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By Brian Mansfield
Kenny Rogers likes his Christmas & Hits tour because it draws a completely different crowd than his concerts do the rest of the year. "Everybody's looking to remember what Christmas was like when they were kids," says the singer of country crossover hits like Lucille and The Gambler.
The 20-city music tour, which also features Billy Dean, kicks off tonight in Columbus, Ohio, and runs through Dec. 23 in Westbury, N.Y. "We try to do a lot of it up North, so we usually run into some snow."
Once upon a Christmas: The Christmas & Hits tour celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. It all started with some guy in the back of Atlanta's Fox Theatre during a mid-December show. "I was singing along, and he yells, 'Are you going to do any Christmas music?' " Rogers says. "I said, 'Well, wait a minute, I think I can.' So without even rehearsing, we did some Christmas piece. And the next year, we did four or five songs. It got bigger and bigger."
A Showman's life — and near death: During the late '60s, Rogers joined the New Christy Minstrels, a popular folk group whose skills didn't extend to an understanding of physics. Which is why it made perfect sense for Rogers and drummer Mickey Jones to put the big Fender Dual Showman amplifier on top of the station-wagon rack. "We thought, that's heavy enough," Rogers says. And it was, at 30 miles an hour. It was even OK at 40 miles an hour. "Once you hit 50, it's not OK anymore," he says. "That thing lifted up — thank God there was nobody behind us — and we looked in the rearview mirror and there were sparks flying for half a mile behind us. We hooked it up that night and it played, but it was a little bit scarred up."
A bridge too far: Rogers played upright bass during his year and a half with the New Christy Minstrels. On one tour, the constant shipping and jostling caused the wooden bridge that holds the strings away from the instrument's body to work loose. One night, "that sucker popped off and went flying out into the audience," Rogers recalls. "Then I couldn't play bass. Aside from the fact that we had no bass in the sound, I stood there like an idiot and held this bass that couldn't be played, with four loose strings on it."
Rogers has a theory: "The audience expects 100% entertainment," he says. "If the opening act only gives them 10, I've got to give them 90. But if the opening act gives them 90, I've only got to give them 10!" The audience got a few bonus percentage points during one early-'80s show in Chicago, when Rogers headlined a show that also featured comedian George Burns and R&B great Ray Charles. "It was one of the coolest things, that cross-section of humor and music, and it really worked somehow."
Traveling in style: The days of station wagons and Greyhounds are far behind Rogers, who now travels in a customized Prevost tour bus. "I have a flat-screen, I have a chaise lounge, I have a refrigerator," he says. "What else does a man need?"
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