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On The Set With Kenny Rogers

I’ve been in Country Radio for 25 years, and I’ve seen it all.  However, on Tuesday, March 15, I had the rare chance to observe Country Music Legend Kenny Rogers and his staff, behind the scenes on his recent media tour of New York.

Photo Courtesy of Kevin Richards Entertainment

On this day, Kenny started with rehearsals for the Late Night Show with Jimmy Fallon, then was scheduled for radio interviews in the afternoon, then back for the audience taping of the TV show that was to air that night on NBC.  Keep in mind, Kenny had already done a full day of press the day before.

Kenny and crew were already at the NBC studios when I arrived at 11am.  They sat patiently waiting in the green room killing time sharing stories and talking about the business.  As a viewer of the Late Night Show I never realized that rehearsals for the band and crew happen so early in the day.  But like most of the other late shows, they tape in the late afternoon.  The waiting room was lined with 45 records on the wall, a nice welcoming atmosphere for Late Show music guests.  I was introduced to some familiar faces within Kenny’s management, met the crew from Kenny’s album sponsor Cracker Barrel, and Nashville’s leading publicist, Kirt Webster.

Since this wasn’t a formal interview for me, like I’m used to, I decided to just lay low, listen and take in the moment of a casual visit with a legend.  I’m sure Kenny was wondering, ‘why  is this guy here?’  Even after meeting him several times and hosting an in-studio interview myself, Kenny was still “Kenny.”  Professional, kind, polite, and funny as expected.

As the time passed waiting for rehearsal, Kenny engaged the small group in conversation about his new album ‘For The Love Of God,’ and the excitement around some of the cuts written by Vince Gill, Michael W. Smith and Michael McDonald.  I had complimented his version of ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken,’ as he eagerly explained that one of his band members produced the song with legendary producer Kyle Lehning.  Kenny was happy with the results of the production saying that the guys took the classic to “a place it’s never been before.”  Kenny quickly followed by revealing his favorite cut on the new inspirational album, a song called ‘Grace.’  Like ‘Circle,’ ‘Grace’ features an amazing choir, that in my opinion, makes the song leap out from the record and make you feel like you are at a Sunday Morning church service.

As we sat in the dimly lit room, Kenny again shared excitement over his recent 50 year TV special, telling us that he had wished that he was able to get Kim Carnes on the show to sing their duet ‘Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer.’  For whatever reason, scheduling didn’t work out, but it led to some great discussions of all the wonderful songs she’d written, including Kenny’s concept album ‘Gideon.’  Kenny’s face seemed to light up, as if good memories were flooding his mind, when he reminisced about meeting Kim as part of the New Christy Minstrels, prior to joining the First Edition.

Kenny was also happy to talk about the possibilities of making new music over the next year.  He point blank says “I’d like to be on the radio again.”  Based on the conversation it sounds like Kenny may have a few “Aces” left for Country Radio after all.  In talking about new music ideas, he rules out the possibility of a ‘covers’ album.  Like most of us, Kenny says that the originals are always the way people remember and want to hear their favorite song, and by covering them the new version most always “suffers in comparison.”  Regardless if it’s a cover, new original music, or a duet we’ll be waiting for something new from the future Country Music Hall of Famer in 2011.

Rehearsal was finally called and we were brought to the chilly set, they do keep TV studios cold!  It was amazing to watch Kenny interact with musicians he had never played with before.  Today, Kenny would be backed up by The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s very talented house band.  The band of eclectic musicians, including a tuba player, belted out the ‘Gambler’ like they had sung it every night.  In addition to the flawless musicianship, the trio of back-up singers added an element to the performance that took it to a perfectionist level.  A true sign of a consummate professional, here was Kenny Rogers singing with a band he had never played with in his life, and it sounded like a studio recording.  Of course, it’s also a great sign that The Roots are some of the best musicians in New York.  After two practices of the ‘Gambler,’ it was on to a new song called ‘The Rock Of Your Love.’  Again, Kenny’s voice blended in perfectly with Jimmy’s pros.

After the sound check, Kenny was nice to pose for a picture with the back-up singers and mingle with the staff.  He shook hands with camera crew, stage hands, and thanked everyone behind the scenes.  I’m sure those little “thank-yous” to the staff will be talked about for years.

Since the rehearsals were running a little bit later than planned, Kenny’s team had to juggle some things to get all the appointments in that afternoon.   It seemed a little hectic and tense at times, but everything got done.  Since I’m somewhat quiet and reserved in certain situations, I decided to pass on the invitation to dinner, prior to the actual Late Night taping.  I had seen enough.  I saw the hard work and dedication of his staff to move him around and get the job done,  I was lucky to sit on the set of an empty studio audience and listen to Kenny sing the ‘Gambler,’ and I had shared in come great casual conversation with a legend.  I was content and was ready for the long train ride home back to my world.

Rick Diamond, Getty Images

One thing I took away from today’s behind the scenes visit, was that sometimes we forget that singers also “work.”  We see them on TV, hear them on the radio, see the pictures of all their media appearances, and it looks so fun and easy.  It’s almost as if we all dream and wish for that life.  However, as someone who’s been lucky to see all sides of the business, I can tell you that it was work for Kenny to be shuttled from place to place for three days in a row, especially considering he’s 72.  Most impressively, through the hectic schedule, just like when you and I go to work, Kenny seemed most excited just to go home to see his kids and wife the next day.  Now doesn’t that sound like something we all really wish for?

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