I’m writing this sitting on the balcony of our Melbourne CBD apartment, looking at the skyline of a city that is at a virtual standstill. As if 2020 wasn’t already a massive shit-show, now we find out that Kenny Rogers has died.
I’ve met a fair few musicians over my thirty-something years in the radio business. It’s a perk of the job that you get used to and so it stops feeling like such a big deal after a while, but the story of that one time I briefly met Kenny Rogers is one of my all time favourite tales to tell.
I might ramble a bit here because I tend to write like I talk, but it’s not like you’re going anywhere today, right? Besides, it will do us both the world of good to think about literally anything else other than COVID-19 for the next little while, so settle in for a few minutes, maybe fire up some Kenny Rogers (I recommend “Something’s Burning” or “Rueben James”) on whatever music streaming service you use, and let me take you back in time.
Insert cheesy harp sound effect here…
In 1996 I started working for a radio station in Sydney that at the time was calling itself Kick AM 1269. It has since reverted back to it’s old name of 2SM but back then we were the only commercial radio station in Sydney that played any country music, in blistering AM mono, no less. Our format was country rock and blues, so we played everything from Merle Haggard to Troy Cassar-Daley to Muddy Waters to BB King to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Jerry Lee Lewis to Neil Diamond (…I met him while I was at KICK too. He came in for an interview, played Cherry Cherry live in our studios, and was basically the nicest guy ever. I still have my Fender acoustic guitar that Neil Diamond played on air that day and then signed for me, but that’s a whole other blog.)
KICK AM wasn’t exactly a ratings juggernaut but it was the most fun I have ever had working at a radio station. We knew we were niche and that we were never expected to be anywhere near number one, so we set out to have as much fun as possible while we super-served our little segment of the available Sydney radio audience and they seemed to love us for it. So did the Australian country music community, who were an absolute joy to get to know. It was an incredibly exciting time for me, and I absolutely adored the team of people who worked in that radio station. Still do.
This job also marked the start of one of the most important friendships of my life, with Trevor and Jan Smith, aka the boss of KICK and his wife. I love them both dearly. Jan has this beautiful uplifting nurturing presence that is completely infectious (oops, probably not the best word to be using right now – but you get my point, right?) and Trevor is a proper legend of Australian radio who has been an absolutely vital mentor and friend to me over the ensuing years. Trev also has a magnificent deep booming voice that tends to carry across the room, something that becomes relevant later on in this story.
Did I take that job because I’ve always loved country music? Not even remotely. I took the job because I needed the gig. I knew absolutely nothing about country music, so I had to set about learning about the genre as I went. To start with it was a bit of an assault to my musical sensibilities. For example, the first time I played Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” on the radio I sat in the back of the studio laughing until tears streamed down my face. Was this guy serious? (I still don’t know the answer to that question.) On the flip side, I developed an appreciation for Keith Urban’s guitar playing that remains with me to this day.
Within a very short space of time I came to the conclusion that country is like any other genre. 80% of it is going to sound like utter rubbish, and it’s up to you to find the other 20% that works for you. I quickly fell in love with the artists who were more on the rockin’ guitar driven edge of country music, the best example of this being Junior Brown with his blistering guitar sound and hilariously dry lyrics.
My job at KICK took me overseas for the very first time in 1997, to a massive country music event called FanFair in Nashville. The entire country music world goes to FanFair, so it was the ideal opportunity to collect a bunch of interviews with the artists we were playing on KICK at the time. Trevor and Jan offered to fly me over with them and I was beside myself with excitement, then when I got there and started doing the work I realised that I was completely out of my depth.
Imagine this: I’m there with my very obviously Australian accent and my little DAT recorder interviewing one country artist after another. I had no idea who I was talking to most of the time. It became a sea of random dudes with big hats all merging into one. I’ll always remember Brad Paisley (who was a brand new artist at the time) very politely pointing out to me that the question I had just asked wasn’t something that he could really answer because his name was Brad Paisley and not Tracy Byrd. Oops – I was looking at the wrong artist biography. Sorry Brad! (To be fair, they did look a bit similar at the time, no?)
During FanFair week we stayed at the Vanderbilt Plaza hotel, a pretty high-end Nashville hotel where it was not at all unusual to see the odd country music star wandering around the lobby. One morning I was at breakfast with Trevor and Jan when a guy appeared at the breakfast buffet who looked oddly familiar. As this stranger grabbed his plate and waited patiently for his turn at the buffet Jan nudged Trevor and whispered, “That guy over there looks like Kenny Rogers”.
Trevor delivered his reply without missing a beat, without looking up from his food, and without whispering.
“Everyone in this town looks like Kenny fucking Rogers”.
Remember how I told you that one of Trevor’s many magnificent qualities is his big booming voice? Yep. You guessed it. At this point the stranger looked right at us and laughed, then he put his plate back down on top of the pile and started walking right towards our table. When he was about two thirds of the way over to us we all had the same realisation at the same time. Holy shit that is actually Kenny Fucking Rogers! And he’s coming right for us!
Kenny approached our table, still laughing, and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Kenny!” He shook hands with all three of us (it was a different time…) and said to Trevor, “I’m with you, man. There are a lot of people stealing my look in this town!” Kenny could not have been nicer, asking us how our food was, where we were in town from, how long we were staying, and which artists we were going to see while we were there. He even recommended a place to get some tasty ribs while we were in town. Then he said his polite goodbyes and off he went. The whole thing probably lasted about a minute.
For Kenny Rogers this was probably one of about five hundred conversations he would have had with his fans in and around Nashville that day, and I doubt that he would have remembered it five minutes after it happened, but for us that little exchange is something we will remember forever. The fact that he was so cool about it all made me a forever fan.
So that’s my Kenny Rogers story, and today it feels just that little bit more special. Rest in peace Kenny, thanks for all the joy you’ve brought to so many people through the wisdom of your lyrics (The Gambler! Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town!) and your whole down-home approachable vibe.
The thing about Kenny Rogers is that he transcended all genres. Forget country, that man was a true entertainment legend, and as I was lucky enough to find out first hand he also had a great sense of humour about himself.