Kenny Rogers – You Can’t Make Old Friends

by Chuck Dauphin

kennyrogersoldfriendsKenny Rogers has been at the top of his game for well over five decades, but it wasn’t until he signed with Reprise in 1967 as a member of the First Edition that his career truly began to take flight. Though his solo career took him to United Artists, Liberty, and RCA – among others, he has returned to the company where his career really began to soar into the stratosphere.

As an artist that has kept himself viable over the years- hitting the charts with such hits as “Buy Me A Rose,” “The Greatest,” and “I Can’t Unlove You” well into his sixties, Rogers knows a lot of eyes are going to be watching to see if he can pull the same kind of magic at the age of 75. One never knows what radio will do or won’t do, but judging from the material, I think it’s a strong shot that Rogers still has a few aces up his sleeve – as any ‘Gambler’ would. (Ok, I told myself I wasn’t going to use any ‘Gambler’ metaphors, but I couldn’t resist!)

The album kicks off with the sentimental title track, a duet with longtime collaborator Dolly Parton. The two have recorded several times together – most notably on “Islands In The Stream” and their 1984 Christmas disc Once Upon A Christmas – and the magic is still there. This is the most laid back duet the two have recorded, but the lyrics and the emotion of the track sell the song beautifully.

Of course, any Kenny Rogers album would not be complete with some romantic numbers, and he doesn’t disappoint. “All I Need Is One” is a mid-tempo track where he shows that his range as a vocalist is as timeless as ever. It could very well be the radio single from this disc. “Look At You” and the realistic “When You Love Someone” also sound tailor made for the legend. I particularly love the latter – which isn’t not a “You Decorated My Life” or “Lady,” as much as it is a celebration of a person’s significant other – flaws and all.

At the same time, when you’re an artist of Kenny Rogers’ stature, you also have the freedom to play around with your image a little bit. As someone who has always cringed at the word “stagnant,” Rogers pitches a few curve balls on this collection. One of those is “You Had To Be There.” Originally recorded by Tim McGraw a few years back, the ballad details a ne’er do-well father visiting his son in prison. In the original, McGraw seemed to play the role of the son, complete with his angst and fire. Rogers definitely sympathizes with the son, but with his weathered voice, he seems to also play the role of the father rather well. As someone who has excelled in story songs, this one is one of the best he has ever cut. “Turn This World Around” might very well be called the most different song Rogers has recorded. It’s a biting piece of social commentary, and one that is just as current sounding and edgy as anything out there. It’s a different sound, not acoustic at all, but reminds me of Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash.

And, the colors outside the lines keep coming. There’s a Spanish influence to the poetic “Dreams Of The San Joaquin,” and downright Zydeco feel to “Don’t Leave Me In The Night Time,” which is just pure fun. Then, there’s the modern-day “Merica,” which is one of the most stirring songs about life in the land of the free. You can feel the influence of Ray Charles – one of Kenny’s heroes – all over this one. The album closes with the gritty “It’s Gonna Be Easy Now,” where he filters in a bluesy groove. At the same time, the sound is also reminiscent of some of his late 70s work, but also with the excellent layer of harmonies – his First Edition.

Often quoted about not caring or even wanting to be number one again, Rogers has said he just wants to be in the game. Nobody works any harder to keep his name out there among radio and media, and he has lifted that game to a new level – and done it with as much contemporary flair as anyone else today. I’ll say it like this. With two minutes on the clock, staring down an 80-yard drive, I would have put Kenny Rogers on the field in 1978, 1983, or 2013, for that matter. The years are the only thing that have changed!

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