companionable. House, Monk, Psych,” Spano ticks them off. “Law & Order is genius.” Books lean neatly against the wall, stacked four and five deep, Spano’s portable library. “I read read read read read read,” Spano says. “I’m in a big Jungian phase.” There’s Cosmos and Psyche by Richard Tarnas; an Italian language instruction book; poetry by John Donne, Baudelair, and Mary Oliver; an Oppenheimer bio; a volume about the Kabbalah; and Jung’s Synchronicity, The Undiscovered Self, Man and His Symbols, and The Mysterium Coniunctionis.

His preshow ritual embraces routine, and the most important thing is a nap. “There’s something I tap into, something in the subconscious,” Spano says. If his phone rings after four o’clock on a performance day, it’s someone who either doesn’t know him or who doesn’t know he has a concert that night.

When he conducted the marathon of Richard Wagner’s epic opera Der Ring des Nibelungen in Seattle (four nights, fifteen hours total performance time), a career milestone endurance test, and, in Spano’s case, a triumph, he worked with a trainer. He did Pilates, ran, and ate six small meals a day. He even quit smoking, but lit up again when he bought a mountain house in Ellijay.

“I was so ecstatic. The paperwork was done, it was my house, there was that glorious view, and I really wanted to celebrate. I thought, ‘I can just have one cigarette. I won’t start smoking again,’” Spano says. “I smoked a pack sitting there.”

Back home in Atlanta, in contrast to the Presidential Towers rental, Spano’s Midtown bachelor pad looks like a local branch of the metaphysics and music library. The entryway is lined with ten jam-packed cherry wood bookshelves. There’s a twenty-volume set of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Tchaikovsky and Tarot, meditation and Mozart. There are shelves devoted to the I Ching and Bach. The hefty European intelligentsia tome The Man Without Qualities shares shelf space with kid-lit The Story of Ferdinand, a bull who preferred to smell flowers instead of fight in the ring.

The loft is modern in a 1990s exposed-ducts-and-stained-concrete kind of way. The corner unit overlooks Peachtree Street and is drenched with light from windows that run the length of two walls. Three door-sized mirrors lean against the wall. There’s a big, bright, cartoony painting of a blond man standing in a pool of aqua water. Everything else is bone, black, and gray, except for the purple chenille shawl on the back of his ebony Steinway Small Concert Grand.

Far from at a loss about what to admire about his adopted city, he’s spoiled for choice. “I love all the predictable things,” Spano says. He runs in Piedmont Park and admires the orchids at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He also hangs out at Silk like it’s his mother’s kitchen (owner Anna Hsu chooses his dinner), applauds Georgia Shakespeare’s productions of Loot and Metamorphoses, and browses the shelves at the Phoenix and Dragon Bookstore.

Like everyone else, he says Atlanta’s downside is traffic, but he’s found a way to beat it. If I leave at midnight after the Saturday night performance, I can get to Ellijay in ninety minutes.”

His agent, Jason Bagdade of Opus 3 Artists, organizes Spano’s creative calendar, sifting through the offers of scouting opportunities so Spano can tackle big career-enriching projects like Wagner’s Ring cycle and Adams’s Doctor Atomic. The agency percentage cut varies, depending upon the project. “I’m handled like an athlete,” Spano says. “The big projects need careful managing.” With concert dates as well as composing, performing, and piecing together the next season of the ASO on his plate, how does he cope? “Do the next most pressing thing; otherwise, it won’t get done. It’s the code of any workaholic.”

Though Spano denies he has any intention to leave the ASO, he admits it will probably happen. “At some point they’re gonna need a different influence. It will happen inevitably. Music directors have shelf lives.” In his fourth year, looking for a challenge, he took on Wagner. “When I came back, I had five things I wanted us to do, and it was a great feeling. I realized I can regenerate.” Bagdade asked recently if Spano was unhappy in Atlanta and he replied, “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. Doing exactly what I’m supposed to do. Which is kind of surprising to me. It’s luck, wonderful luck.”

An erudite and earthly conversationalist, passionate about music, literature, and his enthusiasm for his adopted city, Spano is tight-lipped about money.

According to Woodruff Art Center’s tax records, Spano’s ASO salary is $630,110. There are guest conducting fees, recording residuals, endorsements, and his role as 2006 artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival. He’s headed to the conducting fellowship program at Tanglewood Music Center (1998-2002) and is on the faculty of the Oberlin Conservatory. It adds up. It’s less often reported that he has contributed $35,000 a year for the last five years to the ASO’s Annual Fund. He refuses to discuss his income or other charitable contributions and says only, “I find it uncivilized to talk about one’s money.”

Spano is equally reticent about his personal life, preferring privacy over candor. “I have great connections with family and friends. So I’m not lonely, which is amazing given that I’m a single person.” Asked if he wants a serious relationship, Spano says, ”I would have said ‘absolutely,’ but now I’ve lived as a single person for so long, I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule it out.” He feels like the mother of John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp, who can’t convince people that she doesn’t want to be married. “But I have really great friends, and for the moment that’s okay. Even in this world of pairs.”

A new skill he’s learned is the art of leisure. “I worked too much. I couldn’t keep up. I was going to go completely loony,” the forty-seven-year-old Spano admits. “After a certain point, workaholism is not fun anymore.” He has started building in some downtime, with the intervention of his agent. “It took years to turn the ship,” Spano says. “I’m busy now, but there’s time to prepare and study, and time to relax.” He took an entire week off in 2007. “It was great,” Spano says with the enthusiasm of the convert. “I will take more time in the future, I can tell. That’s why I love my house in Ellijay. I can do whatever feels right. Stare at the mountain for a couple of hours, or fall asleep in a chair, with a book in my lap.”

The bland vanilla concrete box of symphony hall fills slowly. Dimming lights set off a prickle of anticipation. Spano stands before his altar like a pre-Vatican II priest with his back to the congregation. He’s there for the miracle, offering himself as the channel for transubstantiation, transforming the wafer and wine of the score into the body and blood of living music. A shaman with a beat, Spano begins to dance again, swaying like a drunk trying to walk the line, jolting from the base of his spine, plucking precise swoops in the air like he’s suturing a wound. He pulls a hand toward his heart, urgent, intense, give me moremoremore.

The orchestra responds with glorious music that breaks through the muffled quality of the crummy acoustics that blight even the best performances and are like a smeary, greasy film on a window with an incredible view.

The final chord brings patrons to their feet. Spano bows deeply, once, twice, and you realize that when the last note is played, it’s done. Vanished. All his effort and preparation disappear into the atmosphere like the smoke curling up from his cigarette.

Mr. Cheap Goes to City Hall

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This article originally appeared in our November 2007 issue.

The cars keep coming—sedan, coupe, SUV, SUV, hybrid, van, SUV, truck, station wagon, sedan, truck. It’s midmorning and technically well after the end of rush hour, on a leafy, tree-lined residential street. But this is the ATL, the automotive industry’s bitch, whose car-clogged freeways and surface-street arteries are choking on a diet of pure vehicular cholesterol, and traffic just keeps on coming.

Clark Howard stands by his mailbox. An archetypal nerd, with humidity-curled hair and generic metal glasses, he is instantly recognizable in his wrinkled khaki cargo shorts and clearance rack sneakers. His boyish dimples and unlined face pass for a decade younger than his fifty-two years, though his untucked thrift store golf shirt barely disguises a modest middle-aged paunch. His wife, who calls this outfit the “Clark-iform” says, “If you see him in a suit, someone probably died.”

Atlanta’s most notoriously frugal resident is in TV reporter mode, trying to demonstrate his locking mailbox (no drive-by postal identity theft for him!). His pared-down crew, a producer and videographer, find a line of sight unobstructed by the stream of fenders, but as the drivers relentlessly whiz along, the whoosh of tires, throb of acceleration, and growl of downshifting trucks keeps drowning out the audio. Finally a sanitation truck stops, blocking traffic long enough for Howard to get his twenty seconds of promo in the can.

A black woman in a white coupe rolls down her passenger window to ask what’s going on. Howard steps forward, smiling “Hi, I’m Clark Howard,” and gets no further because the woman starts screaming, “I love you Clark! I love you Clark!” and bouncing in her seat, turning the whole car into a bobbing and swaying thrill-o-meter.

Howard smiles and waves, his golly gosh gee willickers persona radiating cheerfulness, a trait that drives cynics crazy. There’s nothing thin-lipped and sour about him. How can he be so cheap and so happy? Sure, Howard earned his parsimonious image with tales of prying quarters out of the asphalt in front of oncoming traffic, buying seven-dollar secondhand shirts, naming his slightly irregular pugs QuikTrip and Costco, and planning to leave his body to science to eliminate the expense of a funeral (“they pay for everything!”).

But stingy isn’t the whole story.

Howard has not one but five cars in the drive, he’s recently forked out major ducats for an extensive renovation to his (mortgage-free!) two-and-a-half-acre north Atlanta estate, and he coughs up Westminster School tuition for his daughter. So let’s define our terms. Skinflint? No, that suggests a hoarder who’s found dead of starvation on a mattress stuffed with cash—or Howard Hughes and those soup cans.

Tightfisted? Closer, but still reeking of deprivation.

There’s no argument that Howard is thrifty. But he’s not about doing without—he’s about the deal, whatever the price range. It’s all about copping a bargain buzz, the atavistic thrill of the hunt. If it’s a deal, he’s on it. This guy can get a kick out of finding change in the seat cushions and an adrenalin rush from scoring a sweet deal on a used Jaguar. He’s a thrill seeker, not a miser. Yes, he believes in living within his means, but the means he has to live within have expanded exponentially. This self-professed penny-pincher brings home major gelt extolling the virtues of thrift. And he owes nothing. “We have no debt. There’s no house debt, no car debt, no debt debt. None,” Howard points out happily. With an income “solidly in the seven figures,” he saves 80 percent of his income (15 percent pretax and 65 percent after tax) and has enough left over to maintain a six-bedroom estate here and an oceanfront condo in Florida.

As generous as he is cheap, Howard’s personally bankrolled twenty-three Habitat for Humanity houses, at up to $175,000 a pop, with four more scheduled to start construction next February. At a recent working breakfast at the Comer Cafe in Buckhead, he tipped $9 on a $12 tab. He’ll go to Value City or the Dollar Store to find a deal on umbrellas and buy twenty. “As he’s driving and sees people caught in the rain, he’ll roll down the window and give them an umbrella,” says his wife, Lane Carlock. “It’s like that bumper sticker, ‘Commit Random Acts Of Kindness.'”

“I just hate to see people get soaked,” says Howard.

Another factor that shatters the stereotypical shorthand—Howard’s a risk taker. This is a man who boasts of driving a scooter on the mean streets of Midtown. Who married without a prenup, proof of brass cojones in the divorce-littered landscape of high-stakes millionaire marriages. And he’s a political novice who is seriously considering running for mayor of a city with an overwhelmingly black majority population that hasn’t elected a white candidate since 1969.

Howard’s staff—researchers, producers, an engineer, and interns—convenes in a fittingly no-frills conference room in WSB’s Midtown studios a couple of hours before air time. A water cooler gurgles in the corner between the fridge and sink, and there’s a faint odor of burnt microwave popcorn. The spartan decor consists of some rakishly tilted plaques, a framed Habitat for Humanity T-shirt, and a piggybank.

The staff throws out ideas culled from newspapers, magazines, and the Internet: the resurgence of travel agencies, equity stripping, McDonald’s biofuel trucks, parent coaches. Parent coaches? “It’s $300 for a visit and two phone calls. I think it’s fueled by the ‘nanny’ shows,” explains executive producer Christa DiBiase. “Bah humbug,” Howard scoffs.

A prophet crying in a wilderness of conspicuous consumption, Howard preaches the gospel of fiscal responsibility. Some see him as a garrulous, well-meaning snore who lectures on the value of thrift, brags on his scratch-and-dent appliances, drones on about Roth IRAs, blah blah blah. He’s the last guy you want to get trapped next to at the buffet line. Unless you are caught in the wringer of identity theft, trapped in bad customer service hell, struggling to pay off overwhelming credit card debt, or desperately seeking a flight you can afford. Then you hang on Howard’s every word, even if your mind slams shut at the very mention of percentages and ratios, because Howard knows the way out, and he wants to empower you.

On the way to the WSB News-Talk 750 broadcast booth you pass darkened soundproof rooms freckled with glowing console lights: Kiss 104.4 FM, 95.5 The Beat, 97.1 The River, B98.5. Howard shares studio space with other WSB radio personalities, from rabble-rouser Neal Boortz to crowd-pleasing garden guru Walter Reeves and weatherman Kirk Mellish.

Inside the dimly lit studio, Howard stands in front of his console with one eye on the computer screen that feeds him data on the upcoming calls and access to the Internet, the other eye on the clock that’s ticking down the seconds to air time. The room is crisply air conditioned, really nippy. “Boortz is going through menopause,” someone cracks. Across from Howard a producer, two interns, and a visitor take their seats and tether themselves umbilically to the console with the spiral cords of headphones. Two TV sets are mounted on the studio walls—one tuned to CNBC, the other to CNN—with the audio off and subtitles scrawling across the bottom of the screen.

Producer Kimberly Drobes, checking audio levels on her laptop, slips a scribbled question to the intern, like passing notes in the back of the class. ON AIR lights up, and Howard leans into the intro of his three-hour talkathon. “Welcome to The Clark Howard Show, where I want you to save more, spend less, and not get ripped off.”

Howard opens with an alert on mobile phone “moisture strips” that are supposed to determine whether a phone has been dunked, voiding the warranty. He warns listeners that the strips are inaccurate and tells them how to prove it (“don’t be rrrripped off by your phone company!”). Howard is minimally scripted, just a few bullet points from the staff meeting and a little research support while he’s on air. As he finishes each segment, he floats a paper with the topic’s talking points over the side of a low divider that looks like a sneeze guard. The intern, pen in mouth, types a summary of the show as it happens.

The first caller asks Howard’s opinion of Smart Cars, Euro vehicles so petite that two can fit side by side in a parking space. Howard launches into the pros and cons, using the deliberate, measured cadence of Mr. Rogers. “Can you say en-er-gee-eee-fish-en-cee? I knew you could.” He refers the caller to a website—and that’s typical. He’s quick to point callers to outside resources, including telling them where to buy his books, coauthored with Mark Meltzer, cheaper than they’re sold on clarkhoward.com.

After the caller is off the air, Howard checks his time. He not only takes a consumer pop quiz with every call, he has to wrap it up so each Q&A fits in the packet of minutes allotted between commercials, weather, and news breaks. It’s like playing Beat the Clock while defending a doctoral thesis. He’s deftly fitted this caller’s question and his answer to the allotted time, closing out the call within a fraction of a second. When he’s taping a show, he has wiggle room with recording tricks, like electronically snipping out hesitations, but when it’s going out live, he has to nail it.

In an adjacent room DiBiase is vetting incoming calls, a sometimes emotionally arduous chore she shares with two other producers. The screener has to eliminate callers with questions Howard has recently covered, the weepers, the screamers, the cursers, the ones with heartbreaking difficulties outside the scope of the show. On breaks, DiBiase pops in and briefs Howard on the caller’s plight, summing up the convoluted consumer quandary in a sentence or two. She brings helpful data she’s already pulled from the Internet and says why she thinks he should take the call. As the callers wait on the line, anywhere from two minutes to two hours, she periodically “refreshes” them—industry slang for reminding them for how to behave on air, which in this case means not to give company names, or say where they are calling from, to turn off their radios, and to be ready to go on the air.

By the start of the third hour, the intern is quietly eating Cheez-Its one at a time from a Ziploc. Popcorn makes an appearance. The mics are not as sensitive as TV mics—they don’t pick up the rustle of the bag or the muted crunching. Pitched higher early in the show, Howard’s voice has gotten a shade slower, darker, and raspier as the hours go by. Someone wants to know whether she should do a credit freeze to protect herself from identity theft. Howard methodically gives an explanation an eight-year-old could follow. “I know this sounds complicated and weird, but I’ve got links that’ll explain it. Go to clarkhoward.com, you’ll see my ugly face,” he says merrily. Then he segues to riffing off an ad he sees on CNBC, “Special offer! CALL NOW!!! Combo knife and scissors!!!”

It’s the callers more than Howard and his sound effects who make the show compelling—people beaten down by callous corporate treatment, screwed by misleading salesmen, tempted by shady Internet come-ons. Howard gives straight answers, but he also does a kind of improv, gauging how much levity he can introduce without appearing insensitive—sketch comedy for the fiscally challenged. The next caller asks about buying a timeshare vacation home and Howard gleefully cues up his sirens and exploding bomb sound effects.

Not everyone is laughing.

Howard makes no secret of his dislike of ripoffs, especially corporate contempt for customer service and ethically sketchy business practices, and will call out companies he feels have egregiously misbehaved. His anti-extended warranty stance aggravates electronics store managers, and Realtors seethe as he mocks timeshares. Bankers fume as he rails against equity-indexed annuities that target the elderly, or plugs credit unions. In1992 McFrugal Auto Rental sued over his assertion of bait-and-switch (the case was dismissed). Brokers find his no-load mutual funds advice infuriating. “When Clark got on his no-load kick I thought, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,'” sniffs one financial consultant. “There are clients who are not capable, who need advice, and when I advise them, I am deserving of the fee. I changed my radio station then, and it hasn’t gone back.”

Sometimes Howard touts a deal that turns out to be too good to be true. His raves for SunRocket, a cheapo pay-in-advance Internet phone provider (he was a customer) backfired when the company went bust last July. Even though he warned the faithful when SunRocket started laying off personnel at an alarming rate, there was a lot of disgruntled traffic on the “Clark Stinks!” page of his website’s message board after the company tanked.

In some ways, Howard is like a vice squad cop—witnessing the worst of predatory human behavior and the victims’ pathetic outcomes. One of his producers once asked him how come he was so happy all the time. “I just am. I look at everything with a positive view,” he says. “My abiding principle is the only thing that’s the end of the world is the end of the world.”

Howard navigates the Cumberland Costco for a book signing, and he’s cheered like a hero. When strangers flag him down in the parking lot, he rolls down the Scion’s window and greets his fans like he’s never done it before and has been looking forward to doing it all his life. He’s escorted to his signing table in the utilitarian big box store he calls his “home away from home.”

The signing is well-managed by WSB staff, who set up a table, stack books handily, and give people cards to fill out letting Howard know how they’d like their books signed. Howard introduces himself to every person with seemingly inexhaustible patience. His quiet coauthor, Mark Meltzer, executive editor of the Atlanta Business Chronicle, is also at the signing, but he’s mostly ignored by the throng of true believers who want not only books and autographs, but also answers. The crowd shuffles along until they can step forward and spring questions about travel, banking, insurance, or investments. Sure enough, Howard dispenses advice along with autographs.

Poll the fans about why they listen to Howard, and they say he’s honest, he’s ethical, he’s genuine, and he’s smart. Surprisingly, no one mentions cheap—until a trim, well-dressed woman you’d see at Phipps or Whole Foods says she heard on Howard’s show that you can keep a razor blade working for a full year by drying it off after each use. She dries hers with a hair dryer and it works. She told her son and he’s doing it, too. She’s thrilled. That’s a hard-core Howard tip.

Alex Shapiro, the WSB event security guard, stands behind Howard and slightly to the left, watching for the weirdos, the wackos, the nutjobs who might go ballistic. “He never takes money to endorse products. That makes our job easier, but he’s gotten punched,” says Shapiro, whose job is not celebrity bouncer, but rather to remove Howard from a threat—take the bullet, if need be. “He speaks the truth,” shrugs Shapiro. “Some people have too much time on their hands and not enough Thorazine.”

Although Howard is undisputed king of his multimedia domain—The Clark Howard Show, clarkhoward.com, WSB TV consumer reports, newspaper columns, books, e-newsletters, speeches ($15,000 a pop!), a cable show, Get Clark Smart, on magrack.com, and the Team Clark Howard Consumer Advice Center—his media career is, by his own account, a fluke.

After his unexpected retirement in 1987 at age thirty-one (more on that shortly), he stumbled into a guest spot on a WGST radio travel show that morphed into an unpaid weekly two-hour radio travel show of his own. Howard parlayed that job into hosting Cover Your Assets, a personal finances show. “I had no producer, no staff nothing. The business white pages and a dial-up modem was my research team,” Howard recalls. He pulled down a pitiful $150 a week for his daily show, plus the Sunday travel show. With Howard at the helm, Cover Your Assets took off in the ratings, soaring from a 1.1share to an unprecedented 4.0.

By May 1990 he’d added two newspaper columns a week to the mix and still didn’t think he was working until WSB came to court him. “They offered me quite a sum of money;” says Howard. “I was like, ‘Wow.'” He hired a lawyer to negotiate his contract and debuted The Clark Howard Show in 1991. The show was syndicated in 1998 and Howard bought it outright from WSB parent company Cox Enterprises in 2001. “That was very risky. In 2002 I lost money, I worked for less than free. 2003 was a little bit better than breakeven, and 2004, 2005, and 2006 were really good years for the show. At this point it’s very profitable.”

Life is good and the dough is rolling in. So why is he thinking about shutting everything down?

The long driveway to Howard’s home makes hairpin turns through the piney woods. Steep ravines on either side pose their own field sobriety test. The newly renovated front of the two-story house is glass and stone, nice but not grand, solid rather than showy, with a broad stone terrace. Light bounces off the pale wood floors of the entry. The new paint and fresh Sheetrock smells optimistic. A central staircase leads to the top-floor bedrooms, and as Lane gives a nickel tour, it becomes clear how their “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy works. If she brings home a great GOB (going out of business) piece, like her foyer’s brass chandelier (“forty-five bucks!”), Howard hears about it. The plush Oriental rug in delicate creams and neutrals from Moattar in ADAC? “I’d better not say. I was bad,” she gleefully confesses.

A slender woman with shoulder-length auburn hair and an expressive contralto voice, Lane has leveraged her magna cum laude degree in broadcast news from the University of Georgia into a career as full-time actor, including hosting a number of TV shows. Along with being the mother of eight-year-old Stephanie and two-year-old Grant, she runs her own production company and dotes on Howard—she blushes when the ring tone on her cell phone plays “The Clark Howard Theme,” a song composed as a joke following a Q100-sponsored singing contest in which Howard lost to the Braves’s Jeff Francoeur.

Upstairs beneath the eaves, tucked under a ceiling with angles like origami, is the master bedroom. They share a mission-style Costco bed. Her side: a home decor magazine and sunglasses, His side: an economy-size plastic jar of Kirkland store-brand jelly beans and a pair of noise-reduction Bose headphones. The newly renovated master bath has obvious his and hers elements, too. His: a water-saving toilet with two flush buttons—one for liquid only and the other for more substantial sewage. Hers: a Jacuzzi tub and heated towel rack.

Sometimes it’s not about the economy, stupid, it’s a gender thing. He buys cheapo, fall apart toilet paper, but she gets the Charmin. He hates to pay to park (valet, no way!) and drives and walks blocks for a free space. He’s wearing sneakers, she’s in stilettos. Duh. Drop her at the door before you self-park.

Howard sits down for an interview in the small brick and glass garden room, wearing his standard khaki shorts (nine dollars!) and a navy golf shirt with the WSB logo (free!). The kids are playing nearby, there’s banging and sawing and hammering from the construction crew, the electrician and painter interrupt with inquiries, and Howard is utterly unperturbed. Whether he’s shooting a video promo, broadcasting in the studio, signing books at Costco, or sitting on his porch answering ticklish questions about money and politics, he’s the same good-natured guy.

Howard grew up in the slipstream of his affluent parents and older siblings, in a home on Ridgewood and West Wesley, “I am the baby of four kids—and the accident. My sister is 63, my brother is 60, and my other brother is 58. Then oops! Here comes Clark!” says Howard, who claims family members still call him by his nickname, Baby Clark. He had the standard accoutrements of summer camps and private schools; Lovett, Pace, and Westminster. Raised in Reform Judaism, he remembers encountering far more discrimination then than he sees now. “All Jewish boys had to learn boxing so they could defend themselves in high school, but my daughter Becca has never experienced an iota of overt prejudice.”

His maternal grandparents were well-to-do, but his father’s family was often in financial trouble. Howard’s father came home twice from school to see his belongings out on the street because his family had been evicted.

Bernie Howard prospered working for his in-laws’ Lovable Bra company but was fired by his brothers-in-law in 1973.When Howard came home from college for Thanksgiving break, his father sat him down to tell him he couldn’t pay for college after that year. “My father was very worried about how they were going to live and what they were going to live on,” Howard says. Though his family recovered financially (Joy and Bernie Howard opened a successful home accessories business, Howard Unlimited), this sudden reversal of fortune changed Howard’s attitude about money. “When my dad got fired it forced me to fend for myself. It’s part of the reason that I’m so cheap,” he says.

“I think money is about having choice. In a capitalist society when you owe, you’re weak, and when you have, you’re strong. That’s just fundamental economics. It’s never what you make, it’s what you don’t spend,” Howard says earnestly. “People want possessions more than they want control.”

Howard wanted control. He went to work full time at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, took night classes, and graduated in three years from American University in Washington with a degree in urban government.

After graduation, he invested part of a $17,000 trust fund from his maternal grandfather in an electric-car company that went belly up. The rest of the fund went into a cash investment partnership he started with his father, who had worked on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange as a young man. With his profits from stocks, Howard opened his own Atlanta travel agency in 1981in the wake of airline deregulation. Six years later, in the most profitable year in the history of travel agencies, Howard’s chain of independent travel agencies, Action Travel, was bought out by an investor group for $300,000.

“I got out of the travel agency business by luck. I was not for sale,” Howard says. “These guys came to me.” When the deal was done, he asked what position he’d have and got shown the door. “I was shocked. I had no clue. I didn’t realize they were giving me the heave-ho.” At age thirty-one, Howard found himself unceremoniously unemployed, and decided to retire.

“You know, I live on so little money. Frugal lifestyle is key, but let me tell you what else I had. I had real estate: a home on Peachtree Memorial, another house, and a vacant lot. I had a tiny percent of Lovable. When the company was sold in 1986, after tax it was $180,000. Which is very nice money, but I didn’t inherit vast wealth.”

His ambition, hard work, and (mostly) shrewd business decisions had landed him the prize of early retirement, but looking back he feels he missed the fun of college days, of being twenty: “I wish I hadn’t been so driven and worked so hard.” Howard’s first marriage, to Karen, collapsed three years later. He cites growing apart over time as the reason for the split. The divorce was cordial enough where it counts the most—the welfare of their child. He shared custody of his daughter, Rebecca, who is now a freshman at Georgia College and State University and still has her own room in Howard’s house. Still, “going through the divorce in 1990 was very difficult emotionally and financially. Even in an amicable divorce there’s a lot of pain,” Howard says.

That next year, Howard left WGST for WSB, and his on-air stint ballooned from seven to fifteen hours a week. A thirty-five-year-old divorcee, he discovered the joys of bachelorhood over the next few years.

He remembers the exact day he first talked with Lane: June 17, 1994, when he was pulled off the air because of breaking news about a white Bronco cruising down the L.A. freeways with a former NFL player at the wheel. As a newsman took over his chair to do the play-by-play, Howard wandered into the producer’s lounge and started talking with Lane, who was working on the Gary McKee show.

“And it was like ‘BAM!’ Right away. There was magic there,” Howard says.

He proceeded with caution because he’d been told she had a boyfriend.

“We went out a couple of times but it wasn’t a date. I was prospecting. We were ‘predating.’ I didn’t want to make an investment if she wasn’t available.”

Lane was wary because everyone at the station told her to stay away from him. “I had a reputation as a playboy—undeserved,” Howard says.

“They thought I’d be the next stop on the dating route, but he didn’t seem that way to me at all. In fact, he seemed like the most genuine person I’d ever dated. It’s so hokey,” Lane says. “We were at Outback the second or third time we went out, he touched my hand, and it was, ooh”—she gives a little shiver—”electricity.”

”Aw,” says Howard. It’s his turn to blush.

Their early marriage involved a lot of traveling. “It was like jumping on a moving freight train,” Lane says. She used to keep a weekend bag packed, and Howard would call and tell her their (bargain!) destination as she drove to Hartsfield.

When he finally popped the question, it wasn’t, “Will you sign this prenup’?”

“Uh uh. I’m too romantic for that,” Howard says. “I can’t tell you how many men and women through the years have said, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t do a prenup.’ We’ve been married now twelve years and I’ve probably heard that a hundred times at least. I mean constantly.”

“I want names,” Lane interjects.

“They’ll be asking me who should they go to for their prenup or what should be in their prenup and that’s how it comes out. I’ll say I really don’t know, and they’ll say, well, who did yours, and I’ll say I don’t have one,” Howard pauses. “From a practical financial point you should do one, especially if one person comes in with substantially more assets, but I personally can’t do one.”

What does this high-energy family do to relax? According to Lane, Howard never sits still, never watches TV; he even reads the newspaper while he’s jogging on the elliptical. Exercise is Howard’s extra battery pack. “I work out every day and lift weights three times a week. That does a lot to keep me going.”

Travel is a big part of making family memories. Howard likes to visit national parks—any place with wide open spaces and great views—and pedestrian-friendly cities like San Diego, Manhattan, Charleston, and Washington. “We walk and walk and walk some more,” Howard says. Lane looks in every art gallery, and he joins her in the museums. The whole family likes hanging out at their Florida condo, making sand castles and swimming in the pool. Back home in Atlanta, Stephanie rides her Razor scooter and Howard runs alongside pushing Grant in a stroller. Lane plays cards (Kings’ Corner, Hearts, Rummy) with Stephanie, who beats her mom at Monopoly. Howard takes both of his daughters on special annual father/daughter trips.

“We know a lot of very wealthy people who are miserable, so money is not the wealth that really matters. You have to have a certain amount, at least enough to deal with the basics, but as long as you have that, what makes people happy or unhappy is what’s in their hearts. Not what’s in their wallets,” says Howard. “I think that surprises people about me.”

An idea that first surprised people: the buzz about Howard running for mayor. But it’s not such a stretch. Howard’s hero growing up was Atlanta native Martin Luther King Jr. He credits the Nobel Prize winner with being the reason—along with air-conditioning—for the rise of Atlanta to national prominence. Howard also remembers former mayor Sam Massell’s inauguration as an inspiration to him as a young Jewish man. Add to that Howard’s degree in urban government and his decades of consumer advocacy. So when Howard says he’s wanted to be president since he was six years old, running for mayor doesn’t seem so out of the blue.

Lane says she’s always known public office was a possibility. When Howard talked on air about what he’d do if he were mayor back when Bill Campbell was in office, people showed up at WSB with campaign donations. “A political life is something I don’t relish. I value my privacy and wouldn’t want to put my kids through it. But I want Clark to be everything he wants to be,” says Lane.

Howard describes himself as a nonideological “mountain-state Republican”—fiscally conservative and socially progressive. Yet he drives the Democrats crazy by supporting charter schools and vouchers. He’d like poor kids to have a chance to migrate to a better economic status and believes the schools are the greatest gateway in American culture for that. “What’s missing in a public schools monopoly is a sense of urgency—what difference does it make if the school doesn’t get better this year or next year? You’re on the payroll, everybody is still getting their paycheck. It’s the kids that are still passed year to year, without hope and without a chance. That’s why school choice is so important for me.”

But Atlanta’s mayor has no real authority over schools, only a bully pulpit. So what would be at the top of his political agenda? “I’m obsessed with traffic,” Howard says. “Shirley has been the sewer mayor. I’d be the traffic mayor.”

Liberating the city too gridlocked to wait is an ambitious agenda, but Howard’s Achilles’ heel is his lack of political office experience. “When a voter examines Howard’s experience the question will be, ‘What has he ever run?’ Remember that Shirley Franklin emphasized her administrative experience under Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson as well as running the Olympics,” says political insider Michael Jablonski, who has advised former Governor Roy Barnes and Mayor Shirley Franklin, has a law practice concentrating on election law, is general counsel to the Democratic Party of Georgia, and is an instructor in political communication at Georgia State University. “Howard’s intelligence will get in his way because he is a first-time candidate. He will make rookie mistakes. And being smart means that he will probably invent new ones.”

Howard advises listeners who want to buy into a franchise to work there first: “Learn it from the inside out, even if it means emptying trash cans at first.” Yet without running for so much as dogcatcher, he’s applying for Atlanta’s top political job, asserting, “I’d really want to come in clean slate, make my mistakes and then hopefully figure out the best way to do it.”

As the rumors of a Clark Howard candidacy began to swirl last summer, the political blogosphere erupted. Along with a lot of encouraging grassroots support, the discouraging word on the blogs—and behind closed doors with some city bigwigs—is that Howard can’t win because he’s a straight, white male.

Sam Massell, Buckhead Coalition president and former mayor, says, “With the overwhelming majority of Atlanta’s registered voters being African American, it is reasonable to expect the leading black will win in a runoff against the most popular white.”

But Howard believes city demographics are changing and will be split fifty-fifty in terms of actual voters in the next election, due to the population growth fueled by corporate nomads and people moving back into the city to escape heinous commutes. If bigotry drove people out, traffic is driving them right back in.

So will he or won’t he?

Don’t expect for him to decide before 2008. He has a lot to think about. His current schedule permits time with his young children, time he’d lose to campaigning and governing. And he’d have to shut down his media organization, knowing that saying he’s going to run doesn’t mean he’s going to win, and that winning doesn’t mean he’d be effective.

“It’s not like a fork in the road. I’ve got to go pave a whole new road when I’ve already got a superhighway. I’ve got all this going on that I’d have to chop off at the knees. Anybody in my industry thinks I’ve lost my mind to even remotely consider it.”

If Howard does decide to run, the pundits have some suggestions. “There’s a good bit of poverty in the city and a gap between the haves and the have-nots. A mayor needs to address this,” says Dr. William Boone, professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University, “A mayor needs to be able to convince the state and surrounding counties to support Grady [Memorial Hospital].”

“I would hope that a Mayor Howard would focus on quality of life issues,” Jablonski says. “He should recognize that Mayor Franklin leaves the next mayor with an excellent foundation upon which a visionary can create an amazing city.”

“He is so popular and successful in his present public role, the only advice I would offer, if he runs, is to maintain his persona and don’t try to out-politic the politicians,” says Massell, Atlanta’s last white mayor.

“Since this started I’ve noticed two things, stark as they can be,” Howard says. “People who are insiders feel no hope and think I am wasting my time. People who are outside the political process think I can go in and change everything in one minute. I have the ability to surprise people who assume I can’t accomplish anything and to disappoint people who think I can fix everything.”

Howard asks all his radio show callers the same thing: “This is Clark Howard, how may I be of service?”

If he wants Atlantans to elect him as the next mayor, he’ll have to answer that question himself.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: Kenny Rogers wants to decorate your life

Kenny Rogers

This article was originally published in our September 2007 issue.

The fans run a gauntlet of slot machine-filled rooms illuminated by lights blinking in seizure-inducing, strobe-flashing rhythms. Electronic blurps and shrill lunatic crescendos wail, rising sirens—whoopwhoopWHOOP—overlaid with multiple-song bleed-over, as if every cell phone in every pocket in Atlantic City went off at once. When they reach the doors of the Trump Plaza Theater, the audience lines up in stretch jeans and cargo shorts, carefully trimmed white beards and mustaches, cowboy boots, beer guts, and bifocals. The casino smells like car deodorizer, fried grease, kegger dregs, and stale ashtrays. Smoke-free signs be damned—its in the fibers’ DNA here.

Kenny Rogers strides through specially formulated fog into the spotlight as the faithful roar their approval. When the eighties country-pop icon steps forward, folksy and powerful, unpretentious and celebrated, the restless casino crowd is enrapt. T-shirts printed with images of Rogers from a decade ago strain across more than a few bellies.

Rogers’s familiar voice is as relaxed as a man greeting his oldest friends at a backyard barbecue. His followers ignore the fumbled plastic surgery that caused a commotion in the blogosphere after Rogers’s 2006 stint on American Idol. (“Have you seen that Kenny Rogers lately? He had plastic surgery and now he looks like an Olsen twin” or “Kenny Rogers blinked the other day and pulled a groin muscle.”)

Rogers’s banter is scripted, canned, and predictable, honed over countless performances. His distinctive voice is still the distilled essence of the brand—an intimate, husky, dirt-poor-Texan drawl—and it still smolders with burning ambition like an underground coal-mine fire, a gift for self-promotion that was seemingly his from the git-go.

He teases the audience, chides their off-key singing, tosses ten-spots to a chump in the front row for every hit recognized. “And what kills me is he’s going to leave loving country music and buy a Garth Brooks record with my money.” The show is part stand-up, part croaky renditions of his best known songs: “Ruby,” “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” “Lady,” “Islands in the Stream.” He sings a few numbers from his last release, but not many. His casino set lists are short—management wants the audience back at the poker and blackjack tables, jingling the money out of their pockets and into the house coffers.

In the grand Horatio Alger rags-to-riches tradition, Kenny Rogers is a self-made man. And self-made includes his identity as America’s quintessential country crooner. Rogers didn’t ride in off a farm in a pickup truck. Going country was a business decision, the brand he created after the fitful successes of earlier musical incarnations fizzled.

The high-profile Atlanta resident is a businessman with a knack for managing his public image and an eye for profitable real estate investments. He is a dedicated professional entertainer with a truly enviable work ethic, still touring and recording after six decades in the business. He retains remnants of his international celebrity with an aging fan base and has lost none of his unmistakable personal charisma. But authentic—the trademark crack of sincerity in his raspy vibrato notwithstanding—turns out to be the one thing he isn’t.

When Kenny Rogers came wailing into the world August 21, 1938, he landed in a Houston federal housing project, not a hay field. He was the fourth child and second son of Floyd, an alcoholic sharecropper from East Texas who worked in Houston’s WWII-fueled shipyards, and Lucille, a practical nurse who helped make ends meet in between the births of her eight children. Rogers was the first child in his family to graduate from high school. But music was his ticket out, from the teen band The Scholars, which led to a solo appearance on American Bandstand before they crapped out, to a stint playing upright bass in the jazzy Bobby Doyle Trio.

Time with pseudo-folkie-machine The New Christy Minstrels segued into Rogers’s reinvention as lead singer in The First Edition. Staring down thirty, he grew long hair, added an earring and pink sunglasses, and rode the pop-psychedelic tune “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” to the top of the charts. His 1969 nod to the war protest genre, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” closed the Huntley-Brinkley Report over news footage of Vietnam and kept the renamed Kenny Rogers and the First Edition group going (along with boosts from “Something’s Burning” and “Tell It All Brother”) until the group folded in 1974 with Rogers $64,000 in debt.

“When the First Edition broke up, I went to Nashville, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life,” Rogers said in a 1998 interview. “I went to this Fan Fair thing, and there were 8,000 people in this auditorium, and they said, ‘Here’s Freddy Davis, who had a hit in 1956,’ and everybody went crazy. I thought, ‘Whoa, this is where I need to be.’ It’s not like pop music, where you have a hit and you disappear and no one cares.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to discern life’s major turning point, but Rogers’s insight was along the lines of the revelation that knocked Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus. He resurrected his Texas twang and released the eponymous album Kenny Rogers in September 1976. Three months later, the single “Lucille” spent two weeks at number one on the country chart, reached number five on the pop chart, earned a gold single, and was named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.

Jackpot.

A template for the songs that minted money for Rogers in the years to come, “Lucille” is about a rube whose wife has left him “with four hungry children and a crop in the field.” It has a simple story line, perennial country themes of drinking, cheating, and abandonment, a tinge of regret—and a hook as tenacious as a seed tick.

That song’s popularity was the beginning of an avalanche of wealth and supercelebrity. With his ear for the marketable megahit and his nonthreatening teddy bear persona, Rogers became the wet dream of millions of record-buying women who melted at the sound of his throbbing baritone. During his heyday in the late seventies to early eighties, Kenny Rogers sold more than one million records every month for twenty-six straight months.
Country was very, very good to Rogers.

“Like Ray Charles, Kenny can take the right song and countrify it so successfully you’d swear he’d been working roadhouses his entire life. Most musicians stay in one genre or another—Bill Anderson of the Opry winks and calls himself a ‘country stylist’—but Ray and Kenny transcend that. They are superstars because of it,” says Paul Hemphill, author of Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams and The Nashville Sound.

He wasn’t one of the bad boys—he was no Johnny Cash, the Man in Black who sang of shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” He was no “don’t boss him, don’t cross him” Red Headed Stranger like Willie Nelson, who sang he “shot her so quick there was no time to warn her.” He didn’t do hard time in the slammer like Merle Haggard. Rogers was the man who begged his woman not to leave, the sensitive guy who promised eternal fidelity, the loser out of aces.

And he was catnip to the ladies.

The numbers do not like. Rogers had twenty number-one country singles and made the pop top-ten list six times. There were five straight number-one country singles (“Love or Something Like It,” “The Gambler,” “She Believes in Me,” “You Decorated My Life,” and “Coward of the Country”). He struck gold time and again with duets, singing harmony with old-school country gal Dottie West on “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” raspy-voiced Kim Carnes on “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” Scottish songbird Sheena Easton on “We’ve Got Tonight,” and pink-rhinestone cowgirl Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream”—all top ten hits.

But he became the undisputed king of crossover when his schmaltzy chartbuster “Lady” rang all the cash register bells, topping the country, pop, and R&B charts during the same week in 1980.

“You might consider the huge country-pop acts of the nineties, like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, to be descendants of Kenny—sort of,” says Meredith Ochs, NPR commentator and host of Steven Van Zandt’s Outlaw Country on Sirius Satellite Radio. “He’s smoother and longer-lasting—I realize I’m making him sound like lipstick—but they had similar crossover appeal. He’s got a great voice, he’s a master of country-pop, and he sang songs that touched people on a large scale. I can’t remember who said it, but someone once said pop music is popular because folks like it. Critics may denigrate big-selling artists, but making music people love and relate to is a talent in itself.”

Rogers’s stadium concerts routinely sold out, and he showed up on TV not only where you’d expect—as a guest star on Hee Haw and Dolly Parton & Friends—but also schmoozing with everyone from Johnny Carson to the Muppets. His signature song, “The Gambler,” spawned a TV movie and four sequels, all starring Rogers. Another song, “Coward of the Country,” got the TV movie treatment, and in 1982 he made a feature film, Six Pack. With fame came fortune. He bought a 25,000-square-foot house called “The Knoll” in Beverly Hills and later sold it for $20 million in 1984, a record sum for a private residence at the time. He traded his seat on a tour bus for a private Learjet.

And there were accolades—three Grammy Awards, five Country Music Association Awards, eight Academy of Country Music Awards, eleven People’s Choice Awards, and eighteen American Music Awards.

But the American dream had a nightmare side. Rogers burned through three marriages by age thirty-nine. His father died in 1975, before he could witness his son’s most glittering achievements. Stung by media comments about his weight, Rogers had so much plastic surgery that Dolly Parton joked publicly about Kenny going to the “jiffy suck.” His fashion choices were wince-inducing, from the aqua and rhinestone zip-up two-piece that showed off his graying chest hair to the iridescent jackets with the sleeves pushed up his forearms. The critics were brutal. Rolling Stone’s Ken Tucker savaged Rogers’s 1981 release Share Your Love as “quasi-country music from an overweight lightweight.”

Then his fortunes changed, as fortunes do. The slump was like a slow leak in a tire, and for a while his momentum disguised his dwindling success. He still worked constantly, touring, appearing on TV shows, cranking out The Gambler sequels, participating in high-profile philanthropic efforts such as We Are the World and Hands Across America. He even launched an ultimately ill-fated rotisserie chicken franchise and published two books of photography.

But Rogers’s foolproof formulae, ballads that told women what they wanted to hear and songs about men down on their luck, began to sound interchangeable and chart ever lower—or not at all. His 1987 photography book, Your Friends and Mine, offered cheesy B-list celeb portraits (Morgan Fairchild in a glass bathtub filled with balloons) along with static shots of aging politicos and entertainers (Ronald Reagan, George Burns). The exceptions were the black-and-white portraits of African American performers such as Ray Charles and Miles Davis, who managed to transcend Rogers’s Glamour Shot aesthetic. But it’s Rogers’s preface, crediting Michael Jackson (who wanted a portrait with Rogers’s four-year-old son, who was visiting Neverland) with sparking the idea for the book, that really raises the hair on your neck.

The bottom may have been 1993, when Kenny Rogers Roasters was smacked with a $10 million copyright lawsuit from a Florida restaurant chain and three Dallas women sued him for sexual harassment over phone-sex games. If that wasn’t tawdry enough, recordings of Rogers’s calls were aired on TV’s A Current Affair, and Rogers went on Larry King Live to defend himself. Shortly afterward, his fourth wife, Hee Haw honey Marianne Gordon, called it quits and left with a reported settlement of $60 million, allegedly the seventh most expensive divorce in U.S. history. Rogers’s annus horribilis came to a close, but his star had fallen so low that before the decade was over, comedian Will Sasso was regularly parodying Rogers as a fat, dimwitted drunk on MadTV.

Dark times indeed.

Like a boomerang you can’t throw away, Rogers came back. He created his own record label, Dreamcatcher, released She Rides Wild Horses, and watched his single “The Greatest” climb to the top twenty and “Buy Me a Rose” to number one on Billboard magazine’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks, making him the oldest artist to reach number one in the history of the country charts.

Because Rogers seldom penned songs himself, songwriters loved him. “He made careers. Songwriters were running over themselves to get songs like ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Coward of the County’ to him,” says Bruce Burch, director of the University of Georgia’s Music Business program. Athens-based Mike Dekle, who wrote for Rogers’s publishing company, Lionsmate, says Rogers’s strength is knowing what material works for him. “He’s not gonna do drinkin’ or cheatin’ songs,” Dekle says. “He told me, ‘When I’m singing and I see a man reach out and touch his wife’s hand, then you’ve written me a hit.’”

A benefactor as well as a businessman, Rogers has accrued credit on his karma ledger. He opens his wallet for the Special Olympics, Alzheimer’s Association, Moms on Call, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the Arthritis Foundation, and the Kenny Rogers Children’s Center. Closer to home, he established the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, gave a substantial bequest to UGA’s tennis center, and donated his top-of-the-line large-format photography equipment to the Savannah College of Art & Design.

He met this fifth and current Mrs. Rogers, Sandy Springs-bred Wanda Miller, at a restaurant where the college student worked as a hostess. The singer was taken by her smile but worried about the public perception of their twenty-eight-year age difference. “I was so afraid someone was going to say, ‘Your granddaughter is lovely,’” said Rogers in a 2006 Insider interview. “So I said, ‘Let’s make a deal. You dress a little older and I’ll dress a little younger and we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.’”

Hope triumphed over experience, and five years later the May/December couple had a June wedding. The nuptials took place in the barn of Beaver Dam Farms, Rogers’s 360-acre estate outside of Athens. Rogers sang his vows, promising his young bride, “I’ll give you the future if you’ll forgive me my past.”

They traveled together on his tour circuit: the fairgrounds, casinos, and festival venues where performances whose careers have crested find their public. Going on the road together was a smart idea, since Rogers blamed his continual absences for the demise of his first four marriages.

While his marriages soured, he managed to keep long-term relationships going with his band members. “Some people are loyal and some people aren’t,” says Steve Glassmeyer, who’s played keyboard and mandolin and sung harmony with Rogers for thirty-one years. Keyboardist Gene Sisk, a ten-year veteran with the band, ticks off examples. “He pays us well. It’s steady. We don’t have to be gone for three months at a time. He doesn’t double the band up in a Motel 6. We have health insurance. He’s one of the few artists I know who does that. In Nashville the attitude is, we can find five people right now to do your job, and the mind-set is to pay as little as possible. Kenny is the gig to have.” There are also acts of pure, unvarnished friendship by a generous man. Sisk’s wife had a stroke, and when he was on the road with Rogers, the expense of his wife’s caregiver cost him more than he was making. “I didn’t say anything to Kenny, but the band knew it and somebody must’ve gone to him. He took me aside and sat me down and said, ‘When you’re on the road, I’ll pay for her care.’ That’s the man in a microcosm. That’s why I thank my lucky stars I know Kenny Rogers.”

Tired of the hike from Athens to the ATL, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers made Buckhead their neighborhood. In 2002, he bought a six-bedroom, 27,000-square-foot mansion on Garmon Road. The property had been repossessed by a bank that initially asked $12 million and got no takers. The price had dropped to $4 million when Rogers snapped it up for $2.75 million. He turned the property into a high-concept “French castle” with Asian-, Safari-, and Mediterranean-themed suites and a Grecian-style pool, but the forty-foot-high ceiling of the entry hall had him stumped. Interior designer Jim Weinberg, introduced to Rogers by Home Depot’s now ex-CEO Bob Nardelli, proposed a Moroccan motif complete with floor cushions and fabric-swathed columns.

Rogers and Weinberg hit it off and founded Kenji Design Studios to cater to other upscale residential clients. “We bounce off each other in a melodic way,” Weinberg says. “My role is to help him to his next level of accomplishment.” Weinberg calls himself the director, Rogers the corrector. In practice that means Weinberg, who has thirty-five years of experience creating swanky interiors in Aspen, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami, creates the design concept, does the preliminary drawings, sources the goods, and puts it all together. Rogers makes some initial suggestions, moves things around, and adds or deletes some opulent element. “I’ve done twenty houses of my own, so I come to this from a totally emotional standpoint,” Rogers said in a March 2007 interview. “Jim does all the work. He brings me in as a second set of eyes.”

Rogers’s faux chateau had plenty of room for a nursery, but safety was another issue. Garmon Road was put on the market for a cool $10 million (furnished) after the pregnancy test came back positive, and petite, curvaceous Wanda (whose identical twin sister Tanya, in a coincidence not believable in fiction, is married to a Mr. Kenny) discovered she was carrying twins. Life was about to get very, very busy.

The silver-haired crooner and the mother-to-be hunted for three acres in Dunwoody, where they could build a smaller house on one floor. In the fall of 2005, they found a wooded parcel on Long Island Drive, in Sandy Springs. The plans called for an Italiante Mediterranean villa with a terra-cotta tile roof and a cupola, built around an open courtyard with a sparkling blue pool. But the dimensions kept bloating. The wooded property was deemed unsuitably sloped. Bulldozers cleared the trees, and the dynamite blasting for an 8,500-square-foot basement began. Alan and Cathy Gottlieb, who lived on the street behind the property, watched as their forested backyard view turned into a rubble-strewn moonscape.

“I stood on my deck and begged them to stop. Every day I called my husband at work and said, ‘You’re going to be ill,’ and the next day I’d say ‘It’s gotten worse,’ and the next day I’d say, ‘You won’t believe it,’” recalls Cathy Gottlieb. The family was assured by Rogers’s employees that the singer loved trees, just not these trees. Not to worry, he’d plant two trees for every one he took down. They thought there was no reason not to believe them. Then one day Rogers abruptly pulled the plug. The singer told the press he decided to abandon the project because the house would be too big for Wanda and the twins if something happened to him.

The Gottliebs were stunned. Rogers seeded the dirty mound with grass and planted a few trees, but time has not healed all wounds. “I don’t know if he regrets it or not. I think for him it’s a business, for us it’s quality of life,” Cathy Gottlieb points out. Asked what Rogers could do to make amends, Gottlieb says, “You can’t change what’s happened, and you can’t replant 150 trees. Well, you could, but I guess he didn’t want to do that. He planted twelve. If he wanted to come in and plant some more trees it would certainly be nice. And put in a retaining wall.” For many of us, the relationships that we have with our siblings are the longest, and most influential, relationships of our lives. And while you’re probably familiar with all the birth order stereotypes—oldest kids are hyper-responsible overachievers, youngest sibs are risk-takers and free spirits, and middle children are, well, a bit lost in the middle—it’s actually the distance between your kids that can play a bigger role in their development.

He may have alienated his Sandy Springs neighbors, but his design firm was attracting high-end clientele. Kenji designed the model unit at the Mansion, a posh fifty-story hotel/condo on Peachtree. Kenji risked a speculative renovation on a 22,000-square-foot house on 1080 West Paces Ferry Road. Rogers’s idea of installing a ten-car underground garage with access to a cul-de-sac instead of to traffic-choked West Paces Ferry paid off when the property sold to Arthur Blank last December.

“I’m really trying to make myself the guy in Atlanta,” Rogers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We think there’s a market that’s untouched, which is CEO territory, and everybody’s afraid of it. But we’re not afraid to play there because we know how to make it work.”

Here’s how: They stack, embellish, and gild. Extravagant and eclectic, they’re champions of cultural fusion, freely mixing imitation elephant tusks and zebra-hide rugs with sword-wielding samurai statues and kimonos. These are the go-to guys for more is more. A recent visitor to the Kenji showroom off Huff Road likened it to being on the set of Eyes Wide Shut. It’s a lavish, layered, larger-than-life look. But is it good? We asked leading Atlanta interior designer Stan Topol to comment on the Kenji aesthetic. “Design in Atlanta is an open market, and many people are doing it,” Topol said. “I think it’s great that Kenny Rogers is putting his financial backing behind this. I personally don’t feel the need to be a singer.”

But the fact is, the old standards of what’s tasteful and desirable are irrelevant. Kenji will do very well appealing to Atlanta’s parvenu, the nouveau riche who are after a little contact celebrity and equate success with market dominance. Of course, just because McDonald’s sold 100 billion hamburgers doesn’t mean its cuisine is the best in the world; it means they are the best at hustling hamburgers. Having a talent for selling something is different from having a talent for design.

Enter Donald Trump.

The Manhattan mogul announced his plan to build Trump Tower Atlanta, a $300 million residential project with luxury condos and penthouses starting at $400,000 and soaring up to $1.3 million. The site was the ne plus ultra of culture chic: Fifteenth and West Peachtree streets, behind the High Museum. Alas, it was not alluring enough for the winner of the 2007 season of The Apprentice, who picked building a Trump luxury resort project in the Dominican Republic over managing the construction of Trump Towers Atlanta.

Kenji snagged the contract to design the public spaces, model units, graphics, and employee garb, which raised the firm’s profile, oh, about forty-seven stories overnight. And think of the synergetic symmetry—singing in Trump’s casinos by night, designing Trump’s residential lobby by day.

Weinberg’s concept for the lobby involves travertine stone, Murano glass, and “romantic lighting.” His 3-D model of the project has already gotten a “correction” from Rogers. “He thought there were too many water features in the drop-off area,” says Weinberg. “I come from the artistic approach. Polish every parking meter. Make it shine. That’s my motto.”

As the design business took off, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers and their identical twin infant sons, Justin Charles and Jordan Edward, settled into a pinkish stucco 10,000-square-foot mansion on a hill on Buckhead’s ritzy Valley Road. The renovation crews shifted to that house, and Rogers’s dream home plans went into a drawer at Kenji.

“It’s typically garish Buckhead baroque, a McMansion on steroids,” says Atlanta architect James H. Smith of the Valley Road home. “It lacks proportion, it lacks scale. It’s trying so hard to grab your attention that it succeeds—in all the wrong ways.”

A stepped waterfall curves down the driveway. That’s the kind of distinguishing feature that, when you describe it, people interrupt and say, Oh that house.

“There’s nothing wrong with being bold,” Smith points out. “The Taj Mahal is an amazing structure, but it’s beautiful.”

Given the Graceland-without-the-grace exterior, getting a tour inside, you hope for some glitz, some celebrity fizz, but no. The rooms are filled with Brobdingnagian furniture, and the drab earth-tone color palette demands a thesaurus’s worth of synonyms for brown. From the African-themed guest room’s giant zebra-head painting in a sandblasted Lucite frame and pair of hefty brass elephant-head door ornaments to the dining room’s Confucius sculpture in front of the elaborate carved panel in front of the antiqued mirror tiles and pair of chandeliers, it’s the “we gotta wow ‘em” aesthetic of Red Baron’s auction house. The Hee Haw Hearst castle.

The toilet paper in the bathrooms has a folded point, just like in hotels, a visitor is told earnestly. Yet underneath the odd proportions and accessory overkill, it’s authentic, one man’s idea of beauty and ease, designed for his pleasure and comfort, from the plush and padded chairs to the chenille upholstery and strokable suedes.

The twins’ room is refreshingly real. The boys’ closet is packed with neatly hung and compulsively organized designer togs, but the bedroom has a sturdy pair of white twin beds and a flat-screen TV in front of a toddler-sized sofa. There’s an assortment of DVD cartoons, family photographs everywhere you look, plus the usual Disneyalia, primary-colored Fisher Price and Little Tikes toys, and stuffed animals. There’s a motherly rocker with blue cushions, a brown recliner rocker that practically shouts “Daddy’s chair,” and a pillow with the needlepoint motto, “A father is someone you look up to no matter how tall you get.”

Downstairs in the family room, the fake trees are dusty from ongoing construction. The custom stone fireplace, rubbed down with oils and waxes for instant patina, has imitation gas logs. You have to wonder. The guy’s a zillionaire. He’s got household staff that could bring in the wood and haul out the ashes. How inconvenient could it be, how much trouble, to get real kindling and actual, honest-to-God logs? Why not real trees?

Swarms of workers in vans and SUVs buzz around the Atlanta Symphony Show House. Honorary chair of the Show House and carpool dad Kenny Rogers arrives a few minutes late. It’s the twins’ day for preschool.

Short cotton-white hair and a neat goatee frame his face. A flowing gray shirt falls untucked over his jeans, and his skin has a faintly orange, airbrushed spray ‘n’ tan glow. He’s got a hitch to his stride, somewhere between John Wayne and a limp. There’s an impression of broad shoulders. He sticks out his hand and introduces himself: “I’m Kenny Rogers.” The voice is the same gritty, Texas twang you’ve heard a million times, but his face is oddly off-kilter. An onlooker might wonder if he’s a celebrity impersonator or if his blurred expression is the result of a minor stroke.

“I went in and got my eyes done, and I’m not happy about it. [The surgeon] is going to go in and fix that for me. They’re too tight around the eyelids for me. It drives me crazy,” Rogers admitted in a People magazine interview. “If we can fix that, then I’ll be glad I did it. If we can’t fix it, I’ll regret it or get used to it.” In person you quickly become used to the bungled surgery. Rogers looks no worse than the other surgically stretched faces around him. But the thing is, he doesn’t look like Kenny Rogers. He wiped out the image he promoted in a thousand concerts and TV appearances, miniseries and movies, the iconic appearance so recognizable and widely copied that it spawned a website—menwholooklikekennyrogers.com. It’s mostly his popped and slanted eyes that used to be good-natured commas softened with crows-feet. He no longer looks like his own brand.

The former legend hitches his way through the house to the Kenji-decorated music/family room, hikes his butt up on a stool like a ranch hand bellying up to the bar, and sets to work with the glee of a true enthusiast. He’s like a kid with the biggest box of LEGOs on the block. When a hanging iron and glass light fixture isn’t working, an electrician is summoned. Rogers introduces himself and shakes his hand, saying, “Kick it when in doubt. That’s always my solution.”

A massive hand-carved teak Balinese teahouse dominates the center of the room. Floor cushions surround a low table, lush luxury fabrics sweep across the doorways and puddle on the floor. They’ve flipped the doors of a Japanese temple storage cabinet so that the carved and painted sides show when the doors are open. Oriental prints, more chests, and a life-sized Chinese goddess statue are en route. Asked how he educated himself about interior design, Rogers says he tore out pages in Architectural Digest he liked and found that the common denominator was earth tones, layering, and textures. “Stack things,” he advises. “It’s very effective.”

Rogers adds several plants to the cabinet shelves behind a reclining Buddha statue, then has Weinberg take some down. “Don’t overdo it,” he cautions. “You need spaces, room for the mind to breathe.”

“Let’s do a copper finish on the details to bring them out,” he says, gesturing to the carving on the front of the fireplace with a sweeping motion of his hand. “Brush it on the highlights.”

“I think I’d like to see a plant behind there,” he says, pointing to a custom-made folding screen behind the baby grand piano. A worker stacked up boxes and crates, trying to boost the plant to the height Rogers requires. “You don’t mind standing there for a while?” he says to a grunting helper who’s hoisting up the tree in his arms.

Rogers shakes his head over the ASO Show House imitation plant ban. He doesn’t get it. “I love silk plants. I’ve got an eighteen-foot silk ficus at home. I haven’t had real plants in ten years.” He decides to use a cluster of bamboo, and the workers ask what to do with the surplus live trees that are lined up in the hall. “Take them over to Long Island,” Rogers gibes. “I don’t want them.”

“You have to be willing to be wrong,” he says as he has many times before, on a variety of topics. “Taste is equivalent to your exposure. I thought my mama’s cooking was the best”—he pauses for a practiced beat, then delivers the punch line—“until I ate breakfast at the Holiday Inn.”

Roger’s 2006 release and sixty-third album, Water and Bridges, combines his signature love-and-loss ballads with gentle social commentary. The melancholy tone of defeat, regret, and acceptance has the authority only age can bestow and may be the best work he’s ever done. The Chicago Tribune called it “one artistically mature CD. At sixty-nine, Rogers’s understated soulfulness colors this collection with a patina of sorrow.” Critic Thom Jurek wrote, “In the now thinning grain of Rogers’s awesome voice, all the emptiness and sorrow and confusion in the world comes to call.”

Queried about the odds of another hit for Rogers, Meredith Ochs said, “There’s always a chance, although his last record sounds like a swan song. But it did well on the charts and nabbed him a Grammy nod, which might inspire him to keep recording. And when you’ve sold as many records as he has, your fans don’t just disappear.”

Yet he’s almost disappeared from radio. Ironically, the crossover sound that made him an international icon isn’t considered “country” enough to make the classic country stations playlist, and Rogers is not on the radar of the current crop of mallrats who worship at the shrine of slick pop-country acts like Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood.

The tenacious senior headliner still tours, giving more than 100 performances a year. His fame and celebrity were of a magnitude and duration bestowed to few in our disposable culture. He knows that he put in the hours, paid his dues, showed up for the work, good times and bad, fat years and lean. He knows that he has a gift for choosing commercially viable songs that will fit his voice and delivery. He knows that he’s hard-working, world-famous, and a very wealthy man. But he listened to his mama, who told him to always be happy but never be satisfied.

“At every stage I’ve been happy,” Rogers said, “but I’ve never been content to be there.”

So where do we leave him? At the Atlanta Symphony Show House, where the champagne and candelabra crowd swells and surges toward the front entrance as Rogers materializes on the white-columned veranda? Symphony patrons in ivory and ebony spill across the flagstone path and onto the wet green lawn like an overturned crate of piano keys. Guests who paid $150 a pop keep sailing up the steep driveway of the plantation-style house. Older women are sequined and beaded, swathed in stately, shapeless, mother-of-the-bride regalia. Younger women dart through the crowd in stilettos and flirty wide-skirted frocks with fitted bodices. The men are trussed up in tuxedos, with a couple of iconoclasts in colorful hand-tied bow ties. They mingle, disperse, and re-form in new configurations, creating their own spontaneous soundtrack: the syncopated wind-chime tinkle of ice cubes, the soprano call-and-response of greetings, and the sotto voce murmur of gossip.

Rogers listens to a quarter hour of obligatory committee speeches, waiting for his cue with the self-possessed calm of five decades of familiarity with the spotlight. He stands with impeccable posture; no fidgeting, no elderly stoop. Looking born to the tux, he holds the mic like an extension of his arm. He jokes about his last performance with the ASO: “We’ve got a sayin’, if it don’t rain, it’s not Chastain.” Rogers adds that his two-year-old twins are going to a performance of Peter and the Wolf, waits a beat, and throws out the line, “You think you’re shocked?” and the crowd chuckles on cue. He owns them. He’s made them listen. He’s made them laugh.

Then Rogers invites Atlanta’s elite movers and shakers to join him. As the crowd is ushered in to tour Whitehall’s decorated rooms, he’s cut from the herd for a photo op with the ASO Show House honchos, then spends a half hour greeting patrons until he’s whisked away for a cruise on a friend’s yacht. “Never let it be said I don’t know how to take advantage of a friend,” he remarks as he’s hustled into a car and zipped down the winding driveway.

Let’s not leave him there. No, let’s say goodbye to The Gambler in the casino at his sold-out concert.

His show isn’t fancy; smoke, colored lights, screened clips from The Gambler and “The Greatest” video are about it, but Rogers delivers the goods. He uses his raspy, gritty voice as though he’s driving a forklift, an indestructible vehicle of songs and patter as artificial as the venue: 100 percent additives, no natural ingredients. “The show has a flow, and he’s fine-tuned it and he’s worked on it and tweaked it,” explains singer Linda Davis, his opening act that night. “He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he audience is still breathing, they’ll laugh here, and hearts will melt there.” Sure enough, the audience laughs here, and sighs there, as do their middle-aged kids and grandkids and great-grandchildren who have been raised on his music. He dedicates a song to his wife Wanda and their two-year-old twins, pauses, and says, “You think you’re shocked?” and the crowd laughs.

He wins them over. He’s been winning people over for sixty-nine years. It’s what he does best.

This article was originally published in our September 2007 issue.

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