Rogers brings holiday tradition to town
You played his records; you watched his "Gambler" movies. He decorated your life. His roasted chicken sustained you. You wished Ruby would turn herself around, for gosh sakes.
And now that he's looking a little like Santa, he's become a Christmas tradition in Champaign.
That sums up KR — and we don't mean Kelly Rowland.
Kenny Rogers spent 10 years playing bass in a jazz band and another few singing in the folksy New Christy Minstrels. And for decades, he's been a country legend.
He appears tonight at the State Farm Center in Champaign with guest Linda Davis. He's been to town almost annually since the late 1980s, including a place on the first Farm Aid bandstand.
"I'm like a boomerang. You can throw me away, but I always come back," he says.
The first Farm Aid, held at Memorial Stadium in 1985, made a minuscule impression.
"They've never asked me back, so I must not have been too great," he said.
The singer says he doesn't have a special memory of Champaign.
"All the towns run together. Me and (wife) Wanda have been together for 21 years. She could remember a restaurant someplace," he said.
"After about seven years, she was just like me. I don't remember, she doesn't remember.
"No offense to any city — I see the venue, and that's it."
The guitar is gone, too.
"I can't play guitar anymore because of nerve damage," he said.
"The world is the better for it."
But it's the voice that has made him famous. His Greatest Hits album has sold more than 24 million copies worldwide. Rogers has 19 Platinum albums and 31 Gold albums.
He has won three Grammys, 11 People's Choice Awards, 18 American Music Awards, eight Academy of Country Music awards and five Country Music Association awards.
Rogers, 75, says he likes every kind of music. As for his psychedelic "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," "that's a scary place to go to," but he'll sing it if you ask for it.
Rogers likes songs that tell a story.
"'Reuben James' is about a black man who takes care of a white child. 'Ruby' is about a wounded veteran. 'Coward of the County' is about rape. Serious issues," he said.
"Country is the white man's rhythm and blues."
For a while, he tried to tell stories through movies.
"I'm no actor — and I've got five movies to prove it," he says.
Rogers said he made "The Gambler" movies because he wanted to make his next career step in the way Frank Sinatra did.
But he knows "The Gambler" is no "From Here to Eternity."
"I kept being asked to do another 'Gambler,' so I did," he says.
The Christmas concerts have been better outlets for Rogers.
His concert consists of the big hits in the first half, Christmas in the second.
There are stories in both.
"'I'll Be Home for Christmas' is about a World War II soldier writing to his wife," Rogers said. "When you hear it in that context, it's really moving. We get all the vets to stand up."
Christmas means something to Rogers. He's from Texas, and he likes to tour the north to see some snow.
"I've always been a big Christmas believer," he said. "We're so close to losing Merry Christmas. Political correctness drives me crazy."
He has one Christmas regret.
"We love our two 9-year-olds," he said. "The bad news is we're getting them a drum set for Christmas.
"I'm getting an apartment by myself."
If you go
What: Kenny Rogers Christmas & Hits Through The Years Tour 2013 with special guest Linda Davis
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: State Farm Center Star Theatre, 1800 S. First St., C
Tickets: $32 to $45, $5 student discount (available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Illinois Ticket Office at State Farm Center, online at statefarmcenter.com or via charge at 866-455-4641)