By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
Some folks use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. Me? I prefer a jolt from the Gambler.
It's 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. I'm still at home, in bed, after a late night reviewing a show. Phone rings. I groggily answer: "This is Sean."
"Hello, this is Kenny Rogers."
Boom! That'll wake you up!
"Whoa! That voice! Haha! You sound just like Kenny Rogers!"
The country icon deadpans, giving his voice just a lil' more of that baked-ham glaze: "For the next 20 minutes, I promise to sound just like Kenny Rogers."
And indeed he does, the 73-year-old cracking wise, not a sniff of ego on the Bearded One during our chat. I tell Rogers his music raised me. "That's child abuse, you know?" he zings.
Rogers plays the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Friday. He'll bust out all the hits — She Believes in Me, Lady, Coward of the County — but he'll also play cuts from new album The Love of God. It's his first spiritual record, although church music has been in his blood since his Houston childhood. He softly laughs about that memory, too.
"I was raised in the church," he says. "My mother was determined for me to hear something good. My mom loved to sing — and I'll go on record and say she was the worst singer ever. I'd get up and move away from her!"
His Texas upbringing will be a major part of another project he's working on: a memoir. "I've turned down an autobiography for years," he says. "I will not write something that someone will object to. This is not an expose. That's not what this is about." Instead: "I was very gentle with the ex-wives" (of which he has an impressive four).
Hopefully, Rogers will also spin tales about his early days with the First Edition, whose quirky 1968 hit Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) was given enduring life thanks to its oddball inclusion (during a trippy drug-induced dream, no less) in the 1998 cult flick The Big Lebowski.
"That's a weird bunch of people over there, the Coen Brothers," he says of Lebowski's directors. "That song is the closest you'll get to a 1967 acid flashback for the rest of your life." Strangely enough, the hit, written by Mickey Newbury, was originally intended for Sammy Davis Jr. "At the time, I thought, 'Oh gosh, it'd be worth it to hear that.' "
Glen Campbell played guitar on Just Dropped In; Mike Post, who'd later famously write theme songs for The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I., produced the track. Rogers' vocal is cool and loopy on the LSD-inspired cut, although he adds, "I've never really done that, but I was around it at the time." Drugs and booze were never his thing for a reason: "My dad was an alcoholic — not great for him, but good for me."
After that, Rogers would go on to be a mainstream solo superstar, a country guy with tremendous crossover clout. And yet a great chunk of his success came from duets. He's arguably the greatest leading man in music.
"There has to be chemistry in a duet, but if you go beyond the point of friendship and attraction, you lose something," he says of the art form's balance. "The trick is finding a great singer, and I think that's my strength. Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton."
And of course . . .
"Dolly Parton is such a special girl," he says. "Barry Gibb from the Bee Gees originally wrote Islands in the Stream for me. I sang it by myself for four days and said, 'Barry, I don't even like this song anymore!' So Barry sits back, thinks and says, 'You know who we need? Dolly Parton.' She came in, and she was just lovely. We were perfectly matched."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.