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.
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.